What was your first ever choral experience?


My earliest choral memories: singing in the May Festivals that were held in Brantford, Ontario, where I grew up, and run by Frank Holton for selected singers from elementary schools. We all had to wear white dresses and we felt so important. These were tremendous experiences. My grandmother, Florence Drake, was a huge musical influence in my life: we spent weekends at her house, listened to great choral music on Sunday mornings on CBC radio before church. She was also my first choral director!

Karen Burke     photo: roswell anderson
Karen Burke photo: roswell anderson

What choirs have you sung with?


Grandma’s choir at the small British Methodist Episcopal Church that I grew up in, of course, and our youth choir. I sang in the McMaster University Choir under Wayne Strongman for 4 years. He was an excellent conductor and helped me not only to broaden my knowledge of choral repertoire but recognized my keyboard skills by having me accompany the choir in my second and third year. In my final year, I was president of the McMaster University Choir.


I also sang in the Bach Elgar Choir in Hamilton for a couple of years which was a thrill. In my third year at McMaster, I took a vocal methods course under visiting professor Denise Narcisse-Mair and she took me under her wing and mentored me. Both Brainerd Blyden -Taylor (Nathaniel Dett Chorale) and myself were protégés of Ms. Narcisse-Mair. She got me my first job as a conductor and I never looked back.




It’s been a very long time since I’ve sung in a choir and frankly, I miss the experience of being ‘directed’. My joy these days is educating and mentoring: I am especially interested in encouraging young people who have conducting skills. Our schools and communities need good conductors. I believe in choirs and particularly gospel choirs as a wonderful communal activity which is accessible and powerful. I enjoy offering gospel music workshops in a variety of venues. I especially enjoy teaching teachers how to energize their students/choirs by including gospel music in their repertoire.


I’ve directed and recorded with the Toronto Mass Choir for the past 20 years and we are out on the road two to three times a month.


The York University Gospel Choir also keeps me busy.



What kind of concerts do you like to attend?


I am so busy performing, I have to admit that I don’t get to as many concerts as I would like to. But when I can…definitely jazz! I am a huge jazz fan and I have gotten to ‘scratch that itch’ more since joining the Department of Music at York University full time in 2005. We have such great talent here. I own many great vintage recordings of jazz music, but I am especially pleased to hear the next generation of young Canadians discover, fall in love with and then lend their own interpretation of this great music.



What qualities make you admire a choral conductor?


I admire a clear, strong and accurate conducting ‘hand’ – I prefer the hand to the stick; a confident stance which ‘draws out’ your singers; thorough preparation of the music (don’t waste your chorister’s time!); an obvious love of the music but evidence of even more love and respect for your choristers; contagious passion for choral music and choirs in general; and height! I have always wished that I was about 6 inches taller!



Coming up ?


The Evolution of Gospel Music (Feb. 6&7) is my first time role as a co-producer and conductor of such a large event. It features some of Toronto’s finest singers, actors, dancers and musicians in a cast of 80+, taking the audience on a 2 hour journey from spirituals to present day gospel.


Power Up 2009 (Feb. 27/28/Mar. 1) The 5th annual offering of this event by the Toronto Mass Choir: it’s always a highlight of my year. One to two hundred people on average come out to this workshop weekend. I teach gospel music in a massed choir setting to all of the participants, and a special class for choral conductors.


We cap off the weekend with a finale concert by TMC which includes this huge massed choir accompanied by a live rhythm section. It is always an electrifying evening. An event not to be missed. (www.tmc.ca)


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