Last week I was approached by fellow (Chinese) teacher in the English department asking me if I would be willing to help with an “English song competition” that the department holds every fall. I responded with enthusiasm, explaining that I had majored in theatre and loved to sing and dance. She continued to explain that 8 students had been chosen to be contestants after an initial round of auditions and each one would perform a solo. Additionally, the group would be split in two and each would perform a group number. She needed my help to coach one of the groups, explaining that I needed to choose a song and teach it to the group to perform at the show. I responded that it sounded great and I would be happy to help. “When is the performance?” I asked, thinking it would be in a few weeks. Friday. I did a double take, “Wait, next Friday? Or Friday as in 5 days from now?” This Friday. I laughed to myself, of course this wouldn’t be planned in advance, we are on China-time.
Receiving this information on Monday, I immediately contacted my students and began looking for a song. As I perused through my iTunes Library I questioned, what is a relatively easy song? A song with energy? A song these Chinese college students may know? A song that they can learn in a week? A song that isn’t too vocally challenging?
What did I come up with…”Mamma Mia!” Thank you ABBA!
We began rehearsals the next day, and everyday until the performance. I was pleased with how well the ladies picked up the music (as it turned out none of them had heard of the song before) and their sound quality was great! We quickly moved onto adding basic movement and before you know it we were memorized!
In the meantime, I took individual time with each woman to hear their song and offer suggestions. Once again, I was encouraged by their beautiful voices and their willingness to improve. I found that all of them have a passion for music that is evident when they sing, but they lack the breath support to sustain their tones. In learning how to breath deeply I felt like they made great progress both in tone and confidence!
The struggle for me was logistics. Coming from a background in stage managing, it was hard for me not to know when the combined rehearsals were happening or other important details in advance. With a busy week of lessons, grading and conference calls, I didn’t appreciate the last minute “oh we are rehearsing tonight” calls, but it was a test of patience and control. Be flexible, I told myself!
Finally Saturday night was here (yes, the entire performance time was changed), and the contestants were giddy and nervous. As I observed students decorating the stage, setting up sound equipment and warming up their voices, I felt at home in this crazy theatre environment and incredibly proud. Most of the student volunteers were freshmen from my classes, and here they were backstage and on stage, setting up and tearing down, and all of them with smiles on their faces!
The audience was packed, the stage was decked out in Asian splendor, and the contestants were ready. And the show began, first with our number, “Mamma Mia” then Arnold’s group with “Firework.” The show continued with each contestant singing his or her solo to be judged by a panel of teachers.
I am happy to report that my student, Nera, won 1st place! Nera was by far my favorite student to coach because of her vulnerability. She has a gorgeous, low voice and was insecure about a key change that was straining her throat. For her, that key change was mental. Once she felt confident in herself she was able to let loose and not think about how high the note was. Backstage, she was more nervous than any other of the girls. I took her hand, we breathed together. “You are beautiful,” I told her. “You are confident. Pretend you are back in the office with me. No one else is listening. You can do this.” I squeezed her hand and she smiled at me before walking onto stage. As I watched Nera sing out in passion, the spirit of the Lord shivered through me. Our Lord’s presence was clearly in this space- in the bond between contestants, in teamwork of the stage crew, and the encouraging sounds coming from the audience. What a blessing to be a part of this experience and what a piece of enjoyment outside of my teaching routine. I pray that I will continue to be able to minister in this way, through building my students up and fostering their talents.
So I guess while the stage manager in me was going nuts during this process, the director in me was couldn’t be prouder. Lord, I praise you for new sparks in relationship with my students, for the passion in music, and for Your presence in my soul which enables me to encourage others.