"When you sing, you share something of the core of who you are," says JoAnne Kasper, "and when you do that with others, there's some soul-sharing that's hard to put into words."
Kasper and her musical partner Dianne Gryba agree that, "when you reach a certain point in that sharing, that's really meaningful."
What makes it even better, they say, is that "the kids get that."
By the kids, they mean the 70 or so singers in the children's choirs they conduct.
Kasper and Gryba are known in this community for having built a strong choral program through the Battlefords Children's Choirs as well as an adult chamber choir, the Gallery Singers.
One might be tempted to think of this duo as a director and an accompanist - the usual arrangement - but that's far too simple a scenario. As co-directors for three children's choirs for the past 12 years they share duties of director and accompanist between them in a perfectly unplanned, organic way.
"It's interesting when you go out into the larger choral world, people are perplexed by the way we do things," says Kasper. "Usually there's a conductor and an accompanist."
Gryba says, "If they knew how little we plan the ins and outs they'd be even more perplexed, I'm sure, because there's no deciding 'I'll do this and you'll do that,' it just flows."
Despite the hours they spend together, they are not two peas in a pod.
Kasper says, "I'm happy to be the quieter one, because that's who I am."
"And I get excited," Gryba says with a grin, "and don't realize that I'm loud."
"No!" laughs Kasper, "It isn't that at all. We just have different styles. We have different ways of doing it."
Their differences help make their partnership effective and they are quick to point out one another's strengths.
Gryba says there may be times when she's unable to make something clear to their choristers so Kasper may step in.
"It's so good because JoAnne is such a consummate teacher," says Gryba. "She will take over and break it down for them, as a good teacher will and it's fine. That's one example of how it works for us."
Kasper adds, "Dianne has much more musical training than I have, so she is able to explain those skills or demonstrate them much more than I can because she has that training - and her talent."
Both women hold masters degrees, Gryba in piano performance and Kasper in education, specifically curriculum and instruction. Gryba teaches a private studio of voice and piano students and Kasper holds the position of language and literacy consultant with the Living Sky School Division.
"We are different enough in some ways," says Kasper, "but we have lots of beliefs and ways of looking at the world that are the same."
Their partnership had its beginnings 25 years ago when both moved their families to North Battleford. While Gryba is from Melfort and Kasper was born in Manitoba and had lived in North Dakota and other communities, they had both been living in Saskatoon with their families and moved here for their husbands' jobs. Greg Gryba came to work with his uncle and cousin in an accounting firm and Ean Kasper arrived as the minister of the Battleford United Church.
It seemed their paths were fated to cross.
Gryba, took her training at the University of Saskatchewan, had played for a United Church service while still living in Saskatoon and had met Ean at that time.
"When we moved here, I noticed he was the minister," says Gryba, "so even though we were in North Battleford we decided to attend the Battleford church where Ean was."
Kasper adds that about the same time they were both at a women's conference in Banff where Gryba was leading the music. She had heard Gryba had just moved to North Battleford.
"I went and introduced myself and said we should have a visit."
That started the ball rolling, and they became more involved in music together through their church, even starting a children's choir in the church.
Eventually, they decided they should have a choir in the community, not just in church.
Kasper says the impetus for starting that choir came from the community having received a grant for a conductor in residence. Duff Warkentin, who had directed both the Saskatoon Chamber Singers and the University of Saskatchewan's choir, helped with the initial auditions and in 2001, the Battlefords Children's Choirs was established with 23 singers, aged seven to 12.
As the choristers grew older, the program was expanded. There are now three choirs, junior, preparatory and Kamala, which has become an award-winning choir that's performed across Canada and in Europe as well.
"We have found it does make a huge, huge difference when kids start young and go on through," says Kasper.
The number of choristers in the three choirs has been ranging between 60 and 70 over the last few years; that seems to be the number the community sustains, say the co-directors.
Junior choir members are usually five and six years old.
"If you can cater to that level it helps to have those little five- and six-year-olds together to do their games," says Gryba.
The junior choir begins the music experience with high-spirited games and activities though which they develop the fundamental vocal skills that they will build upon in the preparatory choir.
"We used to have four-year-olds but we decided that was a little young," says Gryba. "I was used to teaching wee ones from when I taught in Saskatoon, so it seemed normal to do that, but we found it was too many jobs. Time just runs out."
Ages in the preparatory choir are generally 12 and 13. Then, if they have been in preparatory for a while, they may move on to the performance-focused Kamala (named for the original nature and purity of the heart, revealed in human love and compassion.)
"There is some crossover," says Kasper. "We have some 11-year-olds in Kamala and 12-year-olds in preparatory. It just depends on their level of experience and how much focus they have."
Moving into Kamala from preparatory is a bigger commitment, says Gryba.
"Not every child wants that," she says. "It's a longer rehearsal, so they have to want all of that, and enjoy all of that."
Although Kamala is called an audition choir, it isn't, really. Neither are the junior or preparatory choirs.
"It never ever was an audition because we never ever said 'you can't sing,'" says Gryba. "Now we call it 'hearing time' because we like to hear the children one at a time before the season starts to see what we're dealing with or to see what voice part they might fit. But we've never said, 'no.'"
She adds, "Sometimes we've said 'you're not ready for Kamala,' because to throw them into the harmony if they are not matching a pitch is cruel. That's like asking me to go play basketball."
"We haven't said no to anybody for any of our choirs," says Kasper. "We've taken kids in who really, really want it, but who don't have any experience, and it's mostly that they want to work hard."
"We get lots of kids who can't match pitch yet, but we work at it," says Gryba.
Kasper says, "Our underlying philosophy is that if you want to do it, we are willing to work with you. It's not about the quality of voice or the level of skill that you bring. What matters is you want to work hard and learn and be part of the team."
They apply this philosophy to both the children's choral program and the adult program.
Gryba says the Gallery Singers grew out of missing the choral singing opportunities she had while attending university and afterwards in Saskatoon.
"When my husband and I moved here I was missing choral singing so much I tried - with three small children - to drive into Saskatoon for every rehearsal and performance. Sometimes I accompanied them while they were singing. And it was lovely, but I was going crazy with too much commuting."
The answer seemed clear.
"I thought if I'm going to do that kind of choral music it's time to start an adult choir," says Gryba. "That choir has been going for 20 years."
Kasper wasn't involved at first, having commitments with another choral group, but soon they found their partnership as directors worked with Gallery Singers as well as the children's choirs.
"Adult singing is just so joyful," says Gryba. "They just can't wait to learn more things about singing. They are so excited to learn, and they are all so intelligent, I am constantly being amazed by that group."
There are already some plans in place for the fall in which the Gallery Singers will be collaborating with other groups with more performance opportunities.
The group keeps progressing, says Gryba.
"You think of adults doing their thing and not learning more skills as they go along, but they get so much better every year. It's quite inspiring really."
She says the Gallery Singers also often talk about the stress relief they get from coming to rehearsal and singing together. Sometimes they arrive tired, but the go home rejuvenated.
"If we didn't accomplish anything else, it seems people get a lot of relaxation out of it," says Gryba.
How do Gryba and Kasper relax?
For both women, through the school year there isn't room for much else but work and choir. Any down time is considered family time.
But they do have some favourite annual diversions.
Kasper says, "We usually go to where our kids are," although making getaway plans isn't easy because, with her husband commuting to his charge in Maidstone, he is "tied down a lot on weekends and holidays."
They have two daughters, one in Sherwood Park Alta., and one here in the Battlefords.
"We also go to Fairmont (B.C.) every summer," Kasper adds. "My husband loves to golf, and I love to read, so it works pretty well."
Gryba likes the outdoors too, but also the bright lights.
"We like to get a trip in here and there," says Gryba. "Greg and I love to go to New York. The level there of the artistic endeavours is so inspiring to me. It doesn't matter if it's a play or a musical or the symphony or the opera, it's just always so inspiring to me. That's a real life changing thing."
At the other end of the spectrum for the Grybas is Saskatchewan's wilderness.
"One of the other things we like to do is to go up north of La Ronge for a canoe trip each summer and be reclusive for a week or so," says Gryba, "I find that becoming more and more important, just that time away for a little bit of perspective."
She and her husband have three children, all currently going to school in Saskatoon, "pursuing their passions." Her oldest son has added a granddaughter to the family, which Gryba says is "wonderful."
"We used to take all the kids [on trips to New York and La Ronge], now we go just with adults."
On one trip to New York, a friend had been tasked to pick out a new grand piano at the Steinway factory. Steinway & Sons has enjoyed a reputation as the maker of the world's finest pianos for 160 years.
"I got to go along with her. It was wonderful. I won't get a Steinway in my life, unless I find a different job," laughs Gryba.
Although she has extensive experience in choral music, her training is in piano performance. Kasper says not everyone in their home community realizes the scope of her partner's career as a pianist because of her visibility as a choral director.
"My university degrees are in piano performance," says Gryba, "and lots of the work I do outside of our community is playing and accompanying."
In the summer she does some work for a conducting course that runs in different parts of the Americas and in Canada.
"Cool people come to learn this technique and my friend and I play the piano and are the orchestra for them," says Gryba. "That's actually my training, but when you live in a smaller place you can try different things. That's the beauty of living in a smaller community."
It would seem living in a smaller community doesn't mean keeping their choral program small. Last year, the children's choirs took on a full-length musical. Seussical, the Musical was a hit.
This year, they did a second musical, Honk! Another success.
Their first musical was held at the North Battleford Comprehensive High School. Their second was at the community's new performing arts centre, the Dekker Centre.
"We held it at the Comp last year, and they were so gracious and so supportive," says Kasper. "But the Dekker Centre opens up a different realm of possibilities of what you can do with light and sound and, with the seating, the audience is able to see so much more."
The year of Seussical, they dropped their usual final concert in order to mount the larger event. But, this year they did both. They found the older singers really missed having a final concert, so they put it back on the agenda.
"We usually have a spring concert a sort of final wrap-up of our typical music," says Kasper. "We do the music we sing at festival, the kind of repertoire that pushes our kids to help learn and expand their understanding of different repertoires."
Why do they take it all on?
"We just really want to be people who can add to the world," says Gryba.
Through their work with four choirs, they want to teach the value of teamwork, to illustrate what can be accomplished together what could never be accomplished alone.
"Like you and I," says Gryba, turning to Kasper, "we complement one another. Where one person falls down the other rises up, and we all work together."
They believe they are getting their message across.
"We said at one point to the kids we wanted them to never be mediocre, but to be extraordinary," says Gryba. "Some long time later a kid repeated that, and I thought, 'they do hear,' that if you work so hard together and find the best in each other you'll be extraordinary."
Kasper adds, "Who doesn't want to be extraordinary in some way or other? What that does, not just to your musicality but your whole way of being that you take into the world and into your life, that you have been part of something extraordinary?"
Kasper also says to be extraordinary doesn't always mean winning some big award.
"It's the moment that comes in the midst of some form of expression or interpretation that can really be meaningful."
Gryba says, "We know they're not all going to be musicians, very few will and that's fine. We just want to take those ideas and maybe plant a seed," then laughs, "and turn them into the kind of people we'd like to have as doctors when we're seniors."
It seems to be working, so it appears the partnership will continue.
"What we bring to the partnership is different things, that's why the partnership works so well," says Kasper.
Gryba laughs and says, "And now that we're over 50 we're trying to remember things for each other."
Kasper laughs, too, adding, "That's not working so well. We're both getting really good at 'I said I was going to do that but I didn't.'"
Do they ever disagree?
"I think our partnership has evolved lots," says Kasper, "and I think we've found it really lucky that we have lots of respect for each other's strengths. We haven't really had any fights."
"Not one," Gryba agrees, saying to Kasper, "I would never fight with you. I don't know what I'd fight with you about."
It's been a solid friendship and an inspirational partnership.
Gryba laughs, "Both of us say when one of us is ready to stop that'll be it, because it is so much fun together."