Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

REACHING to the choir

Without Judy Pringle, choral groups across Canada would be singing the same old song

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Say you're the director of a school, church or community choir.

Your singers show up in September for their first rehearsal, each expecting to receive a stack of fresh music, including Christmas repertoire.

But you were late placing your order. The music hasn't arrived. To scrounge up photocopies instead is often impossible -- and it's illegal under copyright law.

No wonder August is the most frantic month at Canadian Choral Centre (CCC).

The Winnipeg company supplies printed music to customers in every province and territory, ranking as the largest retailer of choral music in the country. Only about 10 per cent of sales are within Manitoba.

While the bulk of its sales are in Canada, CCC has shipped music to choirs as far off as Ireland, Paraguay, Mexico and Singapore, as well as the U.S.

Founder and president Judy Pringle believes hers is North America's only choral-music specialty store. The company is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The phones are ringing and emails are pouring in at such a rate that Pringle can't let any of her six staff (she really needs eight, she says) take holidays in August.

Although her 6,000 regular customers are increasingly shifting to online ordering, "our toll-free telephone line has been the mainstay of our business," she says.

How much pressure do those choir conductors feel to get their orders in?

Pringle, a personable woman with a loud, jolly laugh, remembers one Ottawa teacher who scrawled hers on bathroom tissue.

"She was on recess duty at school. It was the only thing handy. She actually mailed us the order on toilet paper!"

Another order came from Toronto, entirely in Chinese. CCC got it translated and filled it.

It's 5 p.m. on this August weekday and Pringle, 57, has been at the store since 5 a.m. During this intense period, she puts in at least 80 hours per week.

Raised in the town of Manitou, she was a longtime Winnipeg choral leader at venues such as Young United Church, until she got too busy running CCC. She holds degrees in vocal and piano performance, music education and conducting.

Her staff are also musicians. That's essential, she says, because while CCC does sell to top-flight professional conductors, it has found a particular niche helping amateur conductors who lack the time and expertise to choose appropriate music.

"Seventy-five per cent of our calls ask us for suggestions," she says.

To provide such advice, staff members have to study the scores and know the inventory. "I don't read novels, I read music," says Pringle about her nightly bedtime reading.

Pringle's friend Pat Rabson, conductor of the Women of Note community choir, says the businesswoman is a generous supporter of the choral community.

"If you go to any choral event, very often you will see Canadian Choral Centre listed as a sponsor. When the Manitoba Choral Association (held) an endowment campaign recently, she was one of the first big donors."

The recession has affected CCC's profits, particularly since many customers are in hard-hit southern Ontario, but Pringle is confident that sales will rebound. Inventory control, the key to profitability, was something she had to learn through failure in the early years.

"I was very green and I made lots of mistakes," she recalls. One was assuming she should stock all the available Bach cantatas -- more than 200 of them -- instead of just the popular ones.

"Twenty-five years later, I still have some of the original Bach cantatas sitting there!" she laughs. "You don't have something on the shelf 'just in case.' You have to know it's going to turn over."

Eventually, all choral music will come in the form of computer downloads and CCC will have to adapt. Already, publishers permit CCC to download and print certain items, such as one copy of the flute part for a choral accompaniment.

Pringle forms such personal bonds with her customers that she makes trips to see their choirs in concert. "The Peterborough Singers are next on my list," she says.

She frequently travels to meet with publishers in cities such as Dayton, Ohio, Chicago and New York (publishers also come to Winnipeg to call on her), as well as to sell music at camps for teachers and church musicians, attend conventions and host clinics.

Her greatest satisfaction, she says, comes from supplying music to a choir in a small community that is holding its very first concert.

"That, for me, is as thrilling as selling a piece of music to the Crystal Cathedral (a famous California church whose services are broadcast worldwide), which I have done."

She takes pride in helping when there's a crisis, like the time a panicked teacher in Ontario called to say that a child had accidentally broken the choir's accompaniment CD, the day before the school musical.

"We over-nighted it to them," she says.

Pringle loves her work, but there's one thing that tends to wear on her.

"Now, how do I say this nicely?" she says with a raucous laugh. "The pet peeve of my entire staff is: We'll be at the movies, or at a concert, or shopping, and someone will spot us and say, 'Do you know if my order's in yet?'"


Canadian Choral Centre's greatest hits


Twenty-five years ago, Winnipeg's Judy Pringle founded Canadian Choral Centre because as a choir conductor herself, she had to make trips to Minneapolis to find the music she wanted.

From its modest beginnings in a 500-square-foot space, CCC now occupies a 4,000-sq.-ft. store and warehouse on Century Street near Polo Park. Some conductors from places like Saskatoon make annual pilgrimages to the store, the way Pringle used to trek to Minneapolis.

The store includes a rehearsal space that accommodates 50 people when Pringle brings in big-name choral composers for clinics.

CCC represents 89 music publishers throughout the world. Twice a year, it does mass mailings of catalogues that often include CDs. Pringle keeps more than 10,000 titles in stock -- from Advent anthems to kids' songs tailored to Halloween -- and places special orders for many more.

What titles are flying off the shelves? These are CCC's current choral bestsellers in various categories:

Pop: Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen

Broadway: Wicked by Stephen Schwartz

Classical: Felix Mendelssohn's Prayer For Peace, arranged by Kirk Aamot

Christmas: I Wish You Christmas by John Rutter

Canadian Composer: Go Lassie Go by Mark Sirett

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2009 B5

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