Holly Wright stands on stage at the Port Theatre holding her guitar smiling out to the crowd

Holly Wright stands on stage at the 2019 SoundWave concert / Image via Joe Witkofski

Music is a powerful thing—it brings people together, motivates us to keep going, and allows us to truly be ourselves. Music isn’t confined to a single genre, or length, and it most certainly doesn’t have an age limit. 

SoundWave, a choir like no other, proves that.

Holly Wright was born with a burning desire to play guitar. By the time she was three years old, she knew that strumming on the guitar was what she wanted to do. She worked for years to convince her family to get her one and, when she turned seven, her parents finally gave in.

Her love of music has only continued to grow since then.

In 2010, Wright moved to Nanaimo from Edmonton, Alberta after a two year stint in South Africa. She then opened a Serious Coffee branch at the north end of town. At the same time, she was touring across Canada with a musical group called Memeza Africa that performed traditional African music.

It was after the move to Nanaimo that Wright finally felt she could pursue a long-standing dream to start her own choir for older people.

Wright was inspired by a documentary called Young@Heart (2007) about a son wanting to start a senior’s choir for his dad’s senior residence.

“[His dad was] just sitting there and all these people were sitting around waiting to die, nothing happening,” Wright said. “So, he puts a band together and they start doing heavy metal rock. It was so heartwarming. I thought, ‘I’m gonna do that one day.’” 

So, she started SoundWave in 2015, a choir open to members ages 55 and older. Currently, their oldest member is 93.

Wright had about 25 members when she started the choir. That number grew to 52 the following year, almost entirely by word of mouth. Another year later: 70. Wright has the cap currently set at 80 members, thinking it’s unlikely that any stage in Nanaimo can fit more people than that. 

The wait list to join keeps growing.  

Wright said that what makes SoundWave unique is that the members of the group don’t have to be good at singing, they just need to enjoy it.

“There’s no judgement, there’s no pressure,” she said. “I just want you to come and have fun. What I need you to bring is passion.”

SoundWave mostly performs well-known rock and pop-rock songs from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, including from artists like The Beatles and The Rankin Family. One of the first songs they learned as a group was Forever Young by Audra Mae.

Since starting, the group has performed in four different venues around Nanaimo.

In the group’s first year, they performed at the Community League where Wright put up a sign that said: “Free to get in, 5 dollars to get out.” She didn’t expect many people to come, but to her surprise, the place was packed as they sold out the venue.

“The next year I thought, ‘Well, obviously, people want to come to see us,’ so we rented the Brechin Church, and with 400 seats it was at capacity. The same thing again—jam-packed,” Wright said. “So, then next year, we rented Generation Church, which has [a capacity of 500], and that’s when we sold out in three days. We added a second show and that sold out, too.”

In 2019, as the group reached 80 members and the four-piece band grew to a six-piece band, SoundWave decided to perform at the Port Theatre, the biggest theatre in Nanaimo with 804 seats. They sold out in less than six days, something Wright never expected she could do.

“[In the beginning] I thought, ‘Oh, this will be a nice little thing to do for the community,’ thinking I’d have 20 people come and sing songs with me. I did not expect it to go like this,” she said. “I have done a lot of performances, recording and touring in my [day] and I thought that was behind me. Now all of a sudden, we’re doing it again.”

Daphne Wizinsky joined the choir when it started in 2015. She saw the poster for the group in Serious Coffee (where she now works with Wright), and was instantly interested in joining.

“At first it said 65 or over and I was about to turn 55,” she said. “So, I begged and pleaded for her to change the age to 55 and she did, just so I could join.”

Wizinsky was particularly interested in the group because she loves to sing and, as the poster called the group a “not-so-typical” choir, she thought she would fit right in.

“I’ve been in many, many choirs before, but never [for] more than a year. After one year, I gave up because it would just be like the Hallelujah chorus and church songs and typical choir songs, which doesn’t interest me at all,” Wizinsky said. “You can’t dance to those types of songs.”

Wizinsky loves that the songs SoundWave performs are more upbeat than what you would normally hear from a choir. One of her favourite memories is performing Aretha Franklin’s Respect at the Port Theatre in 2019, where she landed the lead solo.

“People go to yoga, people meditate, people workout; I go to choir once a week and I come out of there feeling like I’m cleansed,” she said. “I just go and I open my mouth and let it go.”

Wizinsky fell in love with the judgement-free atmosphere. 

“If I had to put it in words, the choir means happiness to me,” she said. “I came and I was allowed to be me, and nobody said ‘Quiet down.’ No one said ‘Stop moving.’ No one says ‘Oh, you sound awful.’”

Michael Whipps and Rosemary Kelly also joined the choir when it first started, but unlike Wizinsky, it took a bit of convincing to get them to join. 

“Holly, she twisted our arms,” Whipps said.

Wright had expressed her intention to start a choir for people ages 55 and over, and asked them if they’d be interested in joining. “At first, I was like ‘I don’t know, mumble, mumble’” Whipps said. “But Holly was persistent and got us both in.”

Whipps joined the choir during a rough period in his life. Just a year before, his wife passed away. He hoped that by joining he could meet new people and have a community around him. 

After losing his wife, Whipps was at “a bit of a loss,” and wasn’t doing much of anything.

“I would go to the coffee shop almost every morning, and very often have my breakfast there,” he explained. 

That’s where he met Kelly, who came to the shop with her husband at the time. The two got to chatting, and their friendship developed from there. 

Kelly lost her husband in 2018, but with the group and the support of her daughters, she was able to keep going.

“[I was] a bit depressed at that time, but the music always kept me going. And also seeing Michael in the coffee shop,” she said.

Kelly and Whipps continued going to the coffee shop and choir practices together. 

“Through 2018 and the beginning of 2019, I’m looking at him, and I’m thinking, ‘I think there’s a little bit more here,’” Kelly continued. “Because we used to hug every day, but it got more intense; the hugging became longer. One night in December 2019, I just said ‘Michael, I love you,’ and he was not paying any attention because we’ve said that we love our friends and all that stuff. So, I said, ‘Michael, I really love you.’” 

“I was gobsmacked,” Whipps said.

The two got married in August 2020.

SoundWave has become a second home and family for many people like Whipps and Kelly, so when the COVID-19 pandemic started and the practices had to stop, many members did not want to lose that.

Although the pandemic put a stop to rehearsals, and their 2020 show at the Port Theatre on hold, the members all stayed in contact with each other and retained their passion for music.

One of Wright’s favourite memories of the group is when, after the choir had to postpone practice due to the pandemic, almost all the singers gathered outside the coffee shop while she was working and sang Happy Birthday to her.

The group had their first practice since the beginning of COVID-19 in the fall of 2021. 

For the safety and wellbeing of members, Wright makes sure that everyone is fully vaccinated and wears masks during rehearsal. She also makes a conscious effort to find the largest spaces available for the group to meet, in order to properly employ social distancing.

Wright understands that some members can be nervous going back. 

“For every one person that’s not comfortable coming, there’s three that really want to get going with this because it’s for their emotional wellbeing and their mental wellbeing, and they say, ‘I need this, let’s do this,’ so I’m really torn about what to do,” she said. 

Currently, individuals aged 50 or older are at a much higher risk of developing serious symptoms, and four times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19. The risk only increases with age. 

Being a part of the choir is important to the members of SoundWave, and they are willing to take as many precautions as necessary in order to keep singing.

“Honestly, my 93-year-old [member]—who I’m very protective of—is one of the most adamant about coming back [to practice] because this is her life. She just lives for that day,” Wright said.

“We are at the age of ‘okay, we have done everything we can to stay safe, so come on, let’s do it.’” Wizinsky said. “We are ready, we need this for our mental wellbeing, we need this release.”

Music clearly means the world to many SoundWave members.

“The music keeps you alive,” Kelly said. Even with the disappointment of not being able to perform, she says it has been a great experience. “Holly is a wonderful musical director. She encompasses everybody and she feels love for people.”

“It’s like a family getting together,” Kelly continued. “Most of us are probably between 60 and 90, and people have no idea what music can do for older people. It just keeps us going.”

But no matter how many changes Wright has to make to keep her group safe, or how many practices and shows need to be postponed, she will stop at nothing to keep this choir going because it means so much to her and its members.

“My soul has always been about music, and I know that I was given something that I’m meant to share with people. This has been the biggest showing of that,” she said. “I get to do this with people, and I get to enrich their life and bring something for them. That’s pretty powerful, and to see what people get out of it, how can I not feel pretty good about it?”

SoundWave is currently hoping to make a comeback at the Port Theatre on May 28 of this year. Tickets to the show can be purchased online.

Although Wright has currently capped the number of members for SoundWave, the waitlist to join the choir can be found on her website

Editor

Lauryn is a fourth-year Digital Media Studies student. She has had her work featured in the Powell River Peak, Portal Magazine, and The Discourse. When she’s not looking up fun facts about bees, she’s probably fantasying about Portland, Oregon.

Let's Make Things Official

Get a curated list of articles sent directly to your email once a week. It’s not delivery, its Delissio