Qatar Youth Choir and Qatar Junior Choir have been making waves with their prowess wherever they have been able to execute their skills. Behind all these budding artistes lies a great teacher, who spares no stone unturned to hone their skills.
Alena Pyne is that formidable force. In this exclusive interview with Community, she dilates on her passion, how she set up the platforms, the challenges to keep it going, and future prospects of the young ones under tutelage.
Alena, tell us about yourself, the passion for choral music and the rites of passage for Qatar Youth Choir and Qatar Junior Choir?
I’m from Ireland. In 2011, my husband and I moved to Qatar with our three children aged 11, 9 and 7. I currently work as a music teacher in Kings College Doha. I have sung in choirs for as long as I can remember and have studied music all my life.
My passion is for all music genres, but I always had a strong desire to lead my own choir and Qatar presented me with the opportunity to do so. The voice is an amazing instrument which can really touch or speak to a person, draw from a listener hitherto hidden feelings and help people to heal. Singers sing texts, which is unique among all the instruments that exist.
The main difference between a winning performance and what can appear to be an identical performance by a runner-up performance is the emotion, the intention of the words, the feeling and interpretation of the song by the performer.
When we arrived in Doha, we quickly discovered there was no comparable choir available. I had a strong desire to fill that gap and started to explore choral directing in 2013, and founded Doha Children’s Choir.
By the end of our first year, we had 43 singers, all from families who, like ourselves, had migrated here on work contracts. We started the 2nd year as Doha Youth Choir, a name much preferred by the singers. By the end of our 4th season in 2017-18, Doha Youth Choir was operating in the space of a national youth choir and I made the decision to rename ourselves Qatar Youth Choir.
What challenges have you faced building up your choirs in Doha?
The first challenge is exposure to market factors and losing singers because contracts end and families move away. Fewer children are studying or participating in formal music education; therefore, the majority of singers coming to both choirs have no experience. But as referenced by the song High Hopes, we are like the ant who manages to shift the rubber tree plant! Out of necessity, our ‘choir offering’ has evolved to include specialist music theory classes and we have also expanded the team to include a vocal coach. In 2015, I founded Qatar Junior Choir as a feeder choir that will eventually enable singers with some experience advancing to Qatar Youth Choir.
The final challenge has been attracting Arabic singers to the choir. As the level of interest in choir rises and we perform Arabic music more widely, I hope this will soon change.
How many nationalities figure in your choirs and does the cultural mix hinder progress?
Between both choirs our current members hold passports from India, Sri Lanka, Ireland, England, France, Canada, South Africa, Spain, USA, Egypt, China, Poland, South Africa, Indonesia, Lebanon, South Korea and Belgium. Culturally, there are, of course differences over such a wide geographic span of nationalities, but this is precisely what is wonderful to experience. Through our, all such differences melt into one lovely family of like-minded people, who love music and who are ready to help me or help another singer or to do something additional so as to keep our choirs moving forward. We have the most supportive families which is truly our greatest strength.
How has the choral landscape evolved since you started your choirs?
Founding Qatar Youth Choir in 2013 definitely captured the attention and interest of many, especially when I first started to take them to meet with other choirs in the world. Since then we have hosted many choirs and always offer workshops for the other choirs in Qatar with those visiting conductors. It is through this sort of experience that the wider choral effort in our schools, churches and community will become stronger and more successful.
While interest in choir is growing among the independent national schools, it has been slower to evolve than the explosion of interest that has occurred at private international schools where participation in choir has dramatically increased. Three years ago Head of Music Stephanie Gomaa launched Doha College’s Qatar Primary School Choir of the Year Competition, and Sonja Park and Joris Laenen staged Qatar’s first National Music Competition. This summer, Qatar was awarded the bid to host the World Symposium of Choral Music in 2023. The choral world here is getting bigger and maturing.
What type of music do you perform?
As well as world music, we sing a lot of Arabic repertoire. It was proving difficult to find good arrangements of Arabic songs but during last summer we were fortunate to connect with Maestro Barkev Taslakian from the renowned Fahya Choir in Lebanon. Maestro Barkev’s mission is to share Arabic songs with the world and spread the opportunities for Arabic songs to be performed.
We now have access to fresh and improved Arabic song arrangements thanks to the generosity and vision of this great man and his organisation.
Together with our Patron international soprano Felicitas Fuchs Wittenkind, Maestro Barkev has agreed to be our Patron for Arabic Song. This means that he will always try to guide us to deliver the best performances of this exciting repertoire.
How do platforms such as the Qatar Youth Choir and Qatar Junior Choir support young children who have a talent for music and singing?
I believe there is talent to be found everywhere. It just needs to be awakened in the hands of passion for that talent. When I think back to my favourite subjects at school, they were without exception, all led by passionate teachers.
Does choir support the overall personality of a child?
There is a place for every type of personality in choir. In fact, it’s a great place for timid children to gradually grow their confidence levels as choir is a very safe environment to spend time in. There will be stronger and weaker singers in every choir group. In this way, those who are more timid by nature have time to find their way, and gradually their confidence grows so they can sing out more. There are many roles in choir that singers can aspire to and more recent recruits learn much from watching and hearing the more experienced ones.
Choir teaches discipline, method, patience, how to plan music study around academic studies. Choir helps children to improve their listening skills so as to hear each other. Singing in harmony together for long periods can create an environment where singers are likely to be more measured in their language with each other in their approach to issues that arise between them. Over time, choir can help shape a student into a more rounded, confident and studious person. Those that want to remain in choir will always make sure that their school grades don’t slip! When everyone settles in, there exists a wonderful spirit, where life-long friendships can develop.
Tell us more about the work that the Qatar Youth Choir and Qatar Junior Choir do here in Qatar and overseas?
All students have choir training twice weekly with vocal coaching, separate sight-reading sessions and every student attends weekly music theory classes. Our students write annual Board theory exams and we also take Board choral exams. These exam awards contribute additional UCAS points to our singers applying to UK-based universities. We operate on a shoe-string, and to raise funds towards our trips we perform locally as much as possible.
We have performed all over Doha for National Day events, for special embassy functions and for private events. As both choirs work extremely hard to give off their very best, their reward is the opportunity to travel abroad and meet other choirs.
In our six short years, we have undertaken trips to Berlin, Hamburg and Wolfenbüttel in Germany, and Latvia, Croatia, Poland, Austria and Portugal. The choirs have had the opportunity to work with really great conductors and give concerts with other choirs.
The singers have such great memories from their experiences and many are still in touch with these other singer families. Travelling most certainly has broadened our singers’ minds and opened them up to so many more aspects of this choral craft that I can predict with full certainty that our best is yet to come. I just hope it will be a very long time-a-coming!
What are the performances that stand out in your memory?
Ooooh… having the immense honour of performing our National Anthem for His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and his distinguished guests at the opening of our stunning Qatar National Library is top of the list. Next, was representing Qatar for the first time, in Lisbon at the World Choral Expo last July. Qatar Youth Choir also had the honour to sing the first song ever sung inside the Museum of Islamic Art last April. Performing in a war tunnel under Zagreb city, the acoustic in this special space made us sound truly amazing!
There was great excitement when we were invited to perform for Qatar’s Ambassador to Croatia, too, at the embassy. In Vienna last April, performing together with the Vienna Boys Choir was also a very special moment for us, especially given that four of our boy choristers have been awarded scholarships to join this incredible choir.
One more recent memory stands out for me — last September, when Qatar Junior Choir gave a very touching performance to residents of a home for the elderly in Germany. I felt so proud of these singers aged between 10 and 13 and how they interacted so kindly with these very elderly people of varying mobilities and handicaps, language appeared not to matter. It was quite poignant to observe our young ambassadors being so very caring of others.
Can you comment on the evaluation that was done by the International Federation for Choral Music (IFCM) in Qatar prior to Qatar being selected as the host nation for the 2023 World Choral Symposium?
Clearly, the International Federation for Choral Music sees great potential for growth in choral interest in both Qatar and the Arab regions. As Qatar prepares for the FIFA World Cup in 2022, they will be taking into account Qatar’s ability to accommodate thousands of visiting choral singers and stage wonderful events at our wonderful and varied venues across the peninsula. Of course to organise such an event will take an enormous amount of planning and manpower but when Qatar and it’s incredibly resourceful and forward-thinking business leaders put their minds to it, led by my colleagues Giovanni Pasini, Jennifer Taynen and myself, I am confident Qatar will stage the best World Choral Symposium yet.
From your perspective, where do you see the future of the choral scene in Qatar and the region?
The timing of the bid was excellent as over these past years, interest in choral singing is growing and our audiences are also growing. This is not just because of Qatar Youth and Junior Choirs activities, but over time all involved in choir-life have become more active. Due to the awarding of the World Choral Symposium, more people in Qatar are becoming aware of the burgeoning choral scene here. Exactly because of this winning bid, there are other major initiatives happening that will be announced soon, and which, we are confident will provide greater stability for this art form from which further growth and development will follow.
However, we really need the financial support of the State of Qatar and the commercial world so we can enhance and build upon what we are doing, attract the best workshop leaders from abroad and start to compete on the world stage.
At the same time, one must recognise and thank the Music Square/FNAC through Yamaha Fifty One East who have supported us from the very beginning, the Swiss International School Qatar who take care of us in so many special ways, the Millennium Hotel Doha that has been so generous in taking care of our visiting choir accommodation needs and who always step in to help us where they can.
I should mention the Saracen Group for their encouragement and support these past years and last but not least, I must express my gratitude to Ms Sonja Park for her belief in me and encouragement and her most generous support of us whenever possible. I wish to also thank Qatar Airways and Qatar National Tourist Council for enabling us to travel to Lisbon last summer to perform for the IFCM on a world stage with other fantastic choirs. We simply could not have attended without their immense financial support.
I cannot wait to discover what’s next!
n Qatar Youth and Junior Choirs perform Winter Nights 3 today together with Marhalikans Vocal Ensemble. For tickets, please contact the choirs.
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