Upon returning from a 5-day trip to Beijing for a choir festival, I sat in the familiarity of my bedroom, floating in the persistent residue of music that had come and gone. The previous night had been the AMIS (Association for Music in International Schools) high school honor choir concert, where I had performed as a member of the treble choir.
I began singing years ago, as a middle schooler with a shaky voice who wanted to hit the high notes in all the popular songs—and never could. By the time I was a senior, I found myself auditioning for the international honor choir and, miraculously, getting in. At this point, I had accepted my status as an alto and was rather enjoying my comfort in singing lower notes instead of berating myself for not being able to sing high.
I suppose I expected music that far transcended all my previous choral experiences.
I suppose I expected complex scores and weird, wonderful harmonies.
I suppose I got all of that.
But somehow, that is not what stuck with me after this trip.
Our conductor, Dr. Angela Broeker, was a woman of a lovely soul. I don’t know how else to put it. She was one of those people that generate so much love that they cannot keep it from themselves. One could not stop smiling in the warmth of her presence. She put not musical accuracy at the forefront of our rehearsals but emotional connectedness and unity. She conducted with a fierce baton but the softest heart, and although she couldn’t learn all 60 of our names in the span of three days, she made all of us feel as if we had a personal connection with each and every person in the room, including herself.
Rather than spending all our time perfecting the music, we were given hours to talk about the meaning of the music. For one of our scores, “Spirit of Life”, which discusses the “hope and despair” within every person, we had a group-wide discussion on what things give us hope and despair as students of our generation. There was a sudden outpour of passionate assertions on human rights, discrimination, sustainability, and so much more. I looked around the room and realized these people were much more than skilled singers—they were teens who were open-minded and driven enough to bring themselves to a festival such as this one, interacting with people all over the globe and create artistry with them. They were also ones who were fortunate enough to have such opportunities, and this did not go unrecognized—everyone I talked to expressed gratitude for having the chance to take part in something like this.
What I definitely did not see coming was to cry while rehearsing one of the songs. Dr. Broeker taught us the song “I Shall Wear a Crown” by ear, without giving us the music beforehand, following the traditions of its gospel roots. We were to move to the music, using our hands freely and expressively, as well as hum improvised melodies in the beginning, which made the song more of a personal prayer (to whatever deity or non-deity one might believe in) than a performance. One day during rehearsal, we all got into a circle rather than sing in rows. There is a moment in the music when the harmony swells as we sing “I’m gonna tell the story of how I made it over”, and when that moment came, all the recent adversities that the people around me had experienced recently flitted through my brain, and the next thing I knew, I was somehow singing at full volume with tears coming down my face.
I love my high school choir. I don’t need us to be doing professional-level music to enjoy our experience together and be proud of our work. Its only shortcoming is probably that the emotional aspects of singing and performance are left out for many of us; it’s hard to feel connected when not everyone’s connected. My experience in Beijing was a testament to the fact that throughout the years, choir had often softened the harshness of adolescence and given me a space to immerse myself fully in a unified art—so different from writing or acting.
Right before the concert, Dr. Broeker talked to us about the meaning of our program as a whole: all seven songs, from vastly different cultures, styles, and languages. She told us that the biggest thing she had learned throughout her years of directing choirs (and being human in general) was that “deep down—once you get deep enough—we’re really all the same.” That, to me, means many different things at once.
*Additional thanks, of course, to “lit amis crew”+Vanessa for making this trip so much fun. You guys are all weird and wonderful. Thank you to Mr. Brown, without whom this wouldn’t have been possible (and without whom I would never have continued signing up for choir in the first place).
*Videos of our concert can be found here, and audio recordings (better audio than the videos, obviously) can be found here. The treble choir program, which I was a part of, starts with song 6 “Sanakam” and ends with song 12 “Sail Away”. But if you’re into it, I’d recommend you listen to the other choirs as well. My favorites are numbers 1, 5, 15, and 18 on the list.