If it’s April and you’re hoping to hear Barbara Chamberlin perform, forget about it.
“April is just a killer month,” she says. “I wouldn’t even try to play out that month. It would just be too hard for me.”
So what makes April the cruelest month for the Whitehorse musician, teacher and choir director? Well, for starters, she has about eight piano students and a couple of dozen voice students, many of whom she has to help prepare for either the annual Rotary Music Festival, or Royal Conservatory of Music exams, or both.
Then there’s the small matter of getting the Whitehorse Community Choir and its three adjunct groups, the Persephones, the Neptunes and the Chamber Choir, ready for their spring concert. Preparing for the season’s biggest choral event starts months before, as Chamberlin pores over sheet music looking for themes, such as this spring’s “Songs of Peace and Protest”.
“I thought it would be easy, because these were all songs I sang in my high school days,” she says. “But all those arrangements are gone. I couldn’t believe it.”
Fortunately, scoring new arrangements was all part of a day’s work for the multi-faceted musician, who has directed the community choir since 2005. Chamberlin grew up in the town of Maupin, Oregon, population 500, where her father was a choir and band director. At 21, she graduated from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, with a Bachelor’s degree in voice performance.
“Then I joined rock bands, of course, which is a totally different mindset, because you go from reading notes to making up notes and knowing your theory and your scales really well. So it was a big, steep curve for me.”
After playing with various rock groups in Portland and Seattle, Chamberlin joined a Vancouver band, the Cover Girls, which occasionally visited Whitehorse.
“Our first gig was up here at the old Sluice Box, where the Dollar Store is now in the Yukon Inn complex,” she recalls.
“It was a hopping bar. It was a bit wild and really fun.”
When the Cover Girls broke up, Chamberlin moved to Whitehorse and teamed up with Pam and Bernie Phillips and Manfred Janssen to form a new band, Agents of Chaos. During a two-year hiatus in Vancouver, she studied film scoring and acting at the University of British Columbia.
Out of that came Highway of Heartache, a comic film about the tribulations of Chamberlin’s character, Wynona-Sue Turnpike, which the Village Voice called “crude as a fart, but often hilarious”.
Chamberlin also wrote the music for the film, which aired on Bravo! and is still available on DVD. It also spawned a “kind of country-blues, make-fun-of-country” band named Wynona-Sue and the Turnpikes. That group toured in Europe and had a video on CMT before disbanding. After a grueling cross-Canada tour of “never more than four hours sleep,” Chamberlin decided to change direction.
Her folk-blues CD, Sanctuary, released in 2000, was nominated for a West Coast Music award. Her 2005 release, Walking With Ghosts, was a mix of pop, folk, rock and country.
“I’m a niche-less girl,” she laughs.
A diagnosis of cancer in 2003 led to another major change of direction.
“Cancer took a big chunk of my life, for sure. Just the energy level, and going through the treatments and everything,” she says.
But when the Whitehorse Community Choir offered her the director’s job in 2005, she was ready.
“I always wanted to get back to choral, and I always wanted to get back to classical music and use that part of me, the part of my brain that I developed during college and stuff,” she says.
“It’s been really, really great. I’ve learned so much, and it let me recover from cancer in a really constructive way.”
The choir’s presentation of Mozart’s Requiem, she says, was “one of the highlights of my life.”
In the aftermath of cancer, Chamberlin developed diabetes, which forced her to establish priorities for her time and energy.
“I’m a bit of a workaholic, although I’ve learned, and I’m still learning, to take time for myself, take care of myself.”
Despite her medical challenges, Chamberlin has been anything but idle. In 2009, she released a third CD, Of Ice and Men. A fourth, called Boomerang Girl, is due out this September. The title track “kind of describes how I feel about the Yukon… I couch it in a love story, but that’s really what it’s about,” she explains.
Then, there are her students. And the four instruments she plays – piano, guitar, flute, and saxophone. And live performances with a variety of other local musicians.
“Music is always the core. It always has been,” she says.
Just don’t expect to catch her performing the month before Christmas. Or in April.
That’s choir time.