Hand in hand they sought to open the doors — of challenges and opportunities, to help and to get help. Alvin Thomas tunes up with the students and their mentors at the TAISM chorus to connect with the wider world
The hands are knocking. Brother, will you let them in? Sister, will you let them in?” sang the students from Muscat – and those who are visiting from around the world – in chorus as they took the notion of helping one another to a whole new level.
It’s a concept that deserves much attention, especially in today’s world where instability and abhorrence fill our living space. Thankfully, we form part of a country that accepts and respects one another.
These were the two topics – opening doors for those in need and celebrating life in Oman with a focus on the Omani door – that were in focus at the 15th Annual TAISM Festival of Choirs held in Bosch Center for The Performing Arts at The American International School Muscat on March 17.
More than 150 students – of whom 60 are from TAISM – took part in the events. And the students – who came from afar as UK and Austria, as well as from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and many other countries – joined hands together to create musical symphony.
Melanie Brink, who has been with TAISM for 16 years as the choral music director and artistic and educational director for the festival, said in a pre-event chat: “One thing that’s unique about the festival is that it’s not an auditioned choir but rather students who represent their home choral programmes from schools from around the world.
“It could be just seven students, 14 students or even 40 students. But they’re coming here to represent their school, and it’s not a competition. They all come prepared with some music that they’ve been practising.
“And when they get here, they all collaborate as one. That is one large chorus that they’ve created out of all these little groups,” she said, pointing at the group practising inside the hall.
“They all work to polish the music during these days under a guest conductor from the US – Kyle Pederson. It’s a very unique event in this part of the world,” she added.
And she’s not wrong. In March of 2004, it was TAISM that founded the first-ever Festival of Choirs held in the Middle East, and it was a vision of Melanie and TAISM’s director Kevin Schafer.
“It’s not a competition,” she exclaimed. “We design these activities during the event to help them connect with one another.”
The corridors of TAISM were also decorated, with doors designed to look like traditional Omani doors, to promote the theme of helping one another and thinking about inculcating new values in the students and those who witnessed the event.
“The Omani door also symbolises the host country and how much pride and honour they take in having a door that is so beautiful and ornate. The textures and colours that we see in the doors inspired us to go with that concept,” Melanie said.
The doors were created by TAISM parents who spent nearly 20 hours designing and building the beautiful structures.
“We are also connecting it to the theme of the year, which asks them to think about their own hands and what stories they tell, and what adventure their hands have been on. It may not be literally but symbolically as to what their hands can do to help one another.
“Think about it: The hands can slam the doors or open them; push the doors or pull open. And our unique feature this year is that in addition to bringing a conductor, we have also brought a composer who has written three songs specifically for this event,” Melanie added.
And just as she said that, the choir broke for lunch. That’s when we caught hold of Kyle Pederson who was in Oman from his home in Minnesota, USA, to teach the students their songs for the big night.
His three songs – Hands Are Knockin’, These Hands Know A Better Way and Silver Linings – went down well with the students who had practised them for several hours.
He chimed in: “In a way all songs are related in a way that they all explore the theme of doors opening and hands that can support and be used in non-constructive ways.
“The choir can use this as an encouragement for themselves but also to the audience who is listening to live in to our call.
“There’s something about these Omani doors that’s special,” said the composer who was visiting Oman for the first time. “And the fact that hands knock, which is quite literal but also metaphorical, in a way that we pose questions if the doors are opening or closing, and what our responsibilities are.”
During the weekend, participants engaged in approximately 15 hours of rehearsals – polishing works they prepared in the weeks leading up to the festival which also coincided with the school’s 20th anniversary.
Singers learned about endurance, voice care and choral excellence. TAISM families hosted the visiting students in their homes, and organisers designed special ways for the students to connect with one another through community-builders, challenges, and social activities.
In a chat with us, Andrew Elbin, the teacher who is in charge of logistics of the festival, said that the students were all gaining a lot of insight from each other.
“The memory of the concert will be something these kids will take home from all of this. It has the power to stay with you as it has many of the senses included.
“They’ll also remember Oman, as they’ll keep in mind the hospitality shown by the Omani people involved in TAISM’s community that comes out. The door is the centerpiece of the festival and it is indicative of the culture here.
“Omanis – as we all know – are very welcoming.
“And that’s a feature that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.”