Kellie Walsh has been a leading force in Newfoundland and Labrador’s choral music scene for the past decade.
And this summer, while at the helm of two of St. John’s’ most distinguished choirs — Lady Cove Women’s Choir and Shallaway, Newfoundland and Labrador Youth in Chorus — she’s been busier than ever, criss-crossing the map to guest conduct, tour and compete.
“It’s been hectic,” Walsh said, laughing.
On Canada Day, Walsh conducted a 400-person choir at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa during the Unisong choral festival.
Two weeks later, she was in Riga, Latvia, with Lady Cove for the 2014 World Choir Games, a biennial international choral competition, where she competed against 500 other choirs from 47 different countries.
“I was pushed to my very edge of artistry,” Walsh said.
“In the three days we had in Latvia, I felt like I did another six months of a master’s degree,” she said.
Lady Cove finished third in the women’s choir category at the Games and has since received several high-profile invitations to festivals and competitions in Europe, including an all-expenses-paid competition in Germany next May.
“Doing well at a competition like we did in Latvia certainly opens up a lot of doors,” Walsh said.
Shortly after returning from Latvia, Walsh was on tour again with Shallaway in Costa Rica and Nicaragua from Aug. 5-12, where the choir received “one of the warmest receptions from an audience ever,” she said.
Walsh said with all her different projects, she gets overwhelmed sometimes, but with a new commission by composer Jonathan Munro planned for Lady Cove and a music exchange in Goose Bay for 150 students from across the province this October, there’s no slowing down yet.
“There’s lots coming up on the horizon,” she said.
What is your full name?
Kellie Doreen Walsh.
Where and when were you born?
I was … I’m not giving my age! I was born in St. John’s in the ’70s.
Where do you live today?
I live in Georgetown in St. John’s.
Where did you go to school?
From kindergarten to Grade 9 I went to St. Teresa’s School in Mundy Pond and then I went to Holy Heart of Mary High School. After that, I went to Memorial University for my undergrad in music and music education. I started a master’s program in choral conducting and music education at the University of Toronto, but that’s when I decided to move home and finish that at Memorial.
Where did you learn to sing?
I learned to sing from my father. My dad came from a very traditional Newfoundland family, meaning a big family without a lot of money — actually no money at all. He was from a fishing family, so he grew up in a poor place and as entertainment, as fun, as community building, he sang and his whole family sang together. And so that became a tradition in our family. I can remember singing with Dad at a very young age.
Has music always been a part of your life?
Absolutely. I went to Catholic school and so the sisters were a big part of my music education and training. When I was in Grade 6, Sister Mona Carew came to me and said, “You will play cello,” and I said, “Yes, sister,” and that’s actually how I started my formal music education training. You don’t say no to the nuns.
When did you realize you wanted to be a conductor?
I realized I wanted to be a music teacher probably when I was in junior high. But I realized I wanted to be a choral conductor when I was in Toronto. I had been teaching a lot in the school system and during my final year there I was asked to take a job in Scarborough at an arts school and to take the choral programs there. I had a lot of teaching experience, a lot of experience conducting school choirs, but this (school) actually had a very fine chamber choir. That’s when I really got the bug.
What is one act of rebellion you committed as a youth?
When I was in Grade 9, when the science programs actually still had live animals, I don’t know if they still do that, but we were supposed to dissect a frog and I was not happy about that. So myself and my best friend went into the lab and stole the frogs and hid them in the teacher’s desk. They never figured out who it was, either.
Are you reading anything right now?
I wish I were reading something right now. I mean, I am, but it’s all music related — it’s actually a book on vocal technique in choral music making.
What bugs you?
Gum cracking. My pet peeve is gum cracking. I have to say what also bugs me, though, is when people jump to conclusions and assumptions and don’t think about other people’s perspectives. Small things like if you’re driving in a car and somebody does something, when people automatically think they’re a horrible driver or being rude, instead of thinking maybe that person’s just really having a bad day. That’s on a small level. But on a bigger level, when people are making decisions, you know, organizations or companies or government are making decisions and people think they know enough information to understand why those decisions are made and to be critical of them, that is, I think the thing that bugs me the absolute most. But, gum cracking, too.
What’s your greatest regret?
I think probably my biggest regret is not learning earlier that I have to step outside my comfort zone of getting out there and getting to know people and being less shy. It took me until I was almost 35 or getting close to 40 before I wasn’t terrified to go and meet somebody or go to a meeting. And if I had learned that at a younger age, I think I would have had more skills to go and start pulling people together and making connections for ensembles and programs and different things like that. I still find it really, really hard. But I do it.
What is your greatest fear?
Honestly, my greatest fear is illness — because it won’t allow me to do what I love to do.
Does that change the way you live?
Yeah. I consistently remind myself to live in the moment. And when I find myself not living in the moment, I bring myself back to that. But it’s something I have to work at really hard all the time.
If you were premier, what’s the first thing you would do?
I’d pull together a group of people that I feel have the best interest of the people and the future of the province and sit in a room with them for a week and talk and get ideas. And I mean go out and find young, really brilliant minds in all different sectors — policymakers, musicians, a complete crossover of age and gender, everything you need.
Who is one person, living or dead, who you’d like to have lunch with?
Bach. He’s my favourite composer. I think he is an absolute genius and because he was just so innovative musically for his time. He’s just a hero for me.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Spending money on something like a brand- name purse — which I love to do, but then I feel so guilty about.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Well, I don’t think anyone has their own greatest accomplishment. It’s hard to say that because there’s all sorts of accomplishments that I’m part of but I don’t consider them my own — the choirs have won all kinds of awards — but for me, personally, a couple of times kids have come to me and said I’ve made a difference in their lives and have helped the path of their lives, I guess through mentorship or through being there for somebody. I think that would be my greatest accomplishment.
What’s your most treasured possession?
Probably a month of May Mary Medal that my mother gave me. My mother passed away when I was 12 and I have it on my conducting binder. It goes everywhere with me, especially when we do big concerts and competitions.
What are your best and worst qualities?
I think my worst quality would be that I’m stubborn and my best quality would be that I’m stubborn. Both of them get me through things, but both of them get me in trouble, or don’t get me in trouble but hold me back from being open to other ideas when I need to be.
Where do you find inspiration?
From the people I work with. From the kids and the singers, no question. Every single time I’m with members of the choir, their stories, their lives, what they’re doing, who they are as people. It’s the people, definitely.