Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Speech Choir

"Wait… What exactly is a speech choir?"  I must have asked this same question at least three different ways when I was first told that I would be in charge of one.

Various people went to a lot of trouble to explain.  The head English teacher, Madam Azimah, showed me video clips, competition rules, and a sample script or two, and the students who had been in previous years' speech choirs were called over to answer my questions.

Everyone seemed very confused by how confused I was, and I didn't really get less confused the more they talked.  However, the competition was only two months away, and since I at least know how to run auditions, run them I did.  I spent almost six hours sitting and listening to student after student reading the same short passage aloud and singing the Peace Round for me.

I whittled the list down to the 34 students with the best ability to project their voices and stay in key, posted the results, and almost immediately started holding practices.  To my dismay, none of the other teachers had the time to help out, beyond giving advice when I needed it.

For the first week of practice, I was more or less flying blind by the seat of my pants.  Some of the students had had experience with small speech choir shows and choral speaking (a similar concept), but this would be the first year that our school entered a full-fledged inter-school speech choir competition.

I had no idea where our performance script was supposed to come from, so we didn't have anything to practice on.  Instead, I practiced looking like I knew what I was doing.  We chose a name for the group (the Bright Stars), and we chose a conductor from among the students, as per competition rules.  We sang the Peace Round in four parts; we practiced reading book passages aloud in unison; we discussed how to arrange the choir on a stage.

When eventually Azimah told me that I was expected to write the script myself, I got some practice in panicking.  I can write essays, research papers, poetry, and even some slightly decent prose, but speech choir was a genre I was totally unfamiliar with.  Thirty-four students and a supervising teacher were relying on me now to produce eight minutes of cohesive, inspiring, and informative performance material!

I finally broke down and stopped acting like I knew what I was doing.  I came to practice that night empty-handed and simply admitted to my choir that I just didn't know how a speech choir script should go.  Could they help me?

Indeed they could!  That night, we decided on a topic - globalization - and spent the whole hour brainstorming ideas for it.  I agreed to write a short and simple essay - at last, something I knew how to write! - provided that a small group of the students could help me turn it into a real script. 

Over the next few weeks, the students worked with me to transform the content of the essay into something fun and engaging, with choreographed movements, song excerpts, solos, and mock conversations between different parts of the choir.   [In the picture: the evolution of our Globalization script]

And for almost two months, the Bright Stars met for a solid hour of practice every day.  We practiced while the script was still evolving, while attendance was decimated by conflicting activities, while the rain poured and the sun beat down, and while our practice space was invaded by bugs, cats, martial arts, and mass medical procedures.  We practiced even when the conductor was not available, and I came to learn the rudiments of conducting myself.  We practiced yet more as the competition approached.

A little over two weeks before the competition date, we were told that our script - which we had fully refined and memorized at that point - was breaking some of the new rules for performance. We had to totally rewrite parts of it, make up new words to three popular songs that we had included, and have the entire choir re-memorize it.  And still we soldiered on.

At last, the morning of the competition arrived - Monday, April 25.  Our school was hosting the event, so the Hall was packed with chairs and decked out to the gills with fancy skirting.  Bus after bus slid through the gates, unloading the uniformed choirs of ten other Elite and Premiere schools, from all around three districts of Terengganu.

I was happy to see a couple of the ETAs with their schools: Kelley Whitson and Lynn Elharake!

The Hall was filled, the judges were seated, and the welcome and introduction were read out.  First place would be awarded RM1500, second place RM1200, and third place RM1000; and two of the top three choirs would be eligible to perform at the state level - in front of the Sultan of Terengganu!

The Bright Stars were slated to perform fifth out of eleven.  We watched nervously as each of the first three choirs displayed increasingly impressive performances.  We then ran outside for some last-minute, knee-shaking preparation, and finally we heard the call to the stage.  I hurried to the back of the Hall to stand with a crowd of supportive Lembah Bidong students, and we watched our choir file serenely onto the risers.

The Bright Stars outshone themselves.  They smiled wide; they spoke with enthusiasm; they moved in unison.  They projected their voices with clarity and confidence, and they sang more in tune than I had ever heard them sing.  After each song, the crowd of students around me erupted in applause.  I could have burst with happiness and pride.

I ran and met them coming off the back of the stage, and we celebrated with relieved hugs, cheers, and high-fives.  We then settled down again hopefully to watch the rest of the choirs do their piece.  There were some incredible performances (Lynn's school did great, and Kelley's school was amazing!), but I didn't spend time worrying about our chances - I knew that my team had done their own absolute best.

The prize-giving ceremony opened with the obligatory long speeches, followed by the awarding of consolation prizes to the eight schools who didn't place.  When the last of these schools was announced, and we realized that we hadn't been called yet, my choir shrieked and hugged each other: our school had made it to the top three!

Later, we gathered on the stage to hold up our bronze medals in front of the cameras, grinning from ear to ear.  We may not have gotten first place, but we rocked our performance beyond all expectation, and we represented our school with pride.  For a first-time choir coached by someone who had just recently answered the question "What exactly is a speech choir, anyway?", I'd say we did pretty darn well!

UPDATE (JULY 18, 2011):

Finally, here's the video!  Presenting the Bright Stars' performance of the original script "Globalization", at the district level competition (unfortunately, it's rather noisy):

And, in an unexpected plot twist, the speech choir's story is not over!

Further adventures in: "The Speech Choir, Part Two"


  1. Congrats, to you and your speech choir!!! Especially after overcoming so many hurtles, it's great to see ya'll do so well. (Can't wait to see the video...so I can figure out what a speech choir is.) Thanks for sharing. :-)

  2. Way to go Elise! There's always something new to learn here in Terengganu. You are definitely a fast learner! I would like to invite you to my school one of these days to share your experience with my students. My school is just five minutes away from LeBest.

  3. Thanks you guys! :-) I'm really proud of them!

    Hi Naiman, that sounds like it could be a great opportunity to organize an activity between the schools. What age are your students?

  4. I was in an all male speaking choir once. Which was a long time ago. It was exhilarating when we took runners up when our school has never even place in it's history.

    It was all good fun and it certainly brought us all closer together. The training was hard and I can remember practicing in the hot afternoon sun for long hours to much frustration. But in the end, it was very worth it.

    Thanks for the great post, it brought back many memories.

  5. Reminds me of a cheering squad. It seems that your group did an outstanding job!!! Congratulations!!!

  6. Hi, can I ask a copy of the lyrics of this speech choir? Thank you..