SA Singers ready to ‘wow’ Mangaung
07 December 2015
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now and we’re chatting to another one of the conductors who will be on stage at the finals of the Old Mutual National Choir Festival and don’t forget, tickets are on sale, you can pick them up through Computicket. Vumile Nomanyama, welcome, nice to have you with us.
Vumile Nomanyama: Thank you.
BB: You were just telling me before we started recording about some of the challenges that you face as a conductor and I think it’s an incredible story and we’ll get into that in a moment. But tell us a little bit about the choir that you’re bringing to the NCF finals, tell us a little bit about the history of the choir.
History of SA Singers
VN: I’m conducting SA Singers from KZN, Durban. The choir was started by Vusi Khanyile, the then conductor who started it from Durban Serenade. He’s been conducting the choir, but 2013, that’s when he left the choir and I was asked to come, it was just before they went for Melting Pot.
We did fairly well, but it was just a satisfactory performance. Then I was kind of like, through talks with the executive committee and the choir, persuaded to stay on up until 2014. Let’s see what’s going to happen in 2014 and then other things unfolded. So that’s the choir that I’m bringing and it has a history and you know, well respected and with the kind of spirit that I have.
I try my level best to bring it to par and kind of maintain the standards, or take them to greater heights, but the challenge is, as I alluded to you earlier on, is that I don’t stay with the choir. I only meet them only for two weeks in a stretch of say three months.
Challenge of being based away from the choir
BB: Let’s give a bit of background here. The choir is based in KZN. You’re based in Gauteng. You conduct a choir of this magnitude and this standard, because it is a good choir, let’s not beat about the bush.
BB: You conduct it and I use air quotes, ‘remotely’, which is not actually the case, but you don’t spend much time with the choir in the build up to a competition like this.
VN: Yes, that’s the challenge and it takes well dedicated people to try and maintain and be able to produce the kind of music that we produce because when we’re on stage, adjudicators are not interested in whether you stay with the choir or not. They expect you to perform to your level best and that’s what we always strive for.
The one, two, three minutes that I spend with the choir, it has to count the most, that’s what I always preach to them to say, it doesn’t matter, we cannot go on stage moaning to say we didn’t have enough time to rehearse. No, our fans, the people that love us there, the music, they love us, they want the best and nothing but the best from the choir.
BB: That’s interesting that you say that. At the end of the day, every choir has its challenges. Some are greater than others and all that matters, as you so rightly say, is the few minutes that you’re on stage and what the adjudicators and the audience see. Not that they don’t care about what you went through to get to that point, but that is all that counts.
It’s all about that performance
VN: Exactly, so it’s vital for choristers to understand the type of a person you are and your expectations, when you get in front of them, because that’s where you start to drill coordination and rapport, you call it rapport, the rapport between yourself, the conductor and the choir. If there’s an orchestra on the stage, the orchestra as well.
This workshop that we are attending now, it’s a preparation for such, to build that rapport so that when you’re on stage, you know exactly what to bring with the choir and blend it well with the orchestra. Then you produce a wow performance on stage. Not a ‘wow’, an exquisite performance on stage.
BB: How much pressure do you feel going into a finals weekend like this?
VN: Well, with me, I always give myself the challenge of saying, every choir that I will be competing against is a challenge. Because I know, as much as I’m preparing my stuff, they are also working very hard preparing their stuff. I always say to my choristers, you are as good as your next performance because the one that you’ve just won is past and gone, it’s history, so you need to focus more on what’s coming.
I always compete, not with other choirs, but with myself, from the previous performance. Every competition, if I may put it that way, every competition for me, it’s the same, not the same as in it stays one level, but it’s the same because I always go with that mentality of saying, I need to bring my best, nothing but my best. All the time I have to up the game.
BB: Is that how you win a competition like that? Is going in, not to beat the opposition, but to beat yourself and if that’s good enough on the day to win, then so be it. If you better yourself from your previous performance and on the day there was a choir that was better, you can live with that or how do you approach a competition like this?
VN: That’s what I’ve been cultivating with all the choirs and preaching with all the choirs that I’ve worked with; that it doesn’t matter what the other choirs are doing in their corners because you cannot match whatever they have. Even if we are far better than them in terms of material that we have, but we always have to try and bring something better than what we brought the previous time.
It means every time you go to a competition or even a concert, you have to bring your best because people, when they come to this performance. They pay and you don’t know who is in the audience because the choirs that we have comprises of students, people who are into music, they want to kind of go to the next stage and they want to be identified and stuff like that.
So, you might find that in the audience there is a director of an opera house somewhere and when you perform and you perform your level best, to give your level best, you can be identified, get a scholarship or a chance to be taken in. I always preach that everything, every moment that you spend on stage, it has to count, you have to make it count. Forget about your competitors, but bring nothing but your level best on stage.
BB: That’s one thing I love about the Old Mutual National Choir Festival is that it’s a gateway to bigger things and if you look at a lot of musicians in South Africa today and successful musicians, many of them started their journey here.
Choral music can be a great platform to a singing career
BB: It’s a great opportunity for the average, every day chorister to use the pay off line to ‘do great things’.
VN: In fact, I know quite a number of prospective, I would say, singers and those that have made it through to great heights, they started here, with Old Mutual Choir Festival and they developed and they’ve grown, some were identified here and they were taken for professional training. You need to remember that some of these kids, they’ve got raw talent, natural talent that we as conductors try to polish.
It’s like you get a raw diamond and you polish it up and you put it there for it to glitter and then someone notices and then they take it from there and develop it into greater things. It’s a great opportunity, as you’ve mentioned, Old Mutual does things in a great way. So it is indeed an opportunity for our up and coming choristers to get noticed and be developed further.
BB: Where did your love for choral music stem from?
VN: It goes as far back as my family. My father and my mother, they were both singers and then in church, that’s where it started because I come from Old Apostolic church, so it’s that thing of, starting to sing in the choir and then you start to conduct. I started conducting at the age of nine, I was nine years I stood in front of the choir in church and started conducting.
Then it went on and on and I went to do music, I went abroad, I did some courses and furthered my studies, so it has been growing and developing and every time, it’s quite an experience, when you get such an opportunity, like this, to share what you have, your knowledge, not only with the choristers, but with the audience and people out there who admire your work and everything.
Conducting from a very young age
BB: Can you remember the first time you stood in front of the choir at nine years old, can you remember that?
VN: Yes, it’s still vivid in my mind, I stood next to my elder brother who was then conducting the actual choir and then when I took over, the focus shifted from him onto me and then he just disappeared. He vanished and then he left me alone on stage and I finished the song, fortunately it was a song that I was well versed with. I conducted the song up until the end and everyone was surprised and it was a ‘wow’ moment.
BB: And that’s where the journey started. One thing I’ve picked up at the conductors briefing is that there’s a wide variety of conductors. There are guys who have been at this competition for many years and there’s some, this is their first time. But there’s a camaraderie between the conductors.
There’s a willingness from the guys who are more experience to impart some of that knowledge onto the youngsters and pass that on. I find that amazing, it’s a competition at the end of the day, you want to beat that guy, but you’re helping him and I love that. Do you find that there is that common bond between the conductors?
VN: There is, because, like I’ve just alluded to earlier on, some of these conductors, some of us have been privileged to have gone to school, formal school and you get that background and information and everything, the experience in these things.
But there are those that are just, they’ve been choristers and then from being an ordinary chorister, you teach them, maybe the conductor teaches them how to play and then from there, they kind of like, out of their own interest, push themselves to learn more and then before you know it, they are conductors, they conduct choirs.
They stand in front of the choir and wave their arms. So through these workshops, they still need the motivation and assistance and it’s very difficult to ask one of the big guys, the big giants that have been there for 15-20-30 years, but us, we mingle and talk about these things.
We kind of like show them one or two things and then it makes it easy for them to absorb and go and try it. Then that’s how they develop and with these formal workshops like these, it gives them assignment to go and work more on their skills. When you see the competition, on the competition day, if you are not an experienced musician, you might not notice who has been and who has not been.
Because of this workshop because it helps a lot, it assists a lot because it’s trying to bridge the gaps between the conductors so that when you are on stage for the finals, it’s not a matter of who has been there for 10 years and who has been there for three months. It’s a matter of the delivery, the choir, the conductor and the orchestra together.
Great to see young enthusiastic young conductors
BB: Pulling it altogether. By what you’ve seen from some of the young conductors, are you impressed and satisfied that the future of choral music in South Africa is in a good space?
VN: Very much indeed, because what I’m saying, you find these enthusiastic young conductors – of course I’m still a young conductor myself…what I’m trying to say, those that have just joined in. I’m also looking forward to seeing more of them coming on board.
Because if we leave it to a few people, that means that when those people vanish, then the choral music will collapse. In order for us to maintain and gain the momentum, we have to bring more and more and I like the manner in which, especially at large section, the league that they’re doing.
It means now that there is no such a thing as an obvious qualification to the finals, you have to work hard, from the provincial elimination, still has to qualify. Even if you made it, if there are still five more provinces to come, you just have to pray because it’s rated in terms of the marks that you receive at the end of the day.
Each and every performance, it has to count, your target shouldn’t be 65 or shouldn’t just be, I want to be number one, no. Because you could be number one in your province and in province B, there’s a number six that you are tie with. Obviously you won’t make it, so in a way, trying to uplift the standard as well.
BB: I’m looking forward to the performance at the finals as I’m sure you are as well. It’s not too long to go now, best of luck with the final polishing of that diamond, so to speak and we look forward to seeing you shining on the stage.
VN: Thank you very much sir.