Saturday, 15 August 2015

SCJ Interviewed by the Times of Malta

by Kristina Chetcuti

Children should not be pushed to sing Let It Go while dancing to the music with “ugly” gyrating moves and, instead, be encouraged to join choirs, according to a choral conductor.

Marouska Attard, 30, from Xagħra, choral conductor of youth choir Schola Cantorum Jubilate, believes primary schools are not attaching too much importance to voice training and choir singing.

“When we were kids we used to sing a lot at school but, nowadays, children sing along to a You Tube clip on an interactive whiteboard,” she said.

And these days, at school prize days, children sang along to CDs rather than performing as a choir, Ms Attard said, adding that the way they moved seductively on stage was “ugly”.

“Singing Let It Go from the Disney movie Frozen won’t enrich you. It’s just pop. It won’t give you anything… On the other hand, classical repertoires give you goose bumps,” she said.

Recently, she sang Bach’s Mass in B Minor and when it finished she was crying because it was over.

She recounts a piece of historical gossip: when King George II attended the royal performance of Handel’s Messiah, he was so overwhelmed by the Hallelujah Chorus that he stood up.

Classical repertoires give you goose bumps

“Of course, the whole court followed suit and it has since become tradition that when Handel is being played the audience stands up,” she said, adding that, in Malta, audiences tended to do this a bit reluctantly.

Together with her brother, Stefan, she set up the Schola Cantorum Jubilate choir 15 years ago when they were still teenagers. A priest based in Xagħra had asked them to animate the 11am Sunday Mass. “Get your friends together and set up a rock band or something,” he had told the siblings.

“We were against a rock band but, instead, we quickly organised an a cappella choir,” said Mr Attard, 32.

Even as children, they were highly influenced by their grandmother, a huge fan of Gregorian music. Affectionately known as Gozo’s Iron Lady, nanna Guliana Attard was the choir’s first supervisor; they’d rehearse at her house and she’d correct their Latin pronunciation.

“She’d come with her walking frame and give us directions while we’d be singing Renaissance music,” Mr Attard recalled.

They got together a group of 10 friends and prepared a repertoire of sacred music, mostly made up of British choral music, “not the heavy, operatic stuff”.

They have since become a household name in Gozo and Malta and successfully taken part in international choir festivals. In 2003, their Carols by Candlelight concert was nominated as one of the best 10 European concerts by The Guardian.

“A choir session is like a gym session, it’s so much fun – you become hyped up,” Ms Attard said.

She eventually read music at the University of Malta, became a music teacher at Gozo’s school of music and went on to read for a Masters in choral conducting at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, in Cardiff.

She recalled that, before all that, she had a tough time convincing her mother she wanted to study music at A level. “She was worried: music won’t take you anywhere, she kept telling me.”

This was very typical of Maltese parents, she said. “Music is considered a dead-end career but, hopefully, our academic mindset is gradually changing,” she said.

She returned from Cardiff with a mission to get a 30-strong choir of young people together to inspire others to sing. “Audiences abroad are very warm and receptive,” she said, adding that the majority of those who attended their concerts were mostly foreign. Maltese audiences tended to be stiff and rarely sang along.

Her brother describes the reaction to choirs in Malta as something of an “antikalja” – old junk. “We need to change it,” they said, almost in chorus.

Here’s hoping they will manage to inspire Maltese audiences to stand up when Handel’s Hallelujah is next played.

Benefits of choir singing

Silvana Sultana, 40, from Xagħra, Schola Cantorum Jubilate’s administrator, lists a multitude of benefits brought about by singing in a choir.

“For children, it is very beneficial because, scientifically, youngsters who sing in a choir tend to be more alert. Plus, it’s the perfect training ground for commitment, discipline and teamwork,” Ms Sultana said.

“Canta che ti passa, they say – let out all your steam with singing and all will be better,” she said, highlighting the fact that, while singing together, all choral singers had the same heartbeat.

Lanċa ġejja u oħra sejra?

One of the problems in Malta is the lack of folk songs.

“When a group of Maltese come together there is not much they can sing apart from Lanċa ġejja u oħra sejra, which is not even Maltese,” Stefan Attard pointed out.

Choirs sing mostly in churches for acoustic purposes. Mr Attard said the sound of their singing varied according to the venue.

“When we sing in chapels, it is extraordinarily amazing.

“That is the beauty of choirs, it’s never the same,” he said.

Can anyone sing?

Marouska Attard believes everyone has the ability to sing.

“If you’re not in tune, it doesn’t mean you can’t sing.” Everyone can join a choir because “every human being can sing and maintain a beat. It is only if the talent is not nurtured that it’s lost”.

Schola Cantorum Jubilate regularly holds auditions although it titles these as: discovering hidden voices.

“Our next one is in October and everyone is welcome to join,” she said.

The only restriction is that the rehearsals are held in Gozo on Saturdays. On Sundays they still animate the 11am Xagħra Mass. “We’re all Gozitan, and you will not find young people in Gozo during the week.”

For more information contact Stefan Attard on 7905 5207 or send an e-mail to

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