In 40 years, no school in Hong Kong has been able to win the International May Choir Competition, one of Europe’s most prestigious choral contests. What made the Good Hope School Choir different? They’re talented and well-trained, sure; but that wasn’t the key to their victory in Varna, Bulgaria, in May. After catching up with three of the singers back in Hong Kong, Young Post learned their secret: don’t just sing the songs – feel them.
“Steal, steal, steal away home. I see the lightning, the thunder and the lightning, O Lord. The trumpet sounds within my soul. I ain’t got long, I ain’t got long, I ain’t got long, to stay here. My Lord calls me, calls me home.”
The voices of all 46 members of the all-girl choir brimmed with raw emotion, blending together to create one united chorus.
The song, Steal Away, is an American Negro spiritual – a song composed by black slaves in the 19th century, expressing the pain of their oppression and hope for peace in the afterlife.
It’s a powerful piece, and one that is difficult to do justice. But the students tried to use their own faith to help them capture its essence.
“It’s easier for us to comprehend the song since we’re from a Catholic school. Singing teaches us to be in tune with the composer and understand what they were feeling,” says Rachel Wong Long-ching, 16.
Their heartfelt performance was enough to win over the judges in Varna.
“When they announced that we were the winners, we all literally ran onto the stage. We also grabbed our school flag and the Hong Kong flag,” says Emily Hui Chi-tung, 17, recalling the moment they learned of their historic victory.
In addition to winning the May Choir Competition, the Good Hope girls were also awarded First Prize in the Children’s Category, Best Selected Competition Programme, and the Best Young Conductor Prize. As they accepted their prizes, the crowd gave them a standing ovation. It was a long time before the cheering and clapping finally died down. “The audience genuinely seemed happy for us. It was like they had won a prize as well,” says Emily.
The students are as unified offstage as they are on it. Despite being such a large choir, they have formed a tight bond, with the older students looking out for the younger ones.
Jovi Wa Man-hei, a Form One student, recalls being hit with a wave of stage fright just before she went on stage. She and some of the other junior members of the choir began to panic in the dressing room.
“The upper form members came and calmed us down. They encouraged us to just enjoy ourselves. They were like, ‘our performance only lasts 20 minutes, so why not just treasure that time and have fun while it lasts?’” says the 13-year-old.
The sense of camaraderie extends to the other choirs, too.
“The other teams were so happy for us. One thing I learned from the trip is that we shouldn’t treat our competitors as enemies. It may be called a competition, but it’s also a performance. The exchanges we have with other teams are very valuable,” says Jovi.
When asked about the most memorable moment of the competition, all three singers referred not to their win, but a different incident altogether.
A choir from the Philippines missed their flight and weren’t able to make it to Verna until the last day of the contest. It was too late to compete, but the team showed no hard feelings. Instead, they performed at the closing ceremony – and managed to move the audience to tears.
“They made us all realise that music is never just about competitions. Being able to connect with others and sing your heart out – that’s what really counts.”