Friday, 14 July 2017

Searching for the Spirit of the Great Heart

I spend most of my time in Singapore getting boys to stop singing, gumboot dancing, using chop sticks as drum sticks, humming...

But how do you rearrange genetics? How do you rewire a spirit?

I don't know if Singapore was ready for us. The hushed silences that fell over every audience we performed for were an indication of a culture used to restraint and controlled responses and our boys are anything but that. But we know that we have been a complete success here. Clearly. We won the most contested category of the Orientale a lot. And I could probably devote an entire blog to the feedback given to us by the judges, who are from all over the world. We have also had countless messages, friend requests and groupie conversations with (mainly girls) who were left speechless by our performance.

We have been hailed as the ultimate ambassadors for both our country and our faith.

People don't know how to respond to us.

Imagine the following scene -
So our hotel is next to the president's residence. I am looking out over the forest that surrounds the place where deals are made. We are right in the middle of the busiest part of the city. The other day we were doing our mass choir performance at a nearby shopping centre. The boys got changed into the African music gear - vests, trousers, gumboots and animal skins and marched their way out of the hotel and down one of the most well-known streets of Singapore, past the president's house, to one of the most impressive shopping centres in the city centre. I snuck ahead to watch peoples responses.

I remember as a child being told by my older cousins about the TV series Shaka Zulu (because I was way too young to watch it). They were most impressed by the beautiful, muscular Zulu impis but clearly didn't know they had a name so they aptly named them 'shakas'. And the shakas had spears and were brave athletic soldiers and you didn't mess with them. And we played a game called 'The shakas are coming' in which we re-enacted epic battle scenes from the tv series.

Watching our stunning, confident boys walking down that road, I wanted to shout out 'the shakas are coming!' Despite the curious, sometimes shocked responses given by those we passed, our boys walked like warriors. Some bystanders surreptitiously took out their phones to film them and others looked like they felt that they were living in a parallel universe - one where giant Africans towered above them, their confidence intimidating.

But do you know what the best thing was? All the boys belonged to that impi. Because all of us are different in this country. No matter our colour or culture, in this country we are all ambassadors for South Africa. We carry with us the dream for a country that is constantly working at finding a sense of harmony, and from chats I have had with tour guides here, no country, no matter how modern and first-world it is, has the whole cultural/racial thing right.

Every time our boys have been on stage together, we forget about who overslept, who forgot to wash their vest, who lost their wallet, and we see the unity of young men who have put their differences aside in order to make something beautiful.

Our tour comes to an end tomorrow and I am sorry that I haven't written a more 'touristy' blog but I'm not that kind of writer. There are hundreds of pics on Facebook for those who want a blow by blow account of our tour.

This blog is a memory bank for our boys, I'm sorry I wasn't able to write more, but flip - we haven't stopped. One day the boys might actually read this blog and when they do, I hope they will be transported back to this fascinating place, with it's strange foods, smells and customs and they will remember, with pride, the joy and passion that they brought to Singapore.

My boys to me you are all the 'shandis' and I will never forget how privileged I was to be your mom for ten days.

To long..and thanks for all the rice.

God bless,
Emily Stockil-Smith

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Going straight to the pool room

So we've arrived just in time for The Great Singapore Sale. Aren't you parents and your credit cards lucky?

One thing I have noticed over the last week is that every day another boy turns into Nick Slaughter from 'Tropical Heat'. Every morning a new vibrantly loud Hawaiian shirt makes its way to the lobby for roll call and my 'Tropical Heat' theme song reboots for the umpteenth time. 'Anywhere the wind blows...' Apparently the source of such "kitchieness" is the Zara sale going on down the road. Thank you Zara, thank you!

Before the boys get back, I must apologise and share some advice for the future. Parents do not tell your children not to get you gifts. The peer pressure is too much and they will eventually succumb. I have watched this happen - a boy will be walking innocently down an alleyway of a market when suddenly the fever hits and he simply must buy his family a gift. He has ignored the urge for too long and now it is overwhelming him. He becomes sweaty and starts to shake.

Because his very sweet mother has told him not to buy her a gift but rather use the money 'for experiences' he has absolutely no idea what to buy her. And so what does he do? He fixes his eyes on the first shiny, plastic, touristy thing he sees - like a plastic plaque, or a shiny Singapore key ring, or a snow globe (oh the irony), or a huge mug (that is going to take up half the space in his luggage), or a completely horrendous t-shirt saying 'I love Singapore' with a Merlion on it. And we all know that it's going straight to the pool room.

Now here is where my apology comes in - I have tried my absolute best to try to stop them from buying - and I'm afraid I have to use this word because nothing else will suffice - “kak”. But, oh my goodness, these boys have a knack for sniffing it out! One magpie in particular, little Delport, will sniff out the best trinkets in any market and I am constantly walking up behind him saying, 'Delport put that down and step away from the gold George Washington playing cards!' But I can’t be everywhere all the time. It is with a heavy heart that I interrogate the boys after a day of shopping knowing there have been some fatalities.

I do, however, know that there are some very eager families counting down the days until their boys return home and no matter how horrendous their gifts are they will be treasured forever because of what they symbolise. For many of these boys this trip has been their first fledgling flight into the open world - and let's be honest - it hasn't been an uneventful tour. The gifts they bring home will forever be reminders to parents and boys alike of the huge strides they took towards manhood during this tour. And that, I suppose, is all that matters.

Next time just ask for a pashmina...

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Mission Impossible

Picture the scene -we've squeezed out our rehearsal time for the Grand Prix to the absolute last minute. The Grand Prix is where the top choirs in the competition are awarded their prizes for whatever category they have won and the overall winner is announced. No one knows beforehand who has won what awards. All one knows is that one has done well in order to be asked to perform in the Grand Prix.

A makeshift rehearsal venue in our hotel basement had been set up for the rehearsal. Sweaty boys are coming screaming into the hotel lobby and are literally being thrown Macdonalds by staff and are told not to shower but to get changed and get straight onto the bus. It is chaos. Chips are spraying like salty fountains (all over the hotel floor) and boys are madly jamming elevator buttons in order to speed up the process.

It is in this chaos that my phone starts ringing. It is Sqaliso. His voice is strained. 'Ma'am we're stuck on the elevator.' I reply, 'What? Like the elevators aren't coming down from the sixth floor?' 'No ma'am, we're stuck ON the elevator.'

Stage 1. Denial

'Are you sure Squirrel? Is it seriously not moving. Are you sure you haven't stopped momentarily?'
'Maam we are really stuck. It isn't moving.'
Several boys pummel out of an elevator, half chewed burgers in their mouths, red gumboots knocking out some nearby Indians.

Stage 2. Anger

I march to the reception desk and inform them of what has happened. Some wild scuffling. I then go back to the four lobby elevators. But they all seem to be working. They continue to spew frantic boys from their bowels but no sign of Squirrel. Where are they?

A message comes through with a list of names of boys stuck on the elevator - Ngcobo, Baso, Mabude, Habile, Hughes, Correia, Makhatini, Zungu, Zulu and Ganas.

'Where are our boys?' I angrily inquire. The flustered receptionist replies that our boys are stuck on the maintenance elevator outside the hotel. They had obviously spotted it in the basement and thought it would be the quickest way from point A to B.

By this point, news has spread to the rest of the staff and boys. Their maintenance people are not going to be able to fix this, they have had to phone the elevator company. With rising frustration we ask how long this is going to take. Messers Botha and Lombard continue loading boys onto buses while Brett Albor and I set off to try and find this elusive elevator.

Stage 3. Bargaining

A dash across the hotel parking lot into the hottest stairwell in the world and we find the elevator, its information panel eerily blank. This is a dead lift. I start to call out to the boys and they can just hear me. They respond and the tension is palpable.

'Boys emergency services are on their way. They should be here in a few minutes. I promise we'll get you out soon.' I then offer to sing to them - I was thinking of 'Raindrops on Roses' but they decline my offer.

I pull up a chair and sit right next to the elevator. People come and go. An attempt is made to force the doors open. It is unsuccessful. We continue to wait.

For those who are parents out there the feeling I'm about to describe will be familiar to you. It's that feeling you get in the middle of the night when your child cries out to you because they are worried and you know that no matter how tired you are you will do anything to comfort them. That's how I felt. As the first hour ticked past I would hear the occasional 'Ma'am are you still there?' To which I would reply, 'Yes my boys I'm here. I'm not going to leave you.' Never have other people's children felt more like my own.

I would also occasionally hear the odd burst of laughter - it was clear that these boys were not going to let this break them. Our boys were drawing on every ounce of their comedic selves to keep spirits buoyed.

Stage 4. Depression

By this point, we started getting messages from South Africa (who at the time were actually able to watch the live streaming) to say that the show had already started. We then contacted Marshell to say that they were going to have to make a Plan B. Bearing in mind that two of our major drummers - Ganas and Hughes were stuck as well as several main gumboot dancers Plan B was going to have to seriously wing it.

Brett and I just stood, fighting the feeling of defeat, utterly desperate that we couldn't do more.

The elevator specialist finally arrived, from the looks of his condition I would guess that he ran all the way from wherever he came. He managed to force the door open but, to our dismay, we discovered that the elevator was stuck between two floors.

Another eternity passed while a new plan was hatched.

The technician then climbed down the elevator shaft onto the roof of the the elevator and tried to pry the ceiling open. We watched, sweat dripping down our necks, as his efforts were in vein, the ceiling would not budge.

Stage 5. Acceptance

Earlier on in the evening Brett found the security room that has a camera in the elevator. With an utter feeling of hopelessness I followed him into the little security cubicle and watched our boys.

Again, another parenting thing... You know when you arrive early to pick your child up from school and it offers you the opportunity to watch your child secretly and you are just overwhelmed by such a feeling of pride that it catches your breath? Well that's how I felt.

There were our boys, so packed in the elevator that there was no room to move and they were stoically chatting and encouraging each other. There was a total sense of peace and absolute trust that we would make a plan to rescue them. There was no hysteria, no drama, just absolute steadfast resilience and faith.

By this point the entire choir were sending messages of beautiful love and faith over our chat group and I was astounded by their fortitude. They had managed to make a plan and had accepted that their brothers would not be joining them on stage. It was in that moment that I couldn't have cared less if our boys had come stone last, because in that moment, all of them became champions to me.

Brett handed me the elevator phone so that I could speak to the boys and I told them I could see them. There were suddenly nine beautiful faces staring around wildly trying to find the source of the camera and many smiles to us when they knew that we were watching over them. I then started to pray. And as I ended my prayer the hotel manager ran in to say that they had found a way to release the brake of the elevator to get them to the second floor and free them.

A miracle.

Brett and I ran faster than we've probably ever run (not that Brett and I do much running), screaming up the stairs in time to watch our boys be freed. If you have watched the footage of that moment, my hysterical screaming is the main soundtrack to the clip. There are no words to describe how Brett and I felt.

Those boys got up and down six flights of stairs in record time and our bus driver probably broke every traffic law in Singapore to get us to the Grand Prix venue.

We started hitting red traffic lights so we prayed that God would open up the road for us and we literally hit green lights for the rest of the way. Brett and the boys sprinted off to the backstage area as Bonita and I shakily made our way to our seats.

And the boys got there in time. I still can't believe it. They spent a total of one hour and 45 minutes in the lift.

And they performed beautifully.

And they won the Folklore Category with the highest score in the whole competition of 92.2% and they came second in the Category B (Equal voices - Youth) with a score of 81.3%.

But their real moment of victory came before this, it came on a broken, hot elevator when nine boys still found reason to smile and have faith despite their (almost) impossible mission.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Life of Brian

I thought I would begin this post with a dear little anecdote.

On the morning of the all-important Folklore category of the competition, Marshell Lombard (Director of Music and Conductor) came to me at breakfast and whispered confidentially that he had a peculiar experience the previous night. He told me that a woman wanted him to pay 50 dollars to talk to him and he couldn't believe that women would charge that much to talk... Sigh.

He shared his experience with the rest of the staff at the breakfast table and the story just got better and better.

So the night before our Folklore category our beloved conductor was fighting a bout of insomniac nerves. He decided a quiet beer could help calm the nerves, so he found a vaguely decent looking bar and walked in. He was immediately surrounded by twenty women who would not let him leave. At this point, an innate fear of large groups of cloying women started to surface.

The women asked for his name and he says he said 'Jared' but in his head, he was thinking 'Brian'. Brett (Alborough) and I decided that he would have definitely said Brian because Jared is not a good nightwalker name. Marshell asked the barman if these women were prostitutes and was relieved when the barman said that they weren't. There's nothing like a trustworthy barman.

At some point one of the women told Marshell that it would be 50 dollars (R500) to 'talk'. Marshell couldn't believe the price one has to pay for a decent conversation these days! He asked if it was necessary to pay for a conversation and the woman was most insistent. Brett then pointed out that 'the talk' she was referring to was for further negotiations of a very non-conversational manner. After Brett pointed this out, Marshell realised that the women had been touching him the entire time and one kissed him on his cheek. When the penny dropped, Brett and I were in hysterics and Marshell was looking slightly violated. You just never know with people .... Marshell by day....Brian by night.

So back to the main event.

Yesterday was the all-important Folklore performance. Our boys were phenomenally focused and their performance was incredibly energetic and exciting. I watched two groups before ours. They were both technically good, but the performance value of our boys was on another level. As a Drama teacher I obviously judge a performance on a completely different set of specifications, so for me, we were streaks ahead of the other groups, but I obviously can’t comment from a musicality standpoint.

Singaporean audiences are hard to read. They are a society who do not like to break boundaries. It is why they are structured, organised, clean and orderly, but it also means that their responses are moderated. One good sign that our performance was a success was the number of phones and tablets that suddenly went up to record on the opening line of our performance.

Our boys were dripping with sweat and were absolutely exhausted after their performance. Months of intensive rehearsal have led to this point and it is that moment of exhalation after something so fiercely important that one realises how much soul has gone into this performance.

Yesterday was deeply spiritual for other reasons too. Our day had started with low energy. In the morning we visited the two domes at Garden By The Bay. The adrenaline of the first two days had worn off and boys were starting to look a little ragged and fatigued. The combination of hot, humid weather outside and the icy air-conditioning inside is something our boys are battling to acclimatise to.

We arrived at the domes dragging our feet a little. To be fair, the idea of looking at flowers for a morning probably doesn't appeal to many teenage boys - unless you're my husband, who spent a great deal of his youth in plant nurseries with his mom. But he is an anomaly and he now works for The Gardener magazine...

When we entered the first dome - the flower dome - I suddenly wished my husband was with me. I find it hard to describe, but basically the genius Singaporeans have created several different biospheres from all over the world under one roof. From South Africa to the Mediterranean to California to an olive grove - all these different fauna environments are housed in one place. Loubser pointed out that the temperature and moisture levels are different in different parts of the dome, depending on the garden in that area. Mind-blowing. I didn't think I'd ever find myself in a meadow of orchards! It was also awesome to see one of the only plants that survive in my mom's garden - agapanthas - were also a firm favourite all over the dome.

Then onto the next dome - the cloud forest. This is a mountain climate biome - a seven story man made mountain, covered in vegetation from high mountainous regions. I seldom find man made things awe-inspiring and seldom experience the spirit of God in something that isn't natural, but when a society commits themselves to reflecting the creation of God in such a sensitive, magnificent and respectful way, one can’t help but tear up.

I watched the spirits of our boys lift as they entered that cool, oxygen-rich space. It was like they connected their batteries into nature's charger and suddenly all their cells were reactivated. Anyone who doesn't believe in God must surely believe in nature because there is no greater force of life than the spirit we find in God's creation.

And so that was yesterday's adventure. An unexpected experience of paradise, followed by the heavenly sounds of our precious boys. Today we compete in the Equal Voices category.

Cheers for now,
The Team...and Brian

Friday, 7 July 2017

It was the best of times...It was the worst of times...

Some guy wrote a novel that began with the phrase ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Dickens could have been referring to the start of the Kearsney College Choir Tour to Singapore to take place in the Orientale Concertus International Choir Competition. Few descriptions could be more apt.

And we are off!
To cut a long and anxious story short we left King Shaka Airport with a full choir. By the time we arrived in Singapore five of our soldiers had been felled down by bureaucracy. The Shabalala brothers' passports were safely in their mom’s handbag, Ganas and Mqedlana’s passports were due to expire in five months and Buthelezi’s passport went missing somewhere between the boarding gates in Johannesburg and arrivals in Singapore.

Our tour leader, Mr Botha, has only just returned from spending two days at the airport and embassies trying to make sure Buthelezi didn’t get deported. He and Buthelzi’s patience and resilience, when faced with the utter horror of cross continental admin, are to be commended. As too are the tireless efforts of various parents who have ensured that nothing short of a miracle has occurred. Ganas and Mqedlana will be arriving tomorrow morning just in time for our Folk music competition tomorrow night. And the Shababla brothers were able to join us this morning after some swift couriering of passports to Johannesburg.

This tour has not been for the faint hearted. Luckily our full battalion will be back in action in time for the most important day of the whole tour.

But we are also having the best of times. While Mr Botha and Buthelezi have been familiarising themselves with the benches in Changi Airport we have been having a grand old time.

We arrived at 6:00 am Singapore time while it was midnight at home. There is something truly ghastly about being served an airplane ‘breakfast’ of scrambled eggs at 10:00 pm. After a hasty collection of luggage while clutching our passports in the deranged manner of meth addicts, we pummelled our way into the humid world of Singapore.

And what a country. I will go into more detail throughout this blog, but my goodness the human race can accomplish something if they really want to.

If I could I would start a slow clap for the Singaporeans. They truly are a visionary and fearless society and so with bleary, sleep-starved eyes, we gazed out at this new world as our tour guide, Bryce, pointed out the major landmarks.

We arrived at our hotel, ate breakfast (again), unpacked, showered, rested and then headed to lunch at the local mall. It is at this point that I would also like to mention that the dreaded Kearsney Stomach Bug of 2017 also came along for the trip and the introduction of foreign foods, smells and tastes only made the bug happier. We’ve had a few victims on the trip but they’ve managed to soldier on like brave Kearsney boys.

If you are a Kearsney parent, it would have been our entry into the mall that alerted you to the fact that your son is now officially in Singapore. I have no doubt that many phones started beeping at the same time as ‘emergency’ credit cards, travel wallets and any form of financial bartering equipment were hastily swiped in the frenzy of virgin shopping mania. I have been at great pains to remind the boys that they are here for another nine days and they really don’t need to buy the whole country on the first day.

After the hysteria of our first jaunt of shopping was over we returned to our hotel for supper and the Grade 8s and 9s went to bed. The seniors were allowed to paint the town red until 10:00pm. I will be keeping an eye on the institution across the road, as the name, ‘House of Condoms’, doesn’t really paint a cosy picture of what goes on inside, or it might in fact be a little too cosy.

Day two heralded another day of airport-dwelling for Messers B and B. But we were off on an amphibious adventure with Duck Tours. We got probably the most unusual tour of a city one could ever have on remodelled WWII amphibious Vietnamese warcraft. We were thus able to see the city by both land and sea.

There is something very unnerving about launching a moving vehicle with turning wheels into a body of water. But it was an awesome way to explore the city. We were told many facts about Singapore during the tour but something which really stuck out for me was the way criminals are dealt with in this country. Singapore still has great British influences including the maintenance of capital punishment and, despite the fact that the death penalty is no longer a means of punishment in Britain, it is very much in full swing in Singapore. So too is caning…

If you have done some form of misdemeanour, you will have to face a certain number of canings. And they are seriously bad. To add salt to the wound (I just had to), once you have had a certain number of canes, a doctor will help to assist in your recovery…so that they can cane you again! And this goes on for as long as it has to.

Needless to say keeping the boys in line on this tour is probably going to be a lot easier than other tours. This incredibly strict punishment regime has also meant that every boy has received Panado from me no matter the ailment as I really don’t want to be arrested for drug-trafficking.

After our city tour, we headed for the Marina Barrage. This is a dam built at the confluence of five rivers and is one of the major supplies of water to the country. When the Singaporeans realised that in order to build the city and economy of their dreams they would need more water, they came up with the ingenious idea of damming up the rainwater that would ordinarily flow into the sea, pump out all the remaining water and then allow the dam to fill up with fresh water. And so now one of the most beautiful aspects of Singapore is also one of its most life-giving.

We then partook in a wonderful traditional lunch where boys were encouraged to eat local cuisine. I was most impressed with their willingness to try new things.

It was then off to the Sky Park. Undoubtedly one of the most impressive buildings in Singapore the Sky Park at Marina Bay Sands is phenomenal. The building is an incredibly stunning work of architecture with a surf board-like structure on the top which is the Sky Park. It contains one of the most breath-taking infinity pools in the world but sadly only guests can swim in it. After an hour of loitering around, taking pictures and trying to avoid sunburn, we were off to register at the competition venue.

The SOTA (School of the Arts Singapore) is fortunately a short walk from our hotel. We spent the afternoon registering and were then given the opportunity to rehearse for our public performance tomorrow in a shopping mall.

It was then a quick dash back to the hotel to shower and change and have a quick bite to eat. Most of us, unfortunately, fell into the fast food trap due to lack of time, but the sophisticated Matrics managed to find some delicious local cuisine, although Nhloso Zulu messed up his order and was left trying to stomach incredibly spicy green noodles!

It was then a long sweaty wait for the opening ceremony to begin. It was made more pleasant with the appearance of Luke Peinke (2011), a passionate Kearsney Old Boy, who has flown with his parents all the way from Australia to support our boys. It really was such a proud moment for our wonderful school and stands testimony to the incredible bonds that form when music brings people together.

During the opening ceremony we were treated to the mind-blowing vocality of the Raffles Choir. It was an excellent opportunity for the boys to be exposed to such a high level of vocal clarity and control. The choirs were then all warmly welcomed by the chairman of the Orientale Concertus International Choir Competition despite a fairly awkward faux pas where he greeted all visiting countries in their home language and for ours he said ‘welkom'. We returned 'home' for a last-minute rehearsal in the parking lot and some much-needed rest.

Tomorrow we take on the world with our Folk music. Wish us luck!

Photos from Days 1 and 2

Monday, 3 July 2017

Choir to compete on international stage once more

The talented Kearsney College Choir will compete in the 10th Orientale Concentus International Choral Festival in Singapore from 05 to 16 July 2017. In this annual competition they will compete in two categories; the Youth Choir category and the Folklore category. 

The Kearsney College Choir won three Gold Medals and were crowned World Champions at the 2014 World Choir Games in Latvia, the largest choir competition in the world. The 2014 World Choir Games involved 27,000 participants from 73 countries. Kearsney is the second-most decorated choir in the history of the World Choir Games, with 13 Gold Medals and 6 Silver Medals.

Through this blog and Facebook posts, we will keep followers updated on the competition and their other activities.

Featured post

Searching for the Spirit of the Great Heart

I spend most of my time in Singapore getting boys to stop singing, gumboot dancing, using chop sticks as drum sticks, humming... But how ...