Karyn Morrow-Penner and the Choirs of Oak Lake have been a musical phenomenon in Westman for decades. A school teacher, music educator and choir conductor, she has recently chosen a change of pace. She has retired.
After high school graduation, Morrow-Penner earned a Bachelor of Music Education degree and she has enjoyed a storied career with awards along the way. A nominee for the YMCA Women of Distinction Award in 2006, her work and dedication has been recognized with the Hope Medal, the Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the Teaching Excellence Award for Middle Years.
This past spring, after Morrow-Penner announced she was stepping back from directing the community choirs, a choir member paid tribute to her. Here’s an excerpt from what Sandra Harris wrote in Oak Lake News this spring:
“I remember the first time I heard Noteable Women sing. I was so moved it brought me to tears. Could I join? Yes, I could! Karyn accepted everyone, no matter what skill level. She always managed to mold the group into a unit with the collective goal of making beautiful music.
“Karyn has taken this small-town choir to places I never imagined we could go, all across this country; Halifax, Edmonton, Flin Flon, Ottawa, and countless smaller places in between.
“Two events that stand out the most for me are the joint concert with the WSO of Handel’s Messiah, and our invitation to sing in Ottawa for Canada Day, in a collective choir of about 350 people.
“Actually, another one comes to mind as well. We went to Choralfest in Winnipeg one winter where we peaked at just the right time and brought Karyn to tears, in a good way.
“No matter where we went and in what venue we performed, Karyn was always in front of us poised, gracious, and confidently encouraging us to give our best. Our community has been blessed, and all the more enriched through her.”
In a Q&A we delve deeper into Morrow-Penner’s roots of music and her ability to stir others to make and to enjoy music.
Q. I am curious about your musical history - were you always passionate about music and how did that come to be?
A. I have always had an interest in music. I was very fortunate to be given many opportunities growing up, including dance, skating, art lessons, pony club, garden club, piano and vocal lessons, as well as experiences in choirs. My mother played the piano, so piano lessons were a requirement! My dad spent hours driving and waiting for me at choir practices and lessons.
How did you develop into a performer?
My mom had me involved in our local music festival from the age of four, where I sang to her accompaniment on the piano. Together, we also performed at church, showers, anniversaries, and weddings.
In my teens, my passion became singing in choir and directing, as well as teaching. I had private voice, piano and theory students and conducted a junior choir for our church starting at age 15.
When did you know you’d like to become a music teacher?
Watching my mentors closely, I followed what they did and realized it was what I wanted to make my life work. I was part of Tiger Hills Divisional Choir. We did many tours and collaborative singing with the WC Miller Collegiate Choir from Altona.
When I graduated from high school, I was part of the International Peace Gardens Choir which toured seven countries in western Europe.
Following that tour, I started my education at Brandon University School of Music.
What about band teaching and conducting? Did someone special inspire you?
Band was only offered in my Grade 7 and 8 years. Choir was throughout my senior high years. My choir, vocal and guitar teacher and mentor was Bev De'Athe. I loved observing conductors. Everyone I encountered, I was inspired by and learned from.
How and when did the Choirs of Oak Lake begin?
Following my university graduation, I was married and moved to Oak Lake. The first choir I organized was the summer of 1989 for the Interdenominational Church Service for our Oak Lake Agricultural Fair. That choir evolved into the Oak Lake Junior Community Choir, and Oak Lake Community Choir that sang for the Advent Carol Service.
Sandhill Singers, a choir geared for students Gr. 4 and up, came from the Junior choir, and eventually Noteable Women (2004) and The Heard (2009) from adult interest.
Altogether, I had the Choirs of Oak Lake for about 30 years.
Have the choirs of Oak Lake disbanded or is someone taking on leadership?
I am retiring from the artistic director position but hope someone will take up the mantel and continue at some point.
Tell us about your teaching career.
“My career started in Reston Elementary, Sinclair School and Plainview Colony. Although I continued to teach private music lessons out of our home when we started a family, I came back to a music position at OLCS in 2000. I have since taught briefly at Mary Montgomery School and nine years at Hamiota Elementary School.
You have recently retired.
I was most recently teaching half-time in Oak Lake Community School and half-time in Goulter School. I retired this June 30.
With more time to yourself, what are you looking forward to?
I enjoy creating many things, including sewing, knitting, gardening, decorating, dancing and traveling that I look forward to filling my time with.
Oak Lake Community School recently wished their teacher a “deserved and wonderful retirement!” Published in the Oak Lake News the note said she “instilled her passion for music through her instruction and provided our students a top-notch music education program…. Our OLCS students all looked forward to and loved music class with Mrs. Penner.”
Karyn Morrow-Penner hopes someone will take up the mantle and continue choir work in the Oak Lake area. No matter, she leaves a legacy of people who have found their voice, their musical interest and talent.