Penang’s Very Own Choir

loading The choir is very diverse in terms of age, nationality and gender.

To complement the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra, the mixed choir Voices of Penang Philharmonic was rejuvenated in 2016.

The ensemble is a capella-focused and performs a variety of genres, including classical, pop, gospel, scripture, as well as in the Chinese, Tagalog, Japanese, Latin and German languages. “Our strength lies in classical music,” says choir mistress Ong Geok Cheng. “The choral repertoire is selected by our artistic advisors Lim Ai Hooi, the founder and artistic director of ONE Chamber Choir Singapore, and Yong Chee Foon, an accomplished Singaporean conductor.”

Once a song choice is settled upon, the composer arranges the score according to the four choir parts of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Soprano and tenor are categorically described as high singing voices for women and men respectively; alto and bass are the lower variations.

Ong Geok Cheng.

Lim Ai Hooi.

Yong Chee Foon.

“The singers will be grouped following their voice types, and under sectional leaders to study and practice the musical piece before all the four parts come together to perform as one. You’d be surprised how interesting the arrangements can be. Just like an orchestra, each of the four parts will have the opportunity to showcase their unique voices.

“Some songs can be difficult to master; the advisors coach us on the singing techniques, as well as on how to improve and keep with the rhythm. Unlike solo singing, choral singing is about blending and harmonising the voices; the passion and love for music; and most importantly, teamwork.”

Singers do not have to be musically inclined to be part of Voices, says Ong. “As long as they are able to sing in tune, they are welcome to join us. It may sound easy, but for some, this may not be the case. A few of our singers have vocal tutors and half of them have knowledge of music theory, but the remaining 30% are without music background and will have to be guided.”

The choir has organised two main concerts, A New Beginning and Take Flight, since its revival; and Ong has big aspirations for its 2019 edition. An outreach programme is in the works, she reveals, although nothing is officially set in stone yet.

“Voices is continuously expanding; when we first started, there were only 20 of us. But by the second and third auditions in our first year alone, the number grew to 25.” The ensemble is now 40-members strong with a ratio of 60% female to 40% male. “Our singers are very diverse in terms of age, nationality and gender. Our youngest singer is 15 and the oldest is about 40, and we have a couple of singers from the Philippines and Japan as well.”

Afifa Hanafiah is Voices’ latest recruit: “I think we as Asians are pre-dispositioned to take part only in activities that are deemed highly intellectual, and because of that, we don’t pay too much attention to the arts. I’ve always loved singing, but my mother never encouraged it so I never took up vocal lessons. There’s a lot of technicalities to singing that I underestimated before joining the choir. We all listen to songs, but we don’t really understand how these singers do the things that they do or how they are able to perform so well on stage.

Breaking the gender stereotype in choir.

Voices of Penang Philharmonic during their inaugural concert “A New Beginning”.

“Choir has its own specific technicalities that teach you to control your voice, and to learn proper breathing and singing techniques. I don’t come from a musical background so I had my doubts about auditioning for Voices at first, but everyone here is willing to teach you. I’ve learned a lot from the alto group, and I do feel like I am able to recognise the notes and scores a bit better now. It also helps to perform in an ensemble if one struggles with stage fright.”

Our singers are very diverse in terms of age, nationality and gender. Our youngest singer is 15 and the oldest is about 40, and we have a couple of singers from the Philippines and Japan as well.

Echoing Afifa’s sentiments, Jeremy Cheong adds, “We don’t have many bass singers in Penang, but regardless, a lot of effort and a good deal of motivation go into making each of our performances a success.”

Bass member Teh Kean Hooi also weighs in: “Different people perceive music differently. The pronunciation of words, whether they are in British or American English, is one example, because as a choir, we’re quite ethnically varied and are products of different education systems. This is on top of the many different dialects and slangs spoken by some of our members who come from other states. So, to ensure vocal harmony, adjustments, understanding and patience are vital.”

To find out more or to be part of Voices of Penang Philharmonic, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook. com/VoicesOfPenangPhilharmonic.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.

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