Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Choir Practice

The Choir at grad 2012
A great source of joy for Mum was creating, training, and building up a choir at the College. She herself used to sing on the radio when she was young and she knew what life and power music could bring to a program, how it could prepare hearts or uplift struggling spirits or bring an entire room together in praise and worship.

Mum was also the English teacher at the College. It was a rare student for whom English would be the first language. And students came from all over India, so English was perforce the medium through with everyone would study and communicate with their fellow students. The exceptions were for prayer - Dad would always insist that everyone should be free to pray in their mother tongue; after all, they were talking to God, not to impress the people around them - and for when there was sorrow. 

Burials in India are usually the same day or the day after the person passes away. A good percentage of our students would never reach home in time. Mum and Dad would open up their own home and the people from the tribe or the town of the grieving student were welcome to come in and talk and weep and sing and pray and console each other in their own language, while Mum and Dad would be in the background, offering coffee and tea and food and an arm around a shoulder or a word of counsel and comfort when requested.

Not only was Mum going to be teaching people who were not strong in English how to sing English hymns and songs and cantatas, she had another challenge to contend with: these students had no formal musical training, per se. As a matter of fact, they don't even read the same music we do. Rather, they use the solfage (more commonly called the sol-fa) system. Remember The Sound of Music and "Do[h] a deer, a female deer"? That. 

Could you recognize this tune?

sol do mi-do mi re do la sol
sol do mi-do mi re sol 

Easier for us when it's written like this:

d g b-g b a g e d
d g b-g b a d

But WAY better if we see it like this:

Not for the Choir! Most of Mum's music students had no understanding of the second or third methods of reading music. They were used only to the sol-fa method. They didn't know if they were sopranos, altos, tenors or bases - they just knew they loved to sing and they could harmonize with each other perfectly. 

And would Aunty teach them some songs?

In a couple of weeks she had a group up and singing in Sunday church. 

It turned out that the music part was fairly easy. It was the pronounciation, the synchronicity, the precision, that she would spend hours perfecting.


Dad would bake cakes from scratch during choir practice and bring them for the choir at the end of the rehearsal. Liza, the lady who helped us for so many years, would make tea or coffee.

The students would try not to think about assignments due and tests to study for and whether that tall bass singer from the neighbouring tribe could possibly be interested in the tiny soprano in the row in front of him. They would brace themselves for marathon sessions, especially at graduation, Easter and Christmas. They rarely complained. 

The policy was - and is - that men and women did not socialize. But in choir they were forced to, weren't they? What could be done when you were trying to learn your parts?

There were always refreshments. There were always pronunciation drills ("NOT 'tares' - 'teers' - it's important to say it right!", where the original word was written 'tears'). There was practice for rising in unison and being seated in unison. They practised walking onto the stage and off. They stood up straight. They endured cajoling and chastisement. They laughed together and cried together.

They knew she was super strict - hadn't they all suffered through her English classes?! - but they knew that she was absolutely fair and that they could come to her for anything.

They knew two more things: first, that the message in the song was the most important thing. All the rehearsals and the precision and the harmony would be for nought if the message didn't come through, first for the choir members and their leader and then for the audience for whom they would be singing.

And secondly, they knew she loved them.

When they heard of her death, scores of letters and emails came to Dad from people who had been in her choir. "She really loved me," many of them wrote, mourning her passing.

And now we were back in Bangalore, where her music ministry is ably continued by Mung No, someone who came up learning music from her and is now a teacher at the College and the music director. He knows how she would expect it to be done, and he carries on in her way. Last year's Christmas Cantata was so well attended by the neighbourhood and guests that they hastily had to arrange for a second performance.

At this year's conference Dad, Debs and I saw the enormous amounts of effort the students were putting in to get extra music ready, even as they studied and sat their final exams. We thought of what Mum would have done for them. And we decided that the least we could do is to take them out for lunch to say that we loved them and that we appreciated all that they did to enhance not just the tone of the meetings that week but the spirit of the whole campus throughout the year.

Raj (of course!) knew the very spot we should take them to. There was a buffet within walking distance of the College, not more than ten minutes. We reserved for 60 people.

Dad and I went ahead; Debs would come with the choir as a chaperone of sorts. And then we waited. And waited. Ten minutes it might be for people motivated to walk quickly and get eating. But here was a rare occasion for socializing, and the distance magically stretched for about 40 minutes ...

The buffet line. Many pictures were clicked
in honour of the occasion ...
Eventually everyone arrived and found a place to sit. We explained the principles of a buffet as most of them had never experienced the wonder of being able to go up as many times as you want and get as much as you want to eat for one price. Pepsi included!
Betraying SO MUCH of what I stand for -
holding my nose and drinking P**** -
don't tell my nephews, for goodness' sake!
Dad asked the blessing in the various corners of the restaurant and then the students, gently guided by Mung No, went to the buffet counter and were served by smiling, affable men. The manager of the restaurant recognized the ethnicity of some of the students - a couple of his employees were from the same place in North India! Everyone was delighted with each other and with the food.
Dad and Debs with Mung No

"This is what we miss from Aunty," Mung No said wistfully. "There is no eating together like we used to. That really builds unity, when we can eat together like this." 

That night the choir sang "No More Night" by Walt Harrah. Here are the words:

The timeless theme, Earth and Heaven will pass away. 
It’s not a dream, God will make all things new that day. 
Gone is the curse from which I stumbled and fell. 
Evil is banished to eternal hell.

No more night. No more pain.
No more tears. Never crying again. 
Praises to the great "I AM." 
We will live in the light of the risen Lamb.

See all around, now the nations bow down to sing. 
The only sound is the praises to Christ, our King. 
Slowly the names from the book are read. 
I know the King; there’s no need to dread.

No more night. No more pain.
No more tears. Never crying again. 
Praises to the great "I AM." 
We will live in the light of the risen Lamb.

See over there, there’s a mansion prepared for me,
Where I will live with my Saviour eternally.

No more night. No more pain.
No more tears. Never crying again. 
Praises to the great "I AM." 
We will live in the light of the risen Lamb.
We will live in the light of the risen Lamb. 
Hallelujah to the risen Lamb!

I recorded the song on my inferior camera, and fans rattled their percussion overhead, but if you click on the link, you will get the idea of the joy and the harmony - and the message.

Don't you think Mum would have LOVED this?

Isn't she living it right now?


  1. That's amazing! I can see why it's such a struggle to leave there. Reading your posts and getting to know the people:).

  2. Beautiful! Life-changing - for them and us!


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