Cover Wong in rehearsals for Song Bridges, a concert by the Singapore Symphony Children’s and Youth Choirs, in 2019 (Image: Singapore Symphony Group)

The three-part series of Tatler's latest arts column spotlights two conductors and a choirmaster, as we only often witness their works in its most polished form on stage. But what goes behind the stellar performances under their batons? Here, Wong Lai Foon, choirmaster of the Singapore Symphony Children's Choir and Singapore Symphony Youth Choir shares about her role and aspects of choral training

As the choirmaster of both the Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir (SSCC) and the Singapore Symphony Youth Choir (SSYC), which regularly perform alongside the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), Wong Lai Foon admits that she’s sometimes a child psychologist too—and this role typically kicks in just before the curtains rise.

“We want the children to enjoy the music and their time on stage. As we usually have long rehearsals before a concert, we try to get their energies up by boosting morale and enthusiasm backstage.”

Wong wears many other hats. Besides guiding the 50-strong concert choir to harmonise as one cohesive voice on stage, and selecting its repertoire, the 58-year-old is also responsible for the training curriculum. “Unlike most conductors who don’t teach individual instrumentalists how to play their instruments, I am part-voice instructor as well. I deal with the human voice, so I teach a little bit of choral and vocal techniques to help the singers create the best sound.” SSCC currently has over 160 young talents, aged between nine and 17, enrolled in its training programme, while the SSYC has over 40 singers aged between 17 and 28.

There are two segments to choral training. First, the practical aspect of vocal training typically involves exercises and singing techniques. The second is to nurture good musicianship, where singers learn the rudiments of theory notation, practice their ability to sight sing and use solfège as an educational tool to develop a better understanding of music composition in their choral journey.

When it comes to selecting the repertoires of both choirs, Wong looks to various sources depending on the concert requirements. Pieces by popular Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds and Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo often appear in the choirs’ programme, while the line-up for local performances would comprise well-received tunes such as Abba’s Thank You for the Music, or songs from hit musicals such as The Sound of Music

“In the past few years, I’ve also commissioned local composers to create new pieces for us, especially for treble choirs (a choir group without male voices).” Singapore’s Cultural Medallion recipient Kelly Tang and Young Artist Award recipient Zechariah Goh are among the world-class talent that Wong often works with.

Crafting a choral line-up and training programme comes with years of experience. Prior to assuming her current roles, Wong founded an independent children’s choir in the early 2000s, seeing how there was a lack of organised community choral activities for children in Singapore. The aim then was to provide an opportunity for young ones to develop their musical interests through singing and performing. She says, “After a couple of years, we were approached by the SSO management as they were interested in creating a symphonic children’s choir. I was part of the team that laid the groundwork for the development of what came to be known as the Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir.” 

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