For lesbian musician Jane Perry, directing a choir was never part of her life plan. But eight years ago, the classically trained pianist saw a way to mix music, community-building and political engagement, and she took the leap. She’s been music director of Ottawa’s queer choir, Tone Cluster, ever since — bringing to the job a vision of advancing social change for the gay community.
“When the choir decides to do a [political] project, we’re able to do that with a lot of confident energy because everybody in the choir feels so comfortable and supported,” says Perry.
“No matter what kind of prejudices [choir members] are facing in their day-to-day lives, they can walk into this space and feel respected.”
While Perry’s focus on social justice explains the continued political leanings of Tone Cluster, what’s surprising about her role in the choir over the last eight years is that she has no formal training as a conductor or a choral director. That’s something that she’s learned on the job after making a sharp change of direction in her music career.
After graduating with a Master’s degree in Music from the University of Ottawa in 1998, Perry had no real sense of what her next step would be as a musician. She decided to take a year off to consider her future and ended up attending a 10-week course at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta where she was party to some mind-blowing work with classical music. It inspired her to apply to The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York — a prestigious institution that she knew would open doors for her.
“In these big schools, what they want to hear is ‘I want to play in Carnegie Hall’ or ‘I want to have a world concert tour,'” says Perry. “But during the interview, I said ‘I want to be a community musician.’ It just popped out of my mouth! That was essentially the end of the interview, right there.”
Stunned at the revelation but relieved to have found a meaningful direction for her work, Perry plucked up the courage to apply for the Tone Cluster job when it opened in 2000.
“I realized that what I really wanted to do was to use all this music training I had to encourage the creation of community and to encourage amateurs who were really keen on making music,” says Perry. “I see my job as a sort of helping profession. My dad’s a minister and my mother’s a nurse, so I think I was just pre-disposed genetically to doing something like this with my life.”
They fundraise for Bruce House and march as a group each year on World AIDS Day. Tone Cluster has held concerts to honour victims of war and to remember those who have died of HIV/AIDS and those still living with the complexities and taboos of the disease.
“Because I have a strong sense of justice, it can be really frustrating to realize that I don’t have all the power to run out and change things,” says Perry. “I’m aware of how fragile our rights are in Canada. We need to continue to be vigilant, to continue to keep the queer community in the public eye.”
Tone Cluster is holding their most important fundraiser of the year on Apr 5: Show Tunes Showdown (think Reach for the Top meets Canadian Idol). It brings together local arts organizations to compete for the title of show tune champion of 2008, while raising money to support the choir’s projects over the next year.