Not everyone can say they’ve represented the country in an international competition and won. Fortunately for me, I had this experience last month as member of a choir. When you see your country’s flag hoisted as your national anthem plays throughout the stadium, it’s hard not to be emotional.
I joined the Ateneo Chamber Singers (ACS) in 2008. The last time the group competed and won was in 2006. When our conductor Jonathan Velasco brought up the idea of competing again, like most of us in the choir, I was a bit apprehensive about it. Aside from traveling costs, it would mean hard work, pressure and stress. When you join a contest, you’re in it to win it. What if you don’t win? In a country where it seems almost every choir that competes abroad brings some award home, there is that pressure to not return empty-handed.
In spite of my apprehensions for ACS, ultimately it was easy for me to go along with the idea. The selfish part of me started thinking only of myself, of my personal reputation. I had nothing to lose. This would have no bearing on my career. I would sing my best and if it wasn’t good enough, so what? I’d get to travel with friends and have a good time. It wasn’t going to be my name out there but the choir’s. And that of our conductor.
I felt more nervous for Jojo. He’s known to many as the President of the Philippine Choral Directors Association (PCDA). He’s an expert in the field of choral music, he gets invited to judge in the most prestigious international choral contests, gives workshops on conducting and choral music all over the world. He’s one person who could very well just rest on his laurels. Instead, he’d be putting himself in a position where his colleagues and people he’s lectured to can say, “okay, let’s see you walk your talk. Let’s see what you can make YOUR choir do.”
It’s either this reputation thing meant nothing to him, or he was that confident about our choir’s abilities. Through most of our rehearsals though, it was hard to believe the latter, because he was critical about everything – our diction, intonation, harmony and so on – as of course, he had to be.
We had a running joke in the months leading up to our tour. He told us a story of a choir that competed and everything seemed okay until the last part of the song where they messed up, and one of the judges gave them a score of 50/100. From then on, every time he didn’t like how we sounded, he’d tell us “hay naku, cinquanta, cinquanta!” And when things got really bad, he’d “give” us a score of 40. We’d all just laugh about it, but sometimes we also felt we were still so far off the mark we were aiming for.
Although he’d rarely show he was very pleased with our sound, Jojo wasn’t panicking over our progress either, so we wondered what was really going through his mind about us. Several days before our departure, we asked him how he felt. Was he nervous about the competitions? Any message for us as we prepared for the trip?
What he said came as a heartwarming surprise, and probably the best thing I’ve ever heard him say to us. He said that what he felt was excitement. He was excited to let the European audience hear us because he has been bragging to them about us for a long time, and finally we were going on this trip. He was rounding up his friends in Europe, telling them to make sure to catch our performances.
I teared up. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did. It was like you have this very strict parent whose approval you so badly sought, and you find out he’s been proud of you all along. I guess it didn’t matter much to him whether we won in the competitions or not. He believed in us more than we did ourselves, and wanted to share what we could do with the rest of the world. Winning would be a bonus.
I, on the other hand, wanted for us to win. I wanted it more than I dared to admit to myself for fear of disappointment. I’m not sure how my other choir mates felt. There would be prayers during rehearsals where some of us would say, “Lord, we want to glorify You through this competition.” I’d always have a hard time meaning those words because my idea of glorifying God was through other means that didn’t involve my own selfish desire to achieve something.
But was I really being selfish if this wasn’t something I was doing for personal glory? What was I doing this for?
A bit of introspection led me to, perhaps quite disappointingly, not a very profound reason but at least I knew it wasn’t selfish either: I wanted our choir to win for Jojo to earn the recognition I thought he deserved. I wanted victory for him.
And hey, it wasn’t a bad thing to want. After all, there was a bit of glorifying God in it, too, because I know Jojo to be a spiritual person, one who gives of his time to his parish church even if it means having to wake up very early to accompany the choir in a simbanggabi mass. Someone told me he’s also very devoted to Mama Mary.
So secretly, that was my prayer. “God, I want the ACS to win for Jojo,” I said. “He believes in You, he makes time to serve You. He’s shared his talent and knowledge with us and with the rest of the world. It would make me very happy for Jojo to win.”
In Latvia, when our choir was declared Category Champion for Musica Sacra and we all ran to the stage jumping, screaming, hugging one another, I caught a glimpse of Jojo on the wide screen, and saw him crying as he was being handed our trophy and gold medal. It was like God had tapped me on the shoulder to look up, and His voice could not be any clearer. An answered prayer, without a doubt. That’s when I lost it and started crying, too.
We also won in Spain. No "ugly cry" on Jojo’s part this time. He stood among the conductors of other winning choirs, smiling as he held the biggest trophy. Standing alongside my choir mates in the audience section, I beamed with pride for him.
Our tour ended with a stop in Puig Reig, a little town in Catalonia that Jojo first visited as a member of Saringhimig Singers. He was just a teenage chorister back then. This time, he was returning as a conductor, bringing with him his own choir to meet the same people who had hosted his stay 35 years ago. He came full circle.
The competition victories were just the icing on the cake. One of our basses, Pastor Rainier, led us a number of times in prayer saying we looked forward to the ways in which God would reveal Himself to us through this tour. And He most certainly has, for the tour and all the preparations for it has fed our souls in so many ways. A month after we've come home, our hearts are still overflowing.
One of the ways we are hoping to give back is through our Thanksgiving Concert this Saturday, August 30 at the Ateneo High School Chapel. The concert is for free. We really hope a lot of people make it and share in our joy.
I'm so glad Jojo convinced us all to do this. What a ride it has been. For him and for all of us. Thank you, Sir Jojo, for taking us on this journey with you.
My name is Trina Belamide and I'm a songwriter and record producer.
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