Pamela Birrell is the woman in the driver’s seat for Canadian Women of Song!
In anticipation of Canadian Women of Song, the choir’s tribute to the female singers and songwriters of “our home and native land,” we have decided to give you an inside look at the women musicians who are featured in this exciting, talent-packed concert. In our first installment, we introduce the director herself, Pamela Birrell.
A woman of many parts, Pam is not only a gifted soprano soloist, a sought-after vocal teacher, and a talented director of musical theatre but also the Director of Vocal Music at Lakefield College School, where she leads all the school’s choirs and is musical/vocal director for the school’s yearly musical.
And you just have to sit in as Pam takes the Singers through a Canadian Women of Song rehearsal to know that she loves conducting! “Directing a choir is like being in the driver’s seat of a fine sports car—thrilling, powerful, white-knuckled at times, but exhilarating,” she reports.
With Pam at the wheel, the choir feels very confident as performance time nears. Singers can tell she knows and loves the many genres of music that will be on offer—country, pop, folk, indigenous, and R&B, to name a few. She can even substitute for an absent soloist during rehearsal, which is handy. Who knew that a classically trained soprano would have such eclectic musical tastes? And just who are Pam’s favourite female singers? Here’s her list: Adele, Sutton Foster, Pink, Renée Fleming, Joni Mitchell, Joyce DiDonato, and Barbara Bonney. No wonder she’s confident in the driver’s seat!
As the concert approaches and the music takes shape, Pam’s dedication to perfection is obvious. She wants the choir to do justice to the diverse musical heritage of Canada. “Mostly,” she says, “I’m looking forward to guiding the choir in sharing this remarkably beautiful music that honours great Canadian women.”
The idea for a concert highlighting the musical achievements of Canadian women arose from a chat between Pam’s husband, Syd Birrell, and friend and fellow musician David Goyette. Why, they wondered, have Canadian women in particular been so successful and prolific in the music industry? Pam has her own take:
I think that the Canadian culture allows for incredible diversity. As Syd, David, and I researched music for this concert in the last year, I have been struck by the incredible range and scope of Canadian women of song. Canadian culture would seem to allow these women to find their true voice and bring it to the music industry.
Honesty, or finding a “true voice,” is key for Pam. She rates “being brave enough to truly be myself” as her biggest triumph. But she has had many successes and battles that were far more public.
Pam beat breast cancer in her early thirties. Just months after her treatment ended, her son James was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer. He died in 2001.
Battling breast cancer and parenting a child with metastatic cancer: nothing has been more challenging. Balancing work and cancer journeys is very difficult. Music, though, is one of the powerful things that has helped me when my reserves were low.
Music and family and faith have helped Pam reconstruct her life and career after this staggering loss. She also credits the support of her community.
As a Peterborough native, I am constantly amazed that the Peterborough community deeply supports music, theatre, dance, visual art, soccer, hockey, and many other creative and athletic ventures. And the community support is breathtakingly deep. Our family was carried by this community for many, many years through the darkest of days that we faced over and over again. We will always be profoundly grateful and will always be looking for ways to pay it forward!
She and Syd “pay it forward” through both their music and their community service. They began and are still deeply involved in the James Fund, which supports research to cure neuroblastoma. And Pam, who is captain of the Survivors Abreast dragon boat team, has mentored many women facing breast cancer, not to mention the money she and her teammates have raised for the PRHC’s Breast Assessment Centre.
But Pam’s contributions are often more subtle and private. I remember when I was in North Bay cheering on Survivors Abreast (my mother was on the team). Pam set up an impromptu gathering in her room to get all her teammates loose, happy, and excited for the race ahead. It was the perfect thing to do.
And Pam brings that personal touch to her role as guest conductor of the Peterborough Singers for Canadian Women of Song. She chats with choristers about these popular songs and the memories they evoke, and she honours the beauty that can be found in the simplest melody.
The music is incredibly beautiful. I have enjoyed hearing choir members’ stories about the songs. The music stirs many memories, thoughts, and emotions that lift us out of our day-to-day lives.
Creating joy is what excites me the most.
Interview and article by Dylan Taylor