I heard about the University of Stellenbosch choir on my first date with a man who would eventually become my husband. He had sung bass in the choir as a student, and remained passionate about the experience, not only the music, but also the impact it had on his personal development. I grew up in the choir, he would say. At the time, I was impressed but perhaps a little sceptical too. Later we both went to a lunch-hour concert at the Endlersaal at the Conserve in Stellenbosch and I was awed and to an extent shaken by the beauty of the singing. I never forgot it.
So years later when I had an opportunity to produce an insert on the choir for CNN, I leapt at the chance. Through a five day shoot that seemed to stretch over ten days, I had a view of the elements of the experience that my date had been trying to explain to me all those years before. I interviewed the inspirational musical director, Andre van der Merwe, the choir’s extraordinarily capable manager Ulrike Vorndran and four of the 112 choir members. I heard from them what it was like to grow up in the choir, and how it had changed their lives.
A university choir is in a state of constant renewal, as some students graduate and first-years sign up. About five hundred students audition in the October of a year and in the first term of the following year, the selected group of about 120 start practicing in earnest together, twice a week. Once the music is mastered there are concerts and competitions and sometimes overseas tours. The competitions have yielded extraordinary results for them. As of August 2018, the University of Stellenbosch Choir is positioned number one in the Interkultur World Rankings. They have tables of trophies and cups from previous years competitions. This year, they won all their categories at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in Wales. At the World Choir Games in Riga, they won the highest score ever to be awarded to a choir.
Andre has many theories as to why the choir has such success. He believes that the cultural diversity of the choir, with the range of musical backgrounds represented in the 112 voices, helps to create a unique and compelling sound. He is also a perfectionist. We watched him in action at a rehearsal. He does not indulge sloppy singing or lapses of concentration. He insists that his choir be fully present, and is endlessly peppering them with a rollicking commentary of motivational thoughts and responses. He coaxes and nudges and scolds and laments on stage, forcing them to focus and respond until he gets the sound and execution he wants.
Andre also manages to develop a relationship with each member of the choir. He has to know the sound of their voice and their name, and the rest follows from there. Having experienced disappointment as young man himself, he has a special feeling for people their age. Andre was a gifted concert pianist with a scholarship to study in the United States of America. But he tragically fell from a stage and broke his thumb; his dream was shattered but he had to pick himself up and define himself in new careers.
So between the music instruction and the logistics of concerts and rehearsals, Andre doles out a great deal of home-spun wisdom to the young people who gather at his feet to rehearse twice weekly. One of his life’s lessons is for the students simply to be themselves.
“Be respectful, but be yourself. Drop the mask. Connect with your soul. Be who you really are,” he says. “I don't think one can underestimate the role of an activity where people are allowed to live out their creativity, to express themselves, to learn about true discipline. In my country especially it’s amazing to work with people from other cultures and to realize that I'm not losing myself when I do that. I'm becoming stronger because I learn so much. I learn about humanity.”
It has resonance. The four young people I interviewed for CNN’s Inside Africa insert all viewed him as a mentor and an educator. Next years’ choir chairman, Alex Menu, is a bass. Orphaned as a teenager, he had to fight very hard to get to university where he is a fourth year medical student. He says that he has learnt to express himself through the choir, as well as to listen.
“A lot of times people think that choir is just singing, but most of the time choir is about listening. You really have to tune with other people, listen to the people next to you, listen to the choir as a whole, and also in between the lines when you’re silent, just really listen to what’s happening around you,” he said.
A university campus in South Africa is not an easy place. Students battle with financial burdens, racial tension, politics, socialising and curating their own lifestyles. There is also the intensity of an academic degree - the pressure to pass in an environment where there is the freedom to fail. The choir members I spoke to placed value on the relationships they developed within the choir, as uniquely supportive and sharing. For them, the choir is a safe space to find the freedom to express themselves. And somehow they communicate that vulnerability and certainty all at once in the most beautiful music on stage. A standing ovation is inevitable.
These are the updated links to the CNN Inside Africa piece on the Stellenbosch University Choir:
Apologies for the break in linkage earlier - it ought to be fixed by now. Should the links not work please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org