Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Memorable Singing Moment

Let me recount one of my most memorable singing moments: The CBC Choral Competition 2004.

Every other year the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hosts a choral competition for choirs from all arenas from Children to Church. All the choirs send in a set of one-take recordings of A Capella pieces to the CBC competition. The recordings go through multiple levels but, ultimately, what results is the final round of the competition where the final choirs compete on live, national radio and are immediately adjudicated and the winners are announced live. The first year I was in Chamber Choir the CBC 2000 competition was the only thing we did not win first place in. The Kiwanis local, provincial, and national competition we won first place but we only received 2nd place in CBC. We were content with this fact since it was our first year and we were proud of what we were able to achieve. However, the second time the competition came in 2002, we performed well enough to win first, but we received second. O.k, sure, so I could have looked at this positively and have seen the situation as "We won second place!" but who am I kidding? We wanted first place and we deserved it, I am not going to play psychological tricks to make myself feel better.

There are a lot of variables that come into the equation during a live radio performance. Our rival choir was singing within the CBC studios in Toronto and we were in a downtown Edmonton church. As much as they try to make things fair, there are going to be differences and unfortunately, we felt that the recording that they got of us did not accurate reflect our sound. The sound techs physically separated the two microphones and placed them on each end section of the choir. Thus, you can imagine that the only sounds that were heard were from either end of the choir and it really picked up the individual voices from those ends as well. However, CBC 2004 was our year. Since Chamber Choir consists of singers with a wide variety of ages, we were able to enter the Children's Choir category and the Youth Choir category. We just had to have older choristers sit out for the Children's Choir category and have the young ones sit out for the Youth Choir category.

I don't recall exactly what we sang at this point. I have done so many of these competitions that repertoire lists all running together in my mind. What I do remember is singing Kaipaava and feeling the musical energy of the choristers surrounding me. There's a point when everybody in a choir is so focused on the performance that they are investing every particle of their being to produce a truly musical performance. The point where these intensity frequencies align is when there is a burst of musical epiphany. It is the point when you are so in tune with other choristers that you can feel the person at the end of the choir breathe and when you take a breath you feel that you are apart of a massive entity. The performance fear and competition stress melts away and something absolutely magical happens: you transcend the physical performance and you experience the music-making from a non-physical plane. It is as if everybody is just working together to weave together a musical fabric using gold threads and when the tapestry is finished and is exposed to light, there is a overwhelming gold gleam that radiates from the fabric. This explosion of light is equal to the musical climax achieved through our performance. It is something that is so hard to describe, it truly must be experienced to understand, but this was one of the first times I had the chance to experience it within a choral performance. It is such a musically energetic high and it is so addictive. I find that I am still singing because I am trying to seek out that next instance where I can feel that explosion of musical energy. As you can probably tell by now...I'm addicted to choir. Any performance after that experience is just a desperate attempt to recreate the energy felt during that first performance. I am grateful to say I have experienced it since (for future posts) but it is something that is so hard to come by and choristers search the rest of their lives to feel what they felt during that defining moment. It is a matter of everything being perfectly aligned in that one moment. It occurred with a particular set of singers, in a specific context, under specific conditions. It can never be perfectly replicated but, as choristers, as search for that next musical drug fix.

In closing, I have posted a clip of that very performance of Kaipaava since it was captured on radio by CBC. Posted below is that performance immortalized within this digital sample. Sure, when I listen to the performance now, I can hear that it was in no way a perfect performance, however, the musical connection I felt with every single chorister was perfect and I would not trade it for anything.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Camp: A Rite of Passage

Choir camp can be viewed in two ways:

1. A fun opportunity to hang out with all your awesome choir friends with minimal supervision where you can sing 4-5 rehearsals a day, eat (contraband) junkfood, enjoy the outdoors, or as I often did in later years, work with other studious choristers to complete homework at communal group lounges located at the backs of cabins.


2. A frightening prospect where you are cast into the seclusion of the woods, away from your own bed for the first time in your life, and are forced to make friends or spend the choral season alone and friendless.

You can probably imagine which scenario I viewed my first choir camp as. Yes, if you guessed number two, that is absolutely correct. It would be a few years at least before I developed a comfortable routine at camp. I remember remember asking my conductor, Jan, if camp was mandatory. When I found out that there was no way out of it, I tried to mentally prepare myself for the trip into the musical wilderness. I did not anticipate, however, the surfacing of my mother's nerves. I remember her convincing me to stay home the night before I was supposed to leave. That would be choir social suicide? I knew the consequences of not going and as afraid as I was to spend a weekend with choristers who were strangers to me, the thought of still not knowing everybody when they all returned to choir after the weekend was even more daunting. I was frantically trying to assemble the things I would need, and since I had never traveled before, I did not have travel friendly sizes of any necessary toiletries. Hardly a worry, I know, but it is amusing how devastating the effects of non-conformity can have upon a child. Small details such as using dollar store markers to color next to a child who owns the spectrum of vibrant Mr. Sketch markers with their addictive scents, coloring with more brilliancy than dollar store markers could ever hope to achieve. Oh, the shame! However, going back to the matter of lacking necessary toiletries, my mother disguised her worry by lending me an array of lovely travel-sized toiletries. My Dad showed his worry by stuffing my backpack full of cookies and juice boxes since his greatest fear would be me starving out in the wild.

I remember entering the bustling cabin out at camp He-Ho-Ha. The continuous metallic snapping of the doors as children were running in and out, the hollow rumbling produced by sock-wearing feet echoed through the wall from the adjoining cabin, and the crackle of the plastic lined mattresses as choristers tested out their temporary beds. There were children running everywhere and though I managed to secure a place to sleep for myself in a room full of choristers, I ultimately felt alone. What I did not know at that moment is that I would emerge from choir camp as a new person. As I opened my backpack and watched the plethora of snacks spill out onto my sleeping bag, it occurred to me that I had food to share. For anybody who needs to make friends, in choir or anywhere else, just offer them free food! Later, I opened my toiletry bag to see what my Mom packed and a young chorister passing by stopped in her tracked and gawked at the array of Aveda products I was lent to use.

"Those are designer!" she exclaimed in surprise, and being surprised at the fact that she was paying attention to me, I gave her a shy smile, but was silently pleased at the things I was given to use.

I went to the first choir rehearsal in the large rehearsal hall at the camp and my glowing conductor got things underway. I am not sure if it was during this time, or during another rehearsal that weekend, but she got the idea to have a little contest. She picked up the small, gleaming, pumpkin-orb sitting on the grand piano and showed it to all of us. There would be a contest to see whoever is sitting with the best posture throughout camp, determined by our pianist, Bob, and whoever he named as the chorister with the best posture would win the now highly coveted pumpkin trophy in her hands. It surprises me to this day how so much symbolic power can be bestowed upon something so small. When Jan announced the contest, I remember scoffing at the fact I had no chance at winning the cute little pumpkin. Sure, prior to camp I tried to sit with good posture, I was not taught any other way! It was my first time in choir, so whatever Jan told me to do...I did. Sit at the edge of my chair? done. Form a better "oh" vowel with my lips? sure. Breathe from my tummy and not my chest? o.k. Needless to say, I didn't think about winning the trophy at any point during the rest of the weekend.

Due to the fact that choir camp is not completely comprised of singing, meals and nature walks were proposed to give choristers a more balanced weekend. Thus, during our mandatory social times where we were forced to participate in outdoor activities; I unwillingly signed up for soccer in the small Quad area. I hate soccer. Please let me revise, I hate playing soccer. It is due largely in part to the fact that my asthmatic lungs always found it problematic to provide enough oxygen to run along the large stretch of field and I found it pointless that we would all be forced to run back and forth for no reason in order to chase a ball which would be quickly be redirected elsewhere. I dislike the unnecessary exertion of my energy. However, as the game began, I tried my best to be a team player and contribute what I could to the group effort. I found it surprisingly motivating to have the soccer parents, who came along as camp chaperones, cheering at the sidelines. At one point, I managed to get myself a ball and zipped down the short field to score my first goal. The instantaneous love heaped upon me immediately following that goal was staggering and slightly addictive. I did not score another goal but after the game my team members and I happily walked towards the lunch hall while recalling memorable moments during the game. I suppose soccer has some merits after all :)

The final rehearsal meant that the pumpkin award ceremony was nearing. The rehearsal went smoothly enough but there was insurmountable tension in the room as Jan asked Bob to walk to the centre and announce the winner. I sat back in seat pondering who had the best posture in the choir and when he had the time to watch everybody's posture while playing the piano during rehearsals. He began his posture adjudication by listing the names of many popular choristers (who I thought had the best chance of winning) who had very good posture most of the times that he watched them and there was a feeling of satisfaction in the air in response to the news. However, when Bob finally said:


I sat there in silence. Sure, my posture was alright, but was it good enough to trump the posture of choristers who had years of experience on me? I didn't think so. I was truly shocked. I remember there was cheering and applause and I remember being beckoned from my seat to the front of the choir to receive my mini pumpkin award. I remember walking up to Jan, still stunned into silence at the news, to receive my pumpkin award while trying to smile for the photo being taken of me with her. I walked back to my seat as the choristers buzzed around me to get a closer look at my glossy pumpkin prize. Back at the cabin as parents were showing up to pick up their children, everybody wanted to hold my prize and see what the little pumpkin looked like up close. I was happy to share and show everybody my new trophy and I was beaming at the fact that everybody was so happy for me and I enjoyed the fact these initial strangers were feeling like my friends at the end of the weekend. I'm sure my Dad was relieved to see that his shy daughter was getting so much positive attention from all the young girls as people were calling out my name and scurrying after me to look at my prize. Personally, the pumpkin did not leave me tripping over myself, as it did others. I thought the pumpkin was cute and it was surreal to go home with the prize. When I went home and put the pumpkin on a shelf, and promptly forgot about it since it lost some of its power away from the choral infused surroundings, I was surprised to see it was eaten through with mold a few weeks later. I happily tossed it out, but the symbolic potency that little pumpkin has remains ingrained in me to this day. Receiving that award was a catalyst for my choral career and gave me the confidence and reassurance that I knew what I was doing and that I was good at it as well. Even if I didn't win the award, I'm sure I would still be singing today, however, it just felt really nice to be rewarded and recognized for choral eagerness so early on in my choral experience.

Thus, I left camp with good friends, lasting memories, and a little pumpkin award. My pumpkin talisman was the first gems I acquired during a definitive choral rite of passage.

Until next post, take care readers!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Introduction

Just to give a short introduction of myself, I have been singing in choirs for the last 11 years and since I am only 22...that is half my life. I began my choral journey with my junior choir audition. I dreaded the thought of singing for a stranger but I understood that auditions were a necessary evil of the musical world. My family reassured me by telling me that the audition was simply there so that they could place my voice type within the choral surroundings. I sang "There is a Castle on a Cloud" from Les Miserables. Prior to this, it was ingrained into me that karaoke and Andrew Lloyd Webber were at the core of musical experience; thus, the reason for my musical theatre choice. It was either that or an extremely outdated Cantonese pop ballad. I remember the intense nerves I had going into that intimidating college room but the warm presence of the lovely conductor calmed my nerves and I sang to the imaginary audience she gestured to in the far corner of the room. Upon completion of the audition, she used vocabulary slightly advanced for me to grasp at that time, but it led to me believe that she would be honoured to have me in the choir. I remember my mother asking me:

"Did you get in?" and I replied,

"I think so..."

She looked at me impatiently, clearly unsatisfied with the ambiguity of my answer, but it seemed as if things were falling to place as I received my registration materials in the mail.

Extreme shyness gripped me as I entered the first junior choir rehearsal since I realized that I knew no one in the room. I was the lone Asian girl in a sea of sociable choristers who were reuniting from the previous choral year. Of course, I was not the only new chorister, but my egocentric mind was not able to acknowledge the other choristers who were feeling the same way I was. However, I received a great sense satisfaction and personal belonging when I spotted my black music binder on a seat in the third row of the alto section. Just knowing that this particular seat was reserved specifically for me eased my nerves considerably. It is similar to emerging from a flight and descending upon the arrivals area in an unknown city. You might be slightly anxious since you are hoping that the person who has promised to pick you up is there. At the moment you see them, a wave of comfort flows through you since you realize that they are there to receive you and no one else. The plain, green chair in the rehearsal room was my welcoming person and I was happy to take my rightful spot in the choir. One of the first activities we did in choir was to form a large circle and introduce ourselves. The conductor revealed a prop to help initiate the icebreaker: a microphone. Seeing the plastic microphone made my heart flutter as it was truly a sign from the karaoke Gods that I was on the right path. The microphone was passed from chorister to chorister and we were instructed to introduce ourselves by singing into it:

"I am _____".

However, upon demonstration by the conductor who sang each syllable of the phrase with an alternating major third interval, every chorister copied her musical line and sang their names the exact same way. Of course, lacking nerve and creativity, I was no exception to this pattern. Thankfully, that introduction did not leave me scarred and I tried to maintain a low profile for the rest of the rehearsal.

I do not recall whether it was that first day in rehearsal, but a gentle looking girl with gorgeous curly hair combatted the returning chorister tendency to alienate newcomers and introduced herself to me as Jenny. I remember trying to be reciprocate her friendliness in my timid way and she also introduced the Indian girl, Nadia, next to her who gave me a smile. I am proud to say that to this day Nadia remains one of my closest friends and she is not alone in this position since I have forged many lasting friendships with fellow choristers. However, I will leave those stories for another day.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Beginning


I have been blogging for a few years now but I have mainly documented my life and have never branched into the public blog arena. However, I am attempting to change that with the introduction of this new choir blog. I will write about all things music related: songs, conductors, composers, music festivals, choristers, uniforms, touring, recording, and anything else that comes to my mind. I would also like to start profiling choristers from around the world. Overall, I just wish to write about one of my passions and I hope that some of my thoughts and stories will amuse you.

One of the most critical components of being a chorister is sharing an individual voice so that individual musical frequencies fuse with the acoustic sound being generated by surrounding individuals in order to produce a seamless, complex waveform that electrically excites air molecules and transfers to listeners. Being in a choir is not about being a soloist but working together with other musicians to become a unified vocal instrument. I know choral singing is perhaps not the most trendy musical arena since images of stuffy mass adult choirs singing ominous choruses and the sound of creaky senior church choirs arise when asked to picture a stereotypical choir; however, I know that for those who have had a taste of choral singing, there is something about being within a community of singers that seems to foster an atmosphere for musical excellence and allows choristers to connect with one another in a visceral and musically gratifying manner.

In conclusion, a quote from Sir. Paul McCartney:

"I love to hear a choir. I love the humanity to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race when I see them cooperating like that"

Take care readers!