2015 / 4月
Kobe Chen /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Do you remember the documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above? After two hours of material on Taiwan’s scenic beauty and environmental problems, the film’s airborne camera circles the summit of Yushan. A group of children there with resonant voices offer blessings to Taiwan in song. It left audiences teary-eyed.
The singers were Bunun from Nantou. As they sang about Yushan to the whole world, their pure voices were like rays of light piercing a dense fog. By lifting people’s spirits and encouraging them to keep pushing forward, their singing was an excellent demonstration of the magic of children’s choruses.
Taiwan’s first children’s chorus, the Rong-Shing Chorus, was founded in 1957. Its director Lu Quan-sheng has come to be known as the flagbearer of Taiwan’s choral arts. After 60 years of growth, Taiwan’s choruses reaped a bumper harvest in 2014. Apart from the Taipei International Choral Festival, which went off swimmingly, the Taipei Philharmonic Youth and Children’s Choir took first place at Canada’s Kathaumixw International Choral Festival. Meanwhile, the New Taipei City Junior Chorus won the gold in the children’s division at the World Choir Games in Latvia. These achievements brought the world’s attention to the “soft power” of Taiwan’s choral groups.
Love and determination
On a Friday evening, when most employees at the Hsinchu Science Park have already left for home, a group of parents and children are filing into a high-rise in the park. The sight prompts curiosity: Is something special happening this weekend?
In fact, the same thing has been going on every weekend for 15 years. The children are members of Taiwan’s largest children’s choral group: the Crystal Children’s Choir–Taiwan.
“Backs straight! Ready, set, sing!” “When you’re singing the low notes, there’s no need to lower your head.” “You’re singing too cutesy. You guys aren’t babies.” The conductor’s hands and mouth never stop moving. He’s constantly correcting the students’ singing, and the students do their best to figure out how to meet the conductor’s demands and correct their mistakes—again and again. Before you know it, the class, which is more than an hour long, is over.
The Crystal Children’s Choir currently has nine classes and more than 400 students in all. “Most of the kids join in first grade and keep at it until their senior year of high school. Many have perfect attendance records. They not only haven’t missed a class in ten years, they haven’t even been late.” Zhu Juanying, the choir’s executive director, was herself astonished when she checked the records. “For teens and preteens to be able to persevere in the face of so many distractions, there’s only one explanation for it: love.”
This passion for singing is striking even in students who are about to take the joint entrance exams for high schools and colleges. Many students in their final year of junior high or high school don’t ask off from choir practice until a week before the exams.
More than just learning to sing
Some parents regard these choral singing classes just as they would any other kind of music or arts lessons. Others specifically enroll the kids in them because they themselves enjoy choral singing. Yet the kids always learn much more than their parents expect.
Choral groups range in size from a dozen or so singers to nearly 100. If their voices are to come together beautifully, then each member of the group needs to work on matching their voice to that of the group as a whole. When a kid starts slacking off, Zhu shows tough love: “The choir has so many people that it wouldn’t miss you if you weren’t here. But since you’ve come, the choir needs you to give it your best.”
Although choral singing doesn’t spotlight individuals, a single person can ruin a whole performance. By joining a choir, young people cultivate an attitude of responsibility toward themselves and the group. Some face their inner demons by overcoming fears of performing. From not being able to speak in front of strangers, they become eager to perform in front of large audiences. These “side effects” are often unanticipated by parents.
Another unexpected benefit in the eyes of parents is that participation in choral groups raises language ability.
“Whether the song is in Chinese, English, Taiwanese or Hakka—even Italian or German, for that matter—children have to learn the words to the songs that the teachers choose.” Rita Lu, who has conducted choral groups for 15 years, says that voice training, with its focus on pronunciation and lip positioning, makes foreign language songs more accessible. Even if one is uncertain about what the lyrics mean, sung words are always clear and resonant, making further study of the language just that much easier.
As for the children themselves, they continue with choral singing because they love it, enjoy the interaction with peers, and use the lessons to release tension. Consequently, even when they have heavy schoolwork, or are under the weather, they insist upon coming to practice.
But there must be some objective that keeps them so determined. So what goals do the children have in participating in choral singing?
Standing on their own stage
Many people know what it’s like to take part in school singing groups. Often these are set up for intramural competitions, and the students aren’t too concerned about the results.
Yet members of the Crystal Children’s Choir or the Taipei Philharmonic Youth and Children’s Choir have much more ambitious goals.
In 2014 the TPYCC won the top prize in the children’s division at Canada’s Kathaumixw International Choral Festival. The Crystal Children’s Choir, meanwhile, was invited in February 2015 to play at Carnegie Hall in New York. What’s more, the concert that the choir gives in Taiwan every June is eagerly awaited and always sold out.
To get up on the big stage of their dreams, children can become very determined and directed. Performing overseas is a rare opportunity for any child. For Aboriginal children, members of a disadvantaged group, it’s only that much more rare and precious. But Aboriginal kids in the Vox Nativa Children’s Choir of Nantou got precisely such an opportunity.
Bringing Yushan’s sound to the world
In 2013, accompanied by ROC First Lady Chow Mei-ching, the choir flew off to California, taking the Yushan sound with them across the Pacific. It was Taiwan’s heartwarming gift to America for its July 4 celebrations.
When the Vox Nativa Music School was established in 2008, no one, from children to parents, believed that one day it would lead to these tribal children performing abroad—no one, that is, except for principal Peter Ma.
“Because of music, our children can go anywhere in the world,” Ma says. He leads them overseas today so that in the future they can go abroad on their own.
On the day it was announced that the children would be performing in America, the news brought many parents to tears—because no one in their communities had ever gone to America before. The children were letting everyone see the possibilities of change.
Seeing Taiwan, hearing Taiwan
Back in Nantou County’s Xinyi Township, the Vox Nativa Music School comes into session as some dozen students from nearby communities gather in the Luona Elementary School. They must immediately break into song together, right? Wrong. They come here every weekend to study math, English, and reading. Only afterwards do they start singing.
“The biggest handicap that Aboriginal children bear is a lack of confidence,” Ma says. The first time he brought the children to a competition, when they heard the beautiful singing of children attending school in the lowlands, they were scared off from performing. The children said, “They sing differently from us. They sing the right way. We sing the wrong way.”
Ma told the children not to be afraid and just to sing as they had in their regular practices. When their simple unpretentious style won them first prize in their group, they slowly started to develop some confidence.
In 2009, Vox Nativa’s album Sing It! won the special jury prize at the 20th Golden Melody Awards. But in terms of what left the biggest impression on people, nothing can surpass the end of the documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above, when those children from Yushan perform “Kipahpah Ima” (“Let’s Clap Together”). It has since become Vox Nativa’s signature song.
Finding themselves in choral singing
Choral singing helps Aboriginal children to gain a sense of confidence and accomplishment and then to go a step farther and cultivate a sense of mission and proper values. “My dream isn’t merely to go abroad to perform,” says Ma. “It’s also that the children will grow up to throw themselves into reforming and elevating their communities.”
Ma dares to dream, dares to serve as an example and to encourage the children and the other teachers. Many retired teachers from the city volunteer to make the long trip up to this village in the mountains every week because they find it gives their lives greater meaning.
But in return for all their hard work, the principal and teachers get the students’ passion and commitment, day after day, night after night. Some of the children live farther away than others. When you combine the time they spend walking and on the shuttle bus, it may take them several hours to get to practice. Sometimes, when roads are damaged after typhoons, the children nonetheless still make it up the mountain for class. “Don’t say that Aboriginal children are natural singers, because that discounts all the discipline and hard work that goes into practicing,” says Ma.
Voices are natural gifts, instruments of nature. Choral singing is a great way to foster a sense of connection among people, to provide them with a means to move each other’s spirits. The clear resonant collective voices of children’s choirs have an angelic charm that is poignant, hopeful and full of the courage to keep pressing ahead.