Not About Winning Competitions!

There used to be a time when any intelligent discussion on choral singing would result in covert thuggery and uncouth fisticuffs. These days, incidents of uncouth fisticuffs are mainly confined to the realm of opera (also: vegetable-throwing and spitting) while intelligent discussions on choral singing find a suitably peaceful platform at the 3rd Young Singers’ Choral Festival – an event that has been organised in the last 3 years by Susanna Saw and Mak Chi Hoe.         ·

Organised over a period of about 5 days (1-5 June, 2005), Susanna assured me that the participants, mainly students, of the choral festival did not indulge in any form of philistinism. However, the Choral Festival was not just a singing camp where one could sing anything in any way. Students were drilled in proper singing   techniques and were taught to sing together in harmony. Even teachers of choral groups participated in what Chi Hoe described as “a safe and neutral avenue where rival school choirs and competing singers could come and be friendly and learn about singing together.” How genteel!

For this event, three gurus of choral music were invited to lecture and to hold workshop sessions for the participants. Some KL chamber choirs and some choirs from Singapore were invited to present short concerts throughout the festival period for the participants to be exposed to good choral music that was not confined only to patriotic songs and Disney tunes. But organising such an event is a thankless task, and a lot of stress. Why then, do Susanna and Chi Hoe persist in trying to promote the joy and art of choral singing amongst the school choirs throughout Malaysia in the face of so many obstacles?

School choirs, in particular, suffer from being ignored, and hence, are often under-developed. Having a choir appeals to a school’s vague sense of “artistic” vanity and the choir gets to sing on Hari Guru and on other equally important haris in the school calendar. Other than that, they also serve as canon fodder in state­ organised choir competitions. They do not merit any attention unless they actually win something.

“But choral singing is not about winning choir competitions!” laments Susanna. “Choral singing,” Chi Hoe explains, “is about people and music. It’s coming together to share.” He goes on to say that when one learns choral singing, one enhances other crucial skills besides mere singing. For one, choral singing in school teaches students to manage their time. Students also learn to cooperate when they have to sing in different parts to achieve a harmonious unity. Choral singing teaches tolerance, and language skills are developed too, especially if the choir sings songs in foreign languages. Music and singing are perhaps the only things in the world that are able to bridge cultures and break down racial barriers.

At the closing concert of the 3rd Young Singers’ Choral Festival, 22 songs were presented by various delegates of the festival, including a combined presentation of the festival’s repertoire of songs that the participants had learnt throughout their 5 days at the YMCA in Brickfields. Particularly impressive was the school choir from SMK Batu Lintang from Kuching, Sarawak. They sang a medley of songs from Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with verve and vocal security. It also helped that the choir comprised of older students whose voices were significantly more stable and matured compared to the younger voices of students from other participating school choirs.

Two outstanding pieces were Saidah Rastam’s “Hello” (specially commissioned for this festival) and Arvo Part’s “Solfeggio”. Saidah’s “Hello” was rhythmically difficult but the participants mastered it and sang it remarkably well – a fitting tribute to Saidah, as this piece saw its premiere at the festival. Arvo Part’s “Solfeggio” was very difficult because it required very soft, sustained singing on high notes, particularly from the sopranos. The singers were split into their specific voice groups and were told to stand in the 4 corners of the YMCA hall so that audiences were hemmed in the centre. The music was breathtaking and one had the sense of wide open spaces suffused with sublime mystery.

I would like to think that the students who attended the Choral Festival went home to Kedah, Penang, Perak, Sarawak, KL and Selangor with a new perspective on choral singing, a higher standard and higher values they can lay claim to when they continue to sing in their choirs. The festival was instrumental in providing a meeting point and a platform, not for selfish competition but for cooperation and for shared learning. Susanna and Chi Hoe have truly transformed choral barbarians into informed beings who will definitely continue to strive for the advancement of choral music here in Malaysia. A small effort? Maybe, but the big results are waiting backstage to come out into the limelight. And to think they did it all without the fisticuffs that go with the passionate nature of singing.


Lisa Ho leads a motley crew of singers called Cantus Musicus who channel Renaissance music and drink far too much wine.

First Published: 16.06.2005 on Kakiseni

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