"I think that the life skills you learn in a program like this are as important, or maybe even more important, than the actual artistic/musical product. To me it's about seeing the success of people in whatever they decide to do with their life later on."
Shirley Penner has been helping to build a better future for over thirty years as CEO of the Youth Singers of Calgary. For Shirley, investment in youth is everything!
Born in Saskatoon, Shirley grew up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Her father, a minister, professor and missionary, and her mother, a musician and piano teacher, were ahead of their time in giving their three daughters the opportunity to do anything they wanted to do.
Shirley was introduced to the performing arts at a very young age, singing weekly on the radio from age two to age seven. Her parents instilled in her a strong work ethic and a sense of joy in doing well.
Shirley’s mother taught her to sing and play piano at a young age. When she graduated from high school at the age of 16, Shirley went to Chicago to continue her music studies. She attended Moody College, Trinity College and the University of Chicago, earning a Master of Music degree. She is also a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, earning an Associate of The Royal Conservatory (ARCT) diploma with a double major in performance and teaching.
Bringing young people and music together was something Shirley started early in life. In 1963, in Steinbach, Manitoba she founded the Treble Teens, a female choir. Shirley was the choir’s artistic director and business manager until 1980. The Treble Teens toured widely, produced six TV specials and released numerous recordings. During this period, Shirley also had a very successful music studio where she taught voice, piano, theory, history and composition.
In 1980, Shirley became the Cultural Development Officer with the Manitoba Department of Culture, Heritage and Recreation. She also worked as a producer at CBC, on a number of programs including Take a Good Look Manitoba and Take a Good Look Canada.
In 1984, Shirley received a call from Mount Royal College (now Mount Royal University) in Calgary. She was invited to join the performing arts faculty and work with not-for-profit performing arts groups as a performing arts consultant. It was an enticing offer, as it would bring her back into contact with the day-to-day of performing arts. Under President Dr. Donald Baker, Shirley would also work in Mount Royal’s fund development, focusing on the performing arts departments.
The college offered choir programs for all age groups, except junior high. Shirley was asked to fill that gap. In 1985 she created the choir that would become the Youth Singers of Calgary. Shirley designed a program for the initial group of 26 students where she and a colleague, Darlene Dusevic, taught classically based singing technique while Shirley’s daughter Tricia Penner taught choreography and musical theatre. The youth loved the “triple-threat” approach of adding acting and dancing to music; the choir grew in popularity and numbers.
After the college’s youth choir had grown to nearly 100 performers over several divisions with many opportunities for public performance, Shirley made a major life decision. With the support of her husband, Don McLean, she resigned her position at Mount Royal and launched Youth Singers of Calgary (YSC) as a community performing arts company.
Today, Youth Singers of Calgary provides performing arts experience to 500 participants every year. The uniquely created YSC curriculum is based on music, rhythm, movement and instrumentation of all descriptions. Students receive a balance of music theory and vocal preparation. There is also training in choreography, acting and recording. Performances range from classical concert choir to musical theatre to show choir styles. The artistic team includes over 50 educators, directors, arrangers, composers, choreographers, technicians and dramatists. Hundreds of volunteers devote priceless time and energy to every aspect of the organization.
In response to demand over the years from younger siblings of YSC singers and from graduates who retained an interest in performing, YSC programs now have participants who range in age from four to well into adulthood. Youth Singers of Calgary appears at more than one hundred events every year, often accompanying top entertainers as well as performing at many community and charity events. The singers record regularly and tour every year. They have performed in 20 countries including Australia, Japan and China and others in South America and Europe.
One of Shirley’s proudest additions to the roster of YSC programs is the Special Talents in Arts and Recreation (STAR) program. STAR allows children aged eight to 17 with cognitive delays to discover the joys and benefits of music education in a safe, stimulating and fun environment.
From early in her career, Shirley has recognized the importance of organizational support for artistic endeavours. In nurturing her passion for the creative aspect of administration she has discovered a calling beyond performance. She has earned management diplomas from York University and the Banff School of Management, and with the Youth Singers of Calgary she has reached a personal pinnacle of artistic satisfaction.
Shirley is very proud of her team. Shirley depends on Tricia Penner as the artistic director, six senior managers/administrators and the Board of Directors whose advice she regularly seeks. As CEO, she helps things happen the way they are supposed to leads her team collaboratively through the growth and challenges they face. She is confident that, when the time comes for her to move on, YSC will be set for another 30 years at least.
Shirley has received much recognition over the years, including the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award Medal. She was named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International, received an Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005 and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013. She has also received a number of outstanding citizen awards for her contributions to her community and to the Province of Manitoba. Shirley has adjudicated numerous festivals and various competitions including the Calgary Stampede Talent Search and the Juno Awards on three occasions.
Ultimately, Shirley finds her greatest reward in the life changing effect that Youth Singers of Calgary has on the thousands of youth who have come through the door. Countless times she has seen the transformative magic of acceptance, friendship and common endeavour. She has seen children with personal challenges and low self-esteem permanently empowered by performance. She has watched leadership skills blossom in young men and women who have become music teachers in homes, schools, churches and beyond. She has seen people go on to careers, whether in the performing arts or elsewhere, with a legacy of poise, confidence and pure joie de vivre from their time with the Youth Singers of Calgary.