THE choir team from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Faculty of Music hits the right note again, this time in the mixed and female categories at the Second Kalamata International Choir Competition held in the southern Greek city of Kalamata.
Under the direction of Dr Masashi Kishimoto, the UiTM Women’s Chorale won the grand prize while the UiTM Chamber Choir (UCC) received the gold diploma in the mixed category. The UiTM Women’s Chorale team was represented by 16 female members of the 31-member UCC.
At the Press conference to announce the win, UiTM vice-chancellor Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Hassan Said said: “This is the second time UCC has won an international choir competition. It is a significant achievement as we are one of the first music faculties which sent students to compete overseas.
“The meaningful victory was achieved through hard work and determination, proving that we can compete with anyone and succeed if we work hard enough.
“I am extremely proud of UiTM Chamber Choir’s achievement and this success is not only for UiTM, but also for Malaysia,” added Hassan.
UCC’s first international competition was just last year at the Czech Republic. It won three gold awards at the event and a special jury award at the 30th Praga Cantat, also known as the Prague International Choir competition.
The Kalamata festival, which began on Oct 11, saw various activities such as workshops, competitions and a cultural exchange concert organised for participants throughout five days.
Fifty-two choirs from 14 nations including Sweden, Norway, Russia, Italy and China participated in the competition. Nine teams were selected by the international jury for outstanding performances before the judges announced the overall winner.
A chamber choir is a small or medium-sized choir with eight to 40 singers, typically one which performs without instrumental accompaniment.
Kishimoto, who has a master’s and PhD in vocal performance and choral conducting, said: “Unlike Malaysia, choir teams from European countries are known for the rhythmically crisp execution of the songs they sing.
“Singing in a choir is a common culture in Europe. Europeans are used to singing in churches and at places with great acoustics so they are more familiar with ‘making the right sound’.
“Coaching a team in Malaysia is different as you have to build it from zero. Since it’s an international competition, our standards have to be international as well,” said Kishimoto who has experience coaching a university choir in Thailand prior to joining UiTM.
Going against many experienced ensembles was not easy for a young choir. The process does not only involve the perfect blending of the voices by identifying ranks of sopranos and altos, but also choosing the right song.
Kishimoto took five to six months to choose one song for the competition. “Choosing songs for a competition is different from selecting songs for a show performance. We had to be extra careful and took a longer time to decide.”
The judges for a choir competition have to listen to the performances for more than eight hours before they decide on the winners, he added.
“With the long hours, it is important to leave an impression on them to remember the performance. The right songs can do just that.”
Kishimoto added that the team’s biggest competition was the choir from Sweden because it also has good music education background. However, he said, the Malaysian voice is unique in its own way and this was confirmed by the feedback at the competition.
“It is also easy for me to coach the students as they sing well and are disciplined to practise by themselves.”
MORE THAN SINGING
UiTM Faculty of Music dean Associate Professor Dr Ramona Mohd Tahir said: “It is definitely not about these students singing any song. The right songs will showcase and highlight the strength of the choir.”
The choir is a subject offered by the faculty. Not all 31 members pursue the subject although they are diploma and degree students from the faculty. The choir also audition other students from the faculty in order to get more members.
“While the selection of the song is most important in a competition, the role of these students is not only to sing but also to gain experience.
“Organising the trip itself involves many tasks that the choir members have to be responsible for. So the planning is an experience on its own,” she added.
V.J. Sanny Jahin, a third-year Degree in Music Education student who is also a UCC member, said: “It does not only involve singing but also leadership and organising skills. Plans begin early in the year, from practising the songs to making arrangements for transport.”
The team members are divided into four voice types: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Each has its own section leader.
Choir member Maryann Magdalena Linnis said with a minimum number of students in the team in comparison to other teams, competition is stiffer.
“Europeans have larger body frames than Asians, so naturally they have huge vocals. Not only that, they also have more singers in the choir group.
“With different countries taking part, we didn’t know our opponents’ strengths until the competition day itself,” added Maryann Magdalena who is in her last semester of the Master’s in Music Education course.
Apart from joining the competition, UCC also took up an invitation to hold a workshop on Music Education and Choir Music in Malaysia at the University of Athens where it also held a choir performance.
It gave a talk on Malaysian music education at the workshop and showcased local folk songs.
UCC also performed at Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, one of the world’s most renowned concert halls with the best acoustics. The visit was hosted by Malaysia’s ambassador to Austria, Datuk Adnan Othman.
Kishimoto, who joined the teaching staff of UiTM in 2014, has just renewed his contract for another two years. His next task is to find another venue to compete that fits this criteria: A place where Malaysians have not performed and competed.