Lack of funding means the group has to leave the rehearsal space they’ve used for 30 years
Peter Lozinski is standing in the middle of a hundred other vibrating voices. Mozart’s Requiem is being played by an orchestra, the song echoes to the edges of the ancient church walls. A thematic eruption of violin strings pulls each note up and down on the musical scale, each dive of sound supported by soft chanting. Voices buzz in high-pitched harmony. The conductor stands tall in the front, the group members’ eyes follow the thrusts of his arms as a heightening of emotion is expressed through their voices in unison.
This was Lozinski’s most memorable moment as a member of the Oakham House Choir.
“Feeling and hearing the sound fill the room was very special. I won’t forget it,” said Lozinski, who was then a journalism student and is now editor of a newspaper in Prince Albert, Sask. “It was really special to be part of something bigger than myself and gave me something outside of work and class that I could look forward to every week.”
Over the past 30 years, the choir has allowed Ryerson students to express their interest in classical music with weekly practices at Oakham House on-campus. It exists “to develop musical knowledge, promote teamwork and give choir members the pleasure of performing musical masterpieces with a professional orchestra,” as it reads in a recent choir newsletter.
Fast-forward to May 2019, where after three decades of rehearsing in Oakham House, the choir received the news that it will have to disband and leave the rehearsal space by the end of April 2020.
As a result of the Student Choice Initiative, put in place by the government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, they are no longer able to continue rehearsing there due to a lack of funding coming from student opt outs. The Student Choice Initiative lets Ryerson students choose whether they want to pay ancillary fees related to on-campus groups that are considered “non-essential” under the initiative’s guidelines.
“It was determined that the choir’s activities did not fall under the fee categories deemed essential and therefore we are no longer able to fund their activities,” said Jennifer Stacey, a board member of the Palin Foundation.
The Palin Foundation is a non-profit organization that owns Oakham House and the choir, and provides funding through student opt-in money. These funds cover rent for rehearsal space, as well as choir resources — such as the purchase of musical scores and rent for performance spaces during the two concerts they put on during the year.
Last month a meeting was held with Stacey, who is also the general manager of Oakham House. As a solution, she advised the choir to assume independence from the Palin Foundation and take control of its own rental spaces, funding and accounts.
But the choir’s founder, Matthew Jaskiewicz, says that to change its status and restructure independently would be an uphill struggle. “We are nothing. We don’t even have our own (bank) account or any formal status,” Jaskiewicz said.
In 1984, Jaskiewicz was working as a piano teacher at Ryerson. He collaborated with Marie Dowler, an English professor, to assemble the choir, where he was assigned as the musical director.
“The choir went through several stages,” Jaskiewicz said. “From a small a cappella group we became a very large ensemble. At certain points we started performing auditory type of music, and music that required the accompaniment of an orchestra.”
To afford these resources, the choir relied on the Palin Foundation Board, which facilitates funding and operations of the Student Campus Centre, where Oakham House is located.
Over the next 15 years, Jaskiewicz would continue growing the ensemble to include his own orchestra, called the Toronto Sinfonietta, along with professional soloists who would perform alongside the choir.
However, Jaskiewicz saids the recent Student Choice Initiative caused funding given from the Palin Foundation to be reduced to 20 per cent of what it used to be.
“There’s nothing left for student unions, or any sort of social activities, including the choir,” Jaskiewicz said. “We were always one of the societies of Oakham House and now we are cut off and we cannot even apply to the Development Office at Ryerson for any funding, because we are not registered with Ryerson.”
Even with the foundation’s support, the choir maintained a tight budget. Lozinski recalls “discussions over which performance venue to rent with the limited budget, and looking for donations where we could.
“Even things like finding people to donate folders that we could put the music in, so we could look more professional while performing. Otherwise, it would be too expensive to buy nice folders for everyone.”
Joyce Fu, president of the choir’s executive team, said Oakham House has agreed to cover their rental expenses until April 2020. However, they won’t receive additional funding.
According to Jason Dasco, the group’s interim treasurer, the choir balanced its expenses with the revenue it received from ticket sales. Whatever they couldn’t cover, the Palin Foundation would. “Given that we no longer have that money, basically they told us to just balance to zero and come up with initiatives to be more self-funded,” Dasco said.
“Along with printing costs, recruitment, professional fees and advertising, our expenses are roughly $44,000 this year,” Dasco stated in an email to the Ryersonian.
He says having to find a new rehearsal space will make a big dent in their finances. “We have to accommodate 90 people every week of rehearsals and on the big rehearsals it’ll be 120 people, which is not a space that’s easy to find on a lower budget.”
Jaskiewicz is hopeful that with the help of fundraising, the choir will be able to find a new rehearsal venue for next season and successfully operate independently for more years to come.
“There are people who strongly support the choir here. We have an excellent audience, we stage two concerts a year and it’s always 100 per cent full house. We have at least 500 to 600 people in the audience every time,” Jaskiewicz said.
In response to the Student Choice Initiative, Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi said the university is “working to develop new (ways) for student groups to apply for funding within certain categories.”
Other societies owned by the Palin Foundation, including Oakham Community Theatre and Oakham Feminist Publishing Society, are also being told to disband by the end of next year.
“We want to continue as a university to provide an engaging experience for all of our students and preserve the student life component of what we do here, of course within the frame of what the government has imposed on us,” Lachemi said.
Since they do not own their financial accounts, applying for funding through Ryerson isn’t an option for Oakham House Choir. However, they are currently looking for donations and private sponsors.