Pauline Warjri is the choir director of the Aroha Junior Choir as well as the Aroha Senior Choir. In this conversation with Ellerine Diengdoh, Pauline talks about choral music pedagogy as she understands it, and discusses the kind of vocal training she imparts to her students.
Ellerine Diengdoh is a member of the Aroha Senior Choir and an Assistant Professor of English at St. Mary's College, Shillong.
Ellerine Diengdoh (ED): I consider you one of the best choir conductors in this part of the world. Tell us about your journey.
Pauline Warjri (PW): I began by giving people music lessons. My first pupil was my younger brother, but the formal part of his training didn’t really start until I was well into my thirties. I think these things grow on you, and I am beginning to see the need for ‘formal education’ as an integral part of the learning process. Why formal? Because it quickens the learning process. For example, if a child can play tunes by ear and just pick up anything, a sight-reading ability would really enhance that quality. And by the same token, a child who is not really keen on playing by ear or doesn’t have the talent can be taught to listen. We have found ways and means to make these skills accessible to students.
ED: When you teach voices, is it important that the pupil learns piano at the same time? Does playing an instrument help in the holistic learning of music?
PW: Absolutely. For the junior choir that I now teach, I insist that each one learns either the piano, the guitar or some other musical instrument. I found that the ones who were not learning an instrument were much slower than the others. And as they were going to their lessons, I found that the ones who were slow to begin with improved as soon as they started learning an instrument. Their ears are sensitive to many possibilities, and learning to play an instrument and read music really helps.
ED: How would you explain a pedagogy that is centred around vocal traditions? I am specifically talking about choral music here.
PW: If you are formally trained, you begin to look at the history of pedagogy and see the different genres that you are studying. Then you study the techniques of the great masters and learn the choral literature of different ages, from the Renaissance to the Baroque and Romantic periods. This opens up your understanding of what is stylistically appropriate and how you would interpret a certain composer or a certain genre.
ED: If you have an excellent choir, is it important that they learn a repertoire from an early age? Or do you concentrate only on their strong points? Like, for instance, if they are really good at gospel music, do you concentrate only on that? Or if they do well with classical music, do you concentrate only on that?
PW: Well, you look at the strengths the choir has—and for me, I need to see what kind of singers I have. I like to educate them about choral music history—they have to learn what a madrigal is and what classical singing is all about. I also touch on one or two songs from every (musically) historic period. But it is good to concentrate on the genre that they are good at. Fortunately for me, I have a mixed bag (of talents). Some are very good classical singers, some are very good R&B (Rhythm and Blues; a genre of music) and soul singers, and some are beginning to learn jazz. Although we have pieces that we do from the classical tradition, we major in the gospel, which is what the choir is very strong in. But we love classical music as well. And the ones who have only been singing pop songs love classical songs as well.
ED: Which is really something, considering children nowadays don’t really listen to classical music any more.
PW: No, I think they are beginning to. Music education is changing all that.
ED: As a member of the Aroha Senior Choir, I am interested to know how different the sounds of the two choirs (the Aroha Junior Choir and the Aroha Senior Choir) are. What repertoire would you consider more suitable for the junior choir? And what repertoire would suit the senior choir?
PW: I see them (the junior choir) developing along the same lines as the senior choir. I didn’t think they would be able to do jazz, which the senior choir was doing. But now, having listened to the senior choir, I think they sort of follow in the footsteps of the seniors and are developing along the same lines. The difference is that I started teaching them at a much younger age. And they are all learning to read music. So, they are learning much faster.
ED: True. Which didn’t work quite well with us, I guess.
PW: I think the seniors learnt very quickly in the short time they had. The only setback was their inability to read (music). They had to hear something first. But with the juniors, they only have to look at the piece and, if it is an easy piece, they learn it on their own. They are learning very fast.
ED: You mentioned to me before the interview that the junior choir is performing a lot of a cappella numbers (group or solo singing without instrumental music accompaniment), which we weren’t able to do as a senior choir. Is it difficult to teach a cappella?
PW: Yes. A cappella is the highest form of choral music, I feel. We were initially looking for choral pieces that were of a competition level. As a conductor, I look for music that is difficult to perform, that has lots of dynamics and rhythmic challenges. As we listened to the choirs that had won these competitions, whether in the Llangollen competition (a yearly music festival in Wales) or others, we found that there was a lot of a cappella music. The beauty of the human voice can be heard when you don’t have musical instruments backing it up. You hear the purity of the human voice—even more so when the choir is singing in harmony. And so we have grown to love a cappella singing and we have been challenged by it. That is where the juniors have picked up their skill.
ED: You have taught a lot of students, and now these students have gone on to set up their own schools. How did this whole process come into being?
PW: Well, in a poor country like ours, if I had to start a music school—a full-fledged music school—I would have to take a loan because the government doesn’t really endorse or give you grants for this. However, I would not be able to repay it because that money would have to come from the students. To get around this and do the best that we could without any financial aid, I found that the best way to spread music education was to train teachers for a little while and then let them teach on their own.
I have about seven or eight pianos in the house. The students would come to me in the morning for their music lessons. At three in the afternoon, when school was over, other students would come and learn under these ‘student-teachers’ I trained. This went on for about a year or two until my student-teachers passed their exams, whether it was Grade 7, Grade 8 or a teacher’s diploma. When they were ready, I said that they could move out on their own. They found this very frightening at first, but now three of my students have been able to do this successfully.
I also pushed the London College of Music exam responsibilities on to them. And I am happy that they are doing a better job than me. They have more students doing exams than I had. So I think it has worked out very well. They still come to me with questions. We have a very good relationship, and sometimes I do workshops for them or sit in on their concerts. I know this is not the answer to music education on a ‘wholescale’ level, but it is the most I can do with the funds I have. But I have often told them that if they could take poorer students at a subsidised fee, they should take really well-deserving students—that would be the best way to repay whatever kindness they think I have showed them. So that tradition still continues. I hope that we get more interest from the government to fund a proper music school and see that teachers are properly paid and trained. But as of now this is the least that I can do.
ED: Now I would like to ask you a very technical question. What vocal exercises do you teach your choral students?
PW: Well, the first thing is for students to understand that their bodies are the instruments. Of course, it takes years to even understand that. I then work with the way they breathe, the way they stand, their posture. I have had to develop foolproof methods of teaching people how to breathe and make them understand the workings of the human body. They have to be taught how sound is produced, what to do with that sound and how to prime their bodies to produce the best possible sounds. I teach them breathing exercises, which nowadays I send on WhatsApp. I thank God for the ways that we can share our knowledge.
When their breathing is established, I then teach them how to warm up. It is important for the body to warm up—similar to how athletes warm up before participating in their respective sports. So the students do some vocal warm-ups, stretches and different exercises. This is because we use muscles for singing in different ways, and we use different parts of the body to produce a variety of sounds. For example, I teach them exercises for the tongue. The tongue is a very powerful muscle, and if we neglect doing these exercises then we sing with protracted effort and there is great strain on our voices. I also teach them exercises that strengthen the soft palette, their lips and their jaw as well as exercises that help them use their stomach muscles. Then we learn how to coordinate all this with more exercises.
ED: How clearly demarcated are the voices in a choir? Can one move across ranges?
PW: Well, in the early days (sixteenth century), we thought of sopranos as the highest female voices. Little boys whose voices had not broken also fell into that range—high trebles. So did little girls. Then there are the altos, who have a lower range. And lower than that are the contraltos, the tenors and the basses. But within each of these categories there are many classifications: there are sopranos who are thought to be lyric sopranos or coloraturas, who have very high, agile, strong voices. Or you have light sopranos. The same goes for contraltos; there are various classifications. So depending on what shade, what kind of voice you have...
ED: It sounds like a very intricate process...trying to identify these voices.
PW: Yes, very intricate. Oh yes, you asked if one can cross over? From the 1980s onwards, I have seen singers go from having a very high range to being able to sing very low notes. One of our singers in the Shillong Chamber Choir—she had a three-octave range—could go very low and also very high. The thing with training is that a lot of possibilities have opened up. Now you can find tenors singing pitches that are even higher than what some mezzo-sopranos can sing. So yes, definitely, you can cross over if you have the voice for it.
ED: Do you think it is essential to have a boundary between teaching and performing while planning a focused career, or do they go hand in hand?
PW: If you are performing, you have to concentrate on that. You have to start young to be at an international level. You have to focus on that. But there is no reason why you cannot teach. I haven’t seen too many performers who are interested in teaching. Teaching can be very demanding and if somebody can perform and teach, I think that is a wonderful gift. If a person who performs delves more into this area, it could even help his or her performance—the more you teach, the more you learn. In many ways this has worked well. But it requires a performer to be very articulate and be a good communicator.
ED: That is important. Not all performers are good communicators.
PW: And not all teachers can perform that well.
ED: That is true. But you have done both.
PW: I am not (a good performer) really; not as a soloist.
ED: Thank you so much.