My Thursday evening class ended on a high note, with my first year students enjoying our yearly Christmas symbol bingo game. Candy as prizes sent them excitedly to the front of the room to receive their goodies and then take the place of the departing students, who had called out the vocabulary. Winners then became the leaders who drew the names of our Christmas words (used instead of numbers) to begin a new game.
By 6:10 p.m., class was over and the sun was drifting downward. Our chilly classroom had hit 55 degrees. Outside, the Yangtze river mist was gently covering our campus. It was a perfect evening after a full day of teaching to return home, turn on my mega-Christmas light display (inside and out), huddle next to the heater and enjoy a movie.
But for me, a different relaxation was in store at our LuzhouChurch, where choir practice was about to take place. I attended weeks ago and then missed the next Thursday to lead our English Corner nights. John and Ashley were taking over that duty for the evening so I was free to join our practice for the upcoming Christmas church performance party.
A Choir From Scratch
Three weeks ago, I helped “John” Lu, our director, go through two English carols which he is determined the choir will sing for Christmas. John attended 4 years of seminary in music and evangelism in Fiji before returning to his hometown, Luzhou, to take up a position in the church. During his time on the Pacific island, his director from the UK led their seminarian choir in some very grand numbers.
John’s hope had been to do the same in Luzhou.
10 years ago, when he returned to China, he started the church choir from scratch. There hadn’t been a choir in the church for years, if ever. There weren’t many members in the beginning, nor could anyone read music. The piano player was a self-taught pianist who felt God called her to play the piano for the congregation. She took lessons on chording and made it through all our worship services by doing so. Needless to say, there were a lot of odd, bizarre notes in there not only during services but also during the choir’s anthems. She did the best she could but after only a few months of lessons, she was still constantly learning and it showed.
Practice Makes Perfect
My absence of 3 years has certainly shown great improvement, in both piano accompaniment and the singers. Our pianist can chord quite nicely now and the choir has a strong, loyal membership of 40 who attend rehearsals every Thursday evening. Before, John concentrated on everyone just singing in unison and getting the notes right (not often the case). Now he’s moved into 4-part harmony, note reading and dynamics. His efforts and those of the choir members have paid off. They sound amazing!
A Thursday Night Rehearsal
Practices are to start at 7 p.m. but usually, it’s not until 7:15 that we get started.
I was rather late, arriving at 7:30, but we still hadn’t quite gotten into practice yet.
John always asks a choir member to pray first and since I was one of the last to arrive, he hoped I would do that for us. I invited the Lord to bring our voices together to the glory of God, take care of us during our time together and bless us with a vibrant, happy spirit.
After that, it was down to business. John is never one to waste a moment of our 2-1/2 hour choir time. We immediately launched into 30 minutes of warm-up exercises.
Blending is John’s biggest issue when working with us. One of the worst problems Chinese have is not listening to one another but singing as loudly as possible and paying attention to only themselves. Even larger, professional choirs on TV for celebratory performances think shouting is the way to sing because loud is considered more joyful. While this can be a difficulty in any culture for any choir, it seems to be the most prevalent for Chinese singers.
John has learned many techniques to help us but there are always those who don’t quite get it. They swoop up to high notes. They screech. They’re too timid or too overbearing. John often cuts us short, clapping his hands in irritation to start again with our harmonizing measures.
“Listen! Listen to each other!” he urges.
Everyone nods and tries again, usually with fairly good results.
Our practice the other evening followed much the same warm-up critique as the practice I attended 3 weeks ago.
Trying to Sound Western
By 8 p.m., we started in on our English carols, “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Once again, I was invited to go over pronunciation with the choir members, which we did by groups. My mother, the music major, was the choir director for years at my hometown church. Under her direction, I picked up a few things so as not to feel too incompetent in helping John lead everyone in their parts.
Personally speaking, their English was fine. I could understand their words quite well. They had some good consonant endings to words that were rather difficult to say. Their “th”s and “r”s (not present in the Chinese language) were getting there.
I felt quite happy with their progress, which sounded so much better than 3 weeks ago.
But John was beside himself with worry and frustration.
He winced. He frowned. He fidgeted.
He turned to me and said, “They are singing in English but it doesn’t sound Western! I talked to my British friend, Robin, about my problem and told him they sound Chinese, like Chinglish. He said I have to make them sound Western. I don’t know how to do that. Do you have any suggestions?”
Gracious! Non-English speakers who are Chinese of all ages and educational backgrounds needing to sound like Westerners? Would I ever expect my hometown choir members in Marshall, Illinois, to sing a Chinese hymn and sound Chinese?
I don’t think so.
And what exactly does that mean, to “sound” Western? We all have different accents in English-speaking countries, especially in America. How can you say what’s right and what’s wrong?
As a foreign language teaching professional, I get frustrated when I hear anyone criticizing or making fun of Chinese who try so hard to master my language. It takes great courage and hard work to speak another’s mother tongue. Of course, my students, friends and colleagues can’t sound like a native speaker. They can’t because they aren’t, nor should anyone expect them to.
“But, John, they sound so much better than last time! And how can you expect everyone to sound Western? You are Chinese! You should have some of your own local flavor in singing. It makes the songs very special.”
John’s face lit up.
”Really?” he said. “I just don’t know.”
It’s the Spirit, Not the Words, that Counts
I didn’t add that the only person who would even notice would be his UK friend, Robin, our guest conductor on those numbers, whom he wants to impress. Surely Robin won’t be so cruel as to complain and nag at everyone for their “Chinese” pronunciation. I’m sure he’s used to working with those in the Fijian seminarian choir who had many different English accents due to their different nationalities. I just hope he understands and realizes how hard everyone has worked to do the best they can. After all, it’s the spirit of the singers, not the words, that counts.
Of course, we do have another element to add into the mix and that is I’m American. Here I’ve been coaching them on pronunciation when I’m guessing our UK choral conductor most likely will lump me in with the Chinese who don’t know how to speak proper English, i.e. the British way.
Yes, our first rehearsal together after he arrives this weekend should prove very interesting.
Helping One Another
One thing’s for certain: No one can dis Handel’s Alleluia Chorus. That’s in Chinese and it is quite spectacular. This is the 3rd year the choir has sung the piece for Christmas services so everyone is familiar with it. I am as well after college choir but in English, not Chinese.
Just like the Chinese choir members are feeling our English carols are a bit out of their league, so I am finding our Alleluia Chorus in Chinese.
How wonderful that we can both help one another to make our Christmas Eve night of song, dance and performance come alive. That’s what Christianity is all about — working together to glorify the Lord.
For all my choir members out there getting ready for your upcoming Christmas celebrations: “Break a vocal chord!”
From Luzhou, China, here’s sending you Ping An (peace) for your week.