By Inez Tan

Music teacher Ms Charmaine Chiang remembers the first time she took Raffles Voices on an overseas trip. The year was 1995; she had founded the RI Year 1–4 choir just three years earlier, the boys were travelling to Spain as part of the Alava Choral Festival— and they were quite literally singing for their supper. Every night, the Voices would visit a different village to give a performance in the town hall or in an open space, and after every concert the mayor of the town would treat them to dinner at their best restaurant.

Ms Charmaine Chiang (front row, left) with Raffles Voices in Spain (1994)
Ms Charmaine Chiang (front row, left) with Raffles Voices in Spain (1994)

‘We performed in about ten concerts throughout the trip; it was quite tiring but the boys were very happy,’ Ms Chiang recalls. This despite the fact that the trip took place just before the dreaded end-of-year examinations—although the Secondary 4 students stayed behind in Singapore to prepare for the GCE O-Levels, their juniors gamely hauled their study materials to Europe—‘Half their luggage was books! One of them even brought a thick Chinese dictionary!’—and kept asking their teachers when the study periods were. Even so, the Voices managed to put up performances so rousing that their audiences responded with standing ovations and tears, as recorded in the memorial publication of the trip, Musica.

Eighteen years may have passed since the trip to Spain, but this commitment to achieving excellence—and making music both beautiful and sublime—remains a hallmark of both Raffles Voices and their Year 5–6 seniors in Raffles Chorale. And this spirit has won them fans and accolades—this year, both choirs were awarded a Certificate of Distinction in the Singapore Youth Festival Arts Presentation, and both choirs had consistently achieved Gold and Gold with Honours at the Singapore Youth Festival Central Judging in the years preceding the recent SYF reform.

Both choirs have also earned international recognition after winning top prizes in countries like Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia. Just last year, Raffles Chorale made a name for itself at the 3rd International Krakow Choir Festival, where it came in first place in the Sacred Music Category, which is usually dominated by European choirs. In December, Raffles Voices—which was at one time ranked the top 11th Children’s and Youth Choir in the world by Musica Mundi—followed their seniors’ footsteps to Poland, where they attained the second-highest score and garnered two Gold Diplomas in the Youth and Chamber categories of the 3rd Krakow Advent & Christmas Choir Festival. Just five days after that, they added another feather in their cap at the 20th International Choir Festival of Sacred, Advent and Christmas Music in Kaunas, Lithuania, where they won the Grand Prix, a gold award and two special jury prizes.

Raffles Voices celebrate their win in Lithuania (2012)
Raffles Voices celebrate their win in Lithuania (2012)

The sheer number of their achievements may lead one to believe that it is competitiveness, or a hunger to win, that drives the choirs hold themselves to such high standards, but Mr Toh Ban Sheng, the choral director of both Raffles Voices and Raffles Chorale, begs to differ. ‘I encourage my singers to pursue the intrinsic rewards and experience magical moments in music, to experience perfection onstage,’ he explains. ‘If we do not put up our best performance, even if we do win an award, we’d feel like we have let ourselves down because we could have done the music more justice.’

Mr Toh, who has received numerous Conductors’ Prizes, as well as the Young Artist Award in 2006, first conducted Raffles Chorale in 1998. He was new to conducting then—he used to teach secondary school Physics—and the Chorale was still very much an underdog in the choral scene. However, that all that changed in 1999 when they unexpectedly blew all competition out of the water to win the coveted Best Choir of the Year award at the SYF Choral Competition. Shortly after, Mr Toh left Singapore to pursue his Master’s degree in the USA with the assistance of a National Arts Council Bursary. Upon his return in 2003, he took on Raffles Voices, his first SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) all-boys choir.

Most of the world’s most well-known boy choirs come from a younger age group—the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir comes to mind. Their members usually begin training when they are about 8 years old, and reach their peak when they are about 12. In RI, however, boys only join the choir at the age of 13.

‘The main challenge of conducting them is the unexpectedness of their voices,’ Mr Toh explains. ‘Sometimes, two weeks before the concert, a soprano’s voice can crack and he becomes a bass. Therefore, it’s important for the boys to be very versatile and read music fast, so they can change parts even two weeks before the concert. A lot of the singers would have sung in at least three sections before they graduate.’

Raffles Voices was only officially set up in 1992, ten years after Raffles Chorale was incepted in tandem with RJC in 1982. Ms Charmaine Chiang was the teacher-in-charge of the RI Military Band when she was asked to set up Raffles Voices by Ms Miiko Tan, who was then the head of Pupil Welfare.

Unsurprisingly, many of Raffles Voices’ first members originally hailed from student groups like the Military Band and Chinese Orchestra, but in the beginning even they thought singing was ‘uncool’. In time, however, the boys gradually warmed up to the idea of singing and came to love the art form. One year later, in 1993, Raffles Voices debuted at the SYF Central Judging under Ms Chiang’s baton.

1993 is also the year RI Year 5–6 Chemistry tutor Mr Tham Zi Sheng (RI, 1996; RJC, 1998) joined Raffles Voices. ‘I chose choir mainly because I like to sing; I was very shy when I was in primary school, so I wanted to see whether I had the courage to perform on stage,’ he says. ‘It felt like we were building something; we didn’t have much,’ he adds, when asked about the early days of Raffles Voices. ‘Ms Chiang also did a lot for us. When I was in Secondary 1 we went to Garden Hotel to do some Christmas carolling for the guests, and when we came back to school, Ms Chiang treated us to sandwiches and other foods. It was like we were one big family.’

Mr Tham Zi Sheng (2nd from left), Mr Toh Ban Sheng (4th from left) and Ms Charmaine Chiang (2nd from right) attending a choir alumni event in 2008
Mr Tham Zi Sheng (2nd from left), Mr Toh Ban Sheng (4th from left) and Ms Charmaine Chiang (2nd from right) attending a choir alumni event in 2008

As a result, it is almost inevitable that the members of the choirs form close ties with each other, and it is these lasting bonds of friendship that the alumni cherish most about their years in Raffles Voices and Raffles Chorale. Both Mr Tham and his junior, Mr Lee Jun Cai (RI, 2000; RJC, 2002)—who is coincidentally also a Year 5–6 tutor (he teaches Mathematics)—still keep in close contact with the friends they made during in their days in choir. In fact, Mr Lee remembers the chairman of his cohort coming up with a concept he dubbed ‘1-URV’ (Love) in their final year. ‘It stands for 1 United Raffles Voices,’ he grins.

In 2001, one year after Mr Lee’s graduation, Voices celebrated The 1-URV Affair—an event that saw the alumni returning to Bishan to put up a concert commemorating the tenth anniversary of Raffles Voices’ founding.

Friendship, solidarity and the love for music is also very much the reason why Mrs Jasbir Koh, who currently teaches Knowledge Skills in Year 5–6, was drawn to join Ms Charmaine Chiang as teacher-in-charge of Raffles Voices in 1999. ‘I guess I’m not a singer; I’m more of an administrator,’ she shares. ‘In 1998, Ms Chiang asked me whether I would be interested to help her coordinate a trip to Vienna, and I said yes. And when we got to Vienna we did very well. That was the turning point for me—I could see effort the boys put in; their success, their dedication. I embarked on about five competitions with Miss Chiang, and later on, we made a name for ourselves in Bratislava, in Vienna, and even in Hawaii. My passion is for choir—I love the music, and I love the students.’

Formerly an English teacher in RI, Mrs Koh transferred to RJC before the two schools reintegrated. In 2008, she became teacher-in-charge of Raffles Chorale.

‘With Raffles Voices we tend to be very nurturing; maybe because Ms Chiang and I are both mothers, I guess,’ she smiles. ‘We deal with teenagers who are a bit more mature in Raffles Chorale, so our focus is more to nurture the leader in our students, to empower them.’

This is why the students in Raffles Chorale are given a greater degree of autonomy than their Year 1–4 juniors. One of the highlights of every Chorale concert is the appearance of their a capella groups, PUNCH and FRINGE, whose members arrange and perform music that range from contemporary pop hits to themes of Broadway musicals. In fact, popular singersongwriter Corinne May (RGS, 1989; RJC, 1991), one of PUNCH’s founding members, told RI’s ONE alumni magazine in 2010 that her fondest memories of her time in school came from the times spent with her friends singing songs in a ‘Perfectly United in a Neurotic, Corny and Hopefully Harmonious way’. PUNCH— whose alumni also include local thespian Emma Yong (RGS, 1991; RJC, 1993)—usually comprises eight to ten singers who serve up a cappella renditions of popular music in a skit with a healthy dose of madcap humour.

PUNCH performs at the choir's annual concert, Vocal Delights (2012)
PUNCH performs at the choir’s annual concert, Vocal Delights (2012)

FRINGE, on the other hand, is not an acronym. Presently, the student-directed group presents a cappella choral music that juxtaposes against the pop genres undertaken by PUNCH. This is rather different from how it was when it was started in 1993, when a group of Chorale members ‘had an epiphany to start another group that will involve the rest of us’ after watching PUNCH rehearse for a performance.

‘We wanted it to encompass as many interested choir mates as possible, so we didn’t have any formal auditions,’ founding member Tan Chiaw Ting (RGS, 1991; RJC, 1993) recalls. ‘Humour is the name of the game, and we had fun taking in great ideas from everyone. Everyone pitched in, from story-writing, making sure we sang in tune, to costume design and lighting. I remembered we had a “running” gag of a “dashing” young man racing across the stage at different times (pardon the pun). We were a corny bunch! We had our share of tempers flaring and differences of opinion, but in the end, friendship and perseverance triumphed.’

The first FRINGE performance was successfully staged at the RJC Chorale’s annual concert, and the group performed later again that year during a Europe tour. During the trip, the members would ‘break out in impromptu songs’ while waiting for buses and during other free periods. It was an experience Chiaw Ting has many fond memories of: ‘I still remember the goose bumps that came when a few voices became many, and we blended in such perfect harmony.’

Both Voices and Chorale embark on overseas trips on alternate years. Through these trips, the choir members gain exposure to cultures rather different from their own and get a chance to develop independence and resilience. The students also grow and mature a lot through training together and taking care of each other.

‘When I bring the choir overseas, the flight attendants would tell me that they have never seen such a well-behaved school group before,’ Ms Chiang says. ‘The boys are very disciplined— they try their best to rest on the plane, and when we reach the airport they study their scores.’

Many of the festivals that the RI choirs participate in take place in Europe, and the drier climate means the singers spend a lot of their time overseas drinking warm water and wearing masks to prevent their throats from becoming dry. During the Chorale’s 2010 trip to Belgium, however, the masks unexpectedly became the source of unnecessary attention. ‘The locals thought we were wearing them because of the volcanic ash eruptions in Europe at that time,’ Mrs Jasbir Koh recalls. ‘I later went on television to explain that we wore masks not because of the ash, but because we were not used to their climate and our voices get affected by the dry weather. After that, we could see the difference in their treatment towards us. They were so friendly, and after our performance they gave us a standing ovation, and we won first prize.’

Mrs Jasbir Koh (front, 2nd from left) with Raffles Chorale and the trophy they won in 2012
Mrs Jasbir Koh (front, 2nd from left) with Raffles Chorale and the trophy they won in 2012

And that, according to conductor Mr Toh, is one of the greatest recognitions any performer can get. ‘If you are a good servant of the music, people will be touched by your performance,’ he says. ‘I think the highest compliment is when people are moved by the music. At the end of our performance of Lux Aurumque in Poland we saw the audience wiping away their tears, and we were very, very touched. And during our performance in Lithuania last year, the audience burst out in cheers after the last note, almost like they had been sucked into the performance together with us. Because of that, we won the Special Audience Prize. I think those were special moments, when people were spontaneously influenced by the music we make.’

Both Voices and Chorale receive recognition in other ways too; composers from Europe and Asia who have listened to their performances live, or came across their videos on YouTube have offered to write music especially for them. Since the successful first world premiere of commissioned work in Vienna Votive Church in 2010, the Raffles choirs have been premiering new works every year to rave reviews. Also in the works are more local concerts—some of which are staged for charity—and a compilation CD for both Raffles Voices and Chorale. Chorale’s last album, What Sweeter Music, was produced in 2006.

What resonates better with the human heart than the human voice, and what better way to make vocal music than with others who love to sing?

Perhaps Mrs Jasbir voices the feelings of the RI choir members past and present best: ‘I treasure the friendship, I treasure the music, I treasure the students, the conductor, Ms Chiang… everyone is important. This is why I’m very passionate about choir.’

As for Ms Chiang, her experience with Raffles Voices is also something she deeply cherishes.

‘Raffles Voices is my baby!’ she says, laughing. ‘I started the choir and I’ve watched every batch of students grow. I’m very happy that some of them have continued to sing, but even if they don’t, the alumni are still very close to each other. I believe Raffles Voices has a special place in their hearts; just as it has a very special place in my heart.’