Growing up in a Southern California beach town, school choir was a mandatory part of our curriculum in primary school. We students dutifully learned the requisite songs, and performed them for our parents and wider community during the holiday season. I can still remember my eclectic fourth grade chorus teacher Mrs. Hoops standing off to the side of one of our Christmas concerts at our local mall, passion in her eyes, hands waving gleefully, while us kids belted out our best rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus”. Despite the ever-presence of palm trees and warm, salty air, the Christmas carols stuck in my head for the entire month of December marked a sure sign that it was, in fact, the holiday season.
Choir performances – and the familiar tunes that often accompany them in the wintertime – can evoke a sense of nostalgia for those of us living outside of our home countries. Music is a special way we expats feel connected to our origins, regardless of where we’re from or how far we are from loved ones. Fortunately, many international schools in Beijing carry on the choral tradition as music departments put on concerts and performances of their own year-round. At Harrow International School Beijing (Harrow Beijing), for example, the Carol Concert is a school-wide event featuring students from upper and lower schools, the school’s show choir, an auditioned a capella group (called Apri Canentes), a staff choir, and even includes audience carols in the festivities.
Beyond performances of the seasonal variety, my own interest in choir waned as I entered adolescence. Admittedly, I opted not to continue choir once it was no longer required. While we’re not all going to be the next Celine Dion, choir can give kids and teens that like to sing the opportunity to express themselves in a unique way and is a great way to build confidence. Indeed, Jenny Finch, director of music at Harrow Beijing, explains that singing at the school is promoted as an important part of everyday life in which everyone can participate. “We don’t expect every student to turn into the next opera or pop star, but we do try to encourage them to believe in the voice they have and learn how to use and develop it so that it is the best it can be. Singers are made, not born,” she says.
We spoke to two Apri Canentes students on how the music program has shaped their time at Harrow Beijing, about their upcoming Christmas performances, and the role they see music playing in their futures.
17 year-old Tiger Nie (China) has been a part of Apri Canentes since Year 10, however he has also played in the school’s jazz band, as well as participated in Harrow Beijing’s show choir and orchestra. His vocal type is a tenor. While Tiger says he appreciates many different genres, he prefers singing folk music and playing rock and metal on the guitar.
Karen Fu (China) is also a part of Harrow Beijing’s a capella group. Additionally, the 17 year-old provides support for a Year 4 music class and plays cello with the string group of the school’s chamber ensemble. Her vocal type is mezzo soprano and her favorite music to sing is religious melodies with Apri Canentes.
What are the unique points of the upcoming Christmas concert? Do you get nervous?
Tiger: The Christmas concert is one of the biggest music events at our school. Personally, I really look forward to singing carols as their harmony oftentimes provides a soothing effect, especially after a very stressful term of college applications. I don’t feel nervous psychologically before a show; I am always enthusiastic about performing, but I occasionally get stomach cramps afterwards, which tells me my body was nervous. I overcome this after effect by eating and chilling with band mates.
Tell us about the music curriculum at Harrow. How have you grown in the last four years?
Karen: There are three parts to A-level: performing, composing and theory, and listening/analysis. It is interesting to see how I have developed; I found Bach chorales really hard last year, but now I can do them really fast and I have learned how to sing in harmony. [My music teacher] Mr. Staalberg is really good at explaining the techniques of music – he can demonstrate and improvise the parts on the piano. I have also been given lots of leadership opportunities, such as taking responsibility for concerts.
Tiger: You have to be well balanced in all three parts rather than focusing on one. I’ve grown through opportunities to sing. I auditioned three times for Apri Canentes so had to improve my skills in order to avoid being rejected a third time. I have really improved in my singing – I’m more aware of tone and pitch.
What have been the highlights of your experience in the music program?
Karen: FOBISIA (Federation of British International Schools in Asia) Music Festival. They gathered loads of people from British schools in Asia and we had three days of intense rehearsals before performing. This gave me an opportunity to work with students I hadn’t met before and perform music that we don’t have the instruments for in [our]school.
Tiger: Playing in [my first]jazz band. I play the guitar and occasionally the double bass in the jazz band. We played at many school events, concerts, and the Harrow joint concert with Harrow London where I accompanied the show choir for one song and played two standards with the jazz band. It was a memorable experience because it was the first time I performed outside of our campus since I joined Harrowfrom New Zealand. My improvisation on the track “Oye Como Va” is one of the best live solos I had ever played. It was great to see the Chamber Orchestra from Harrow London joining our school orchestra in that concert, though I was not in the orchestra at that time. I joined a year later when I picked up the double bass.
Singing at the Ritz-Carlton for Christmas [the last two years]with Apri Canentes was also memorable. These are great opportunities to showcase the results of our efforts and represent our school in a public event. The best part though? We get a free buffet!
What kinds of challenges have you encountered?
Tiger: Forming [my own]bands at Harrow. [We play] classic rock, country and alternative rock bands. We play at almost every school concert and outdoor events such as the Autumn Fayre. We never really had a bass player so we had to develop different ways around that using different performers. I convinced a guitarist to fill in on bass, but this friend migrated to Australia soon after. One keyboard player offered to split the keyboard with the lower register playing a bass guitar sound. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job, as bass is of paramount importance to any genre of music. I have always been the bandleader, gathering musicians, setting up rehearsals, and arranging music.
Karen: When I started A-level, I didn’t really have time to practice, but as music is still part of my A-levels I had to make time. This made me organize my homework time better.
Do you think musical talent is inherent or learned?
Tiger: Learned. When I was in Chinese primary school in Grade 4, I scored 0 in music, the lowest score in Beijing. Now I am doing Music at A-level and am on course to gain a high grade.
Karen: Learned. I don’t think I am very talented, for example, because I don’t have a very good sense of rhythm. But I have learned to overcome this by using various techniques. I wasn’t in choir in primary school because I failed the really strict audition in Year 3. Music was a regular part of the curriculum but we only sung, there was no theory.
What has being a part of the music program at Harrow meant to you?
Tiger: Music allows you to make friends with lots of interesting people; it’s a different way to socialize. [It’s been an] integral to my development of music theory and musicianship – music history is really interesting and gives me a better understanding of how music has developed through time.
Karen: I have met people who I wouldn’t meet if I didn’t take part in the music program.
Will you continue studying music in university?
Tiger: Music will be my minor at university in the US; I plan to major in chemistry. I have applied to lots of schools, my top three being University of Chicago, Yale, and Northwestern. I chose to carry on my music studies because it’s fun, and it has always been an important part of my life and I would like it to always continue.
Karen: For one university that I have applied to, the course combines music and psychology. For the others schools, music is not part of the course but I still intend to participate in music activities.
How can music education be improved in China?
Karen: It would be great if there were more workshops open to the public available in Beijing so that we could mix with a wider community of musicians.
Photos: courtesy of Harrow Beijing
This article originally appeared on page 38-41 of the beijingkids December 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org