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From Impromptu Concerts to Late Night Mafia: The Big Sing Finale 2015

This was it.

All the Mondays. All the replayed MP3 files filled with wordless, unexpected note progressions. All the countless hours spent with the same thirty people we’d grown to love as a family. It all led to this.

The New Zealand Choral Federation’s Secondary Schools Choral Festival, ‘The Big Sing National Finale’! This year the finale was held in New Zealand’s arts capital – Wellington.

The Big Sing is a festival-based competition between over 200 secondary schools choirs across New Zealand, competing in regional competitions to be among the top 24 choirs chosen for the Finale. These top choirs then perform two recitals of two or three songs that are judged and are then given the title of either Bronze, Silver or Gold, with the possibility of the top choir receiving the exclusive Platinum award.

It sounds daunting and technical, a sure shove away to anyone who isn’t involved in the choral world–and it is. However, the Big Sing is essentially about bringing over 700 college-age students from around New Zealand together to have fun and make music and memories.

The Macleans College Choir started our journey early on the 13th August with a short, sunny plane ride down the picturesque coast of New Zealand into the bustling Wellington CBD. Then a hectic rush from the airport to the opening ceremony in the Michael Fowler Centre in the centre of town meant we made it just to see the end. This was the beginning of an exciting adventure that was set to unfold. We had a quick lunch, rushed back to the MFC, did some busking in front of the public, had a quick rehearsal pre-dinner and fell into our beds. What a busy day!

The next morning of our first performance brought chaos. To some early birds, a 7:30 breakfast meant getting up bright and early at 6am! But to most of us, it meant hobbling down to breakfast, messily dressed yet well-rested and five minutes late. We had a quick warm-up followed by sound check in the daunting Michael Fowler Centre before being whisked off to the green room to prepare for the first recital. With our matching white shirts, the girls’ ribbons and boys’ blazers, we looked tidy and unified on the outside, yet on the inside, emotions were raging through our veins. Our performance was going to be live-streamed to tens of thousands of people and to countries we’d never even heard of! Suddenly, it was our time to go.

We were calmed by our experienced conductors as we walked out on stage, smiling into the blinding lights and seeing nothing but black smiling back at us. In this, our first recital, we performed three pieces, ‘Great Trees’ by Malcolm Dalglish, ‘Nicolette’ and ‘Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis’ by Maurice Ravel, and ‘Die Beredsamkeit’ by Franz Josef Haydn. It was exhilarating. We came off the stage more anxious than we’d been going on. We were only half way there. We still had tomorrow’s recital. Had we done enough to impress the judges? Had we all smiled at the right times? Did we give a good enough performance? These thoughts rushed through our minds for the rest of the day as it passed in a blur. We decided to do some impromptu busking in the City Library to take our minds off the nerves. This was strange and slightly awkward for the first 30 seconds… but then we got lost in the music and it was lots of fun. Eager to spend our short time in Wellington wisely, we spent the rest of our evening exploring Wellington in small groups before a whole-group dinner. Satisfied and sleepy with full stomachs, we slowly flopped back into bed again ready to tackle Saturday.

The final day of the competition was even more fast paced than the previous two. Breakfast zipped past; we had another warm-up before our second recital later on in the day. We quickly went through our repertoire for the second recital–‘Te Mea Nui’ by New Zealand composer Katherine Bell and ‘Rosas Pandan’, a traditional Visayan piece arranged by George G. Hernandez–and hurried back to the Michael Fowler Centre as we mentally and physically strengthened ourselves for the last challenge, our final recital. The one thing we leave the judges with. This was it. The last competitive session of the Big Sing began. Once again, we made our way to the green room – the last stop on our journey before our performance on the international stage. The compere announced, “Macleans College Choir,” and we stepped out.

We performed our final recital and we were stoked with what we had left the judges with. We knew we had done our best, regardless of the placing we would receive. We watched one last choir and then the competition finished. All that was left was the Gala Concert later in the day where each of the choirs would choose one of their songs to perform, after which the results would be announced.

Ready with our clothes for the student function later on, the public and the performers entered the centre and the Gala Concert kicked off. Each choir sung their chosen song beautifully. Then it was our turn. We sang our choir’s favourite song, ‘Rosas Pandan’ – it was  amazing to perform the resonant and humorous song before a packed Michael Fowler Centre. The rest of the choirs performed and finally, it was result time. Each choir was literally on the edge of their seats as their name and placing was read out. We heard deafening applause for their hard work and effort and then it was time – the announcer reached Macleans College Choir, nad we all fell silent with clasped hands.

“Bronze,” we heard and the applause began. Our choir leaders Peter Liley and Nishaa Senarath-Dassanayake stepped forward to accept the award and the list continued. The concert finished with a massed choir performance of ‘Ride the Chariot’, before the student function – a big party for all of the choirs. We partied late into the night before we slowly made our way back to the hotel on tired legs through the streets of Wellington, talking amongst ourselves in boisterous laughter and loud whispers. We may not have been titled as a ‘Gold Choir’ but felt we did the best we could have done and understand that the competition is based on four judges’ opinions. We may not have appealed to their opinions, but had a great time performing and competing.

That night, almost everyone stayed up until the early morning hours playing numerous rounds of mafia and having those late night DMCs. We departed the next morning, exhausted yet shaken awake by grips of caffeine on the plane ride home. One last group photo and we disbanded.

Our experience in Wellington was unforgettably amazing. Going down and living with a close group of friends for four days brought us even closer together and allowed us to share memorable experiences – from singing at the library to dining with the ‘squad’ while annoying the public to late night mafia rounds, we got a taste of the wonderful capital of the country we live in, outside of the competition. We are immensely grateful for the experience that the New Zealand Choral Federation provided us with.

The 2015 Macleans College Choir achieved many great things this year through growing closer as a team. We’re honoured to be part of this group and none of this could ever have happened without the unwavering dedication and direction of Gina Sanders and Sarah McNabb, our conductors. They are beyond unbelievable in what they do and the true reason for our success.

Written by: Hamish Regan and Varya Pavlova. Edited by: Saffron Huang.

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