My Journey as a Choir Member

February 13, 2005, Ap Lei Chau, Hong Kong. It was a cold Sunday and I just woke up at 8:30 from an abbreviated sleep, having spent most of the night burning The Simpsons on my CD burner so I can watch it later on a screen wider than my computer monitor.

I got an email from my buddy Karen Obispo asking if I could join the choir group for a service at St Vincent’s Church in Hang Hau at around lunchtime. At the time, I lived at South Horizons in Hong Kong island’s Southern District. So to get to Hang Hau, I need to take the bus — the South Horizons MTR station will only be operational 11 years later — and take the train from Causeway Bay to Po Lam, and another bus to the church.

I declined an earlier invitation, but I usually don’t issue the same response for any second invite.

Last Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, so I rationalized skipping breakfast even though fasting was not an obligation. Thanks to this voluntary sacrifice, I managed to reach the church 10 minutes in advance. Still, there was not enough time for practice, but I guess that’s better than doing a walk of shame to join the choir while the mass has commenced.

Saint Vincent Church in Hang Hau, NT, Hong Kong

Being under St Andrew’s Parish reminded me of my time in Makati when I attended a church of the same patron in Bel-Air which was a walking distance from my boarding house. St Vincent Church’s size is more of a chapel than a church, but I was grateful to hear the holy mass as it was my first time to attend the Holy Eucharist and as an instant member of the choir.

The community is as usual filled with Filipina worshippers but a handful of Chinese, French, Korean, and American parishioners were there. Notable regulars include Starworld correspondent Joe Cairns and wife Jenny Lam of TVB Pearl. Due to Chinese New Year’s celebration falling on the same day as Ash Wednesday, the distribution of ashes was given today. To be honest, it’s just like receiving lai see since it was my first time to receive ashes since I arrived in Hong Kong.

Though it was my first time to join the group, I instantly got along with other members; they are mostly from the Singles for Christ ministry I am also a member of. Brothers Gino and Mike Noche, Chito Nonato, Jay Apolinario, Karen, Zandro and Charm Barcelona, and Esther Gonzaga.

Even without proper practice beforehand our songs were performed well except that Jay, our guitarist and de facto leader of the band, often exhorted us to sing louder. The male voices often get drowned by the chorus of feminine voices not just from members but also from the crowd. We always sing in harmony so individually we’re not required to learn specific pitch or tone for the songs.

Usually, after the mass has concluded, the group usually takes a walk towards Hang Hau center and spend lunch together. That day we had a good yum cha though I would have preferred a hot pot for lunch. Nevertheless, it was a blessing as my stomach had been grumbling for not taking any breakfast. In some cases, we end up aborting our group plans as it’s difficult to find tables that fit our entire group. But this group lunch we had in my first attendance was an auspicious moment.

The group went on to serve our timeslot for a few years until some members got married or moved back to the Philippines.

Fast forward almost ten years later. I was already married, hopped addresses from South Horizons to Quarry Bay to Po Lam to LOHAS Park. Babes and I were also the singles coordinator for CFC FFL. This time, St Vincent church is now much closer to home and so we not only hear mass there, we also serve with another choir group. Thankfully, there were also returnees from that old group formed in the last decade. Zandro and Charm, who consistently live in the neighborhood, are still there. They were reinforced by mostly families, couples, and singles.

St Vincent church choir in 2015. Forty percent of the ones in the photo have since left for Singapore, Canada, and Australia.

Although we were a closely-knit group, there was also a high turnover rate among its members. Many of us often consider Hong Kong as a transient place, where members eventually move elsewhere. Like in our last group, Chito moved back to Manila, ditto for Gino and Dodo Casibang. But even for those who remain in Hong Kong, they relocated far from the church that they cannot make a commitment to the choir anymore.

Like the ‘brain drain’ problem of the Philippines with its OFWs, our lineup of pianists experienced a high turnover rate. Melissa Deocadez started the role, but then she moved to Canada. The De Guzman sister duo of Trisha and Trinna took over. But they too moved to Australia, so the group had to find replacements.

It’s the same story for guitarists, where the initial crew of Attila Meneses and Emman Perello faced scheduling problems. Thankfully, Jason Sanga took over as a regular guitarist to complement the incoming pianist who was still learning the ropes. But soon after I left for Sydney, Jason and his family also followed my route. The good thing is that there’s new blood ready to take over the pianist and guitarist roles. I got myself a guitar to help out, but my skills are limited.

Helping out as instrumentalist to another St Vincent church choir in 2018.

To join as a choir member in Hong Kong, you need not pass an audition or require previous experience. As long as you are committed to attending the sessions and willingness to learn the songs, you’re almost certain as a member. Practices have often been held just before the mass, as the songs are familiar to everyone. In some instances during the mass, Charm, our de facto conductor, does her signal to extend the song or cut it short, depending on cue from the priests.

Since the group is composed of families with various activities after the mass, we often go on our separate ways. Some kids have their assemblies, some families have their outings, and so on. Babes and I are often on our own, except when we also have to catch up with SFL activities.

I sometimes do the first or second reading so my role in the choir diminished during those assignments. But after I was also commissioned to be a eucharistic minister, my time with the choir was further reduced especially when I am scheduled to distribute the Body or Blood during communion. We must not take up additional roles when it’s our schedule to be EM’s.

When I arrived in Sydney, I was immediately recruited to join the choir led by Buddy Menor, the husband of my former Mintal neighbor and grade school / high school classmate, fellow Computer Engineering graduate at UIC, and ex-colleague at PhilWeb, Rizza Rizada-Menor. This group has very few members so my participation was welcomed eagerly. I even thought it was just the Menor family (Buddy, Rizza, and daughter Sophia) so I see the acute need for more voices to sing in the choir. We serve at 6pm mass at Our Lady Help of Christians in Epping during the first Sunday of every month.

Epping Church choir members and guests during Christmas party 2019.

It so happened that the choir group serving the third Sunday was also in need of vocalists. I was serving as a lector in the parish when I was approached and invited to join. That group is composed of members from various cultural backgrounds and boasts of having saxophone, trumpet, and piano players. Thus, the presence of vocals should also be loud. I did not hesitate to join as they are also warm and welcoming, even though I am the only Filipino in the group.

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
(Psalm 95:1-2)

At that point, I was happy to join two different choir groups with similar practice sessions just before the mass — first and third Sunday services; on other Sundays I was free to explore other churches and attend masses there.

Living in the Marsfield suburb afforded me the flexibility to attend masses across different hours. No Catholic church is close by so I had no preferred place of worship. I sometimes go to the city (St Patrick in Wynyard), or nearby in Marsfield (St Anthony) or Our Lady Help of Christians in Epping.

Saturday, September 7, 2019. I attended an anticipated mass at St Anthony’s which is about a 30-minute walk from home. I was kneeling in prayer for a moment when I noticed someone was waiting for me to finish. I was curious and turned to his direction. He introduced himself as Benjie Garcia, and said he heard me sing. He then asked if I can join their choir in Chatswood as they’re in need of male singers. I was non-committal at the time and told him I also sang already for two groups in Epping but nonetheless gave him my number.

The following Monday, Kuya Benjie, as I would later call him sent a lengthy SMS. But what struck me was the line “Sama ka na samin please.” It sounded like it’s an answer to my prayer that I want to continue serving the catholic church once I arrive in Australia. By leaving Hong Kong, I also left the choir group at St Vincent, the eucharistic minister role, plus the family ministry household, and the SFL group. It left a big void in me, but with this invite coming along, my response eventually would be a no-brainer. I replied the following Wednesday to attend the mass but not yet to join as a member.

Finally, on October 6, I joined the group for practice before the mass. As they’re doing melodies, something I don’t have prior experience, I was left miming some of the lines. In later practice, I underwent an “audition” and sang Anima Christi with a squeaky, nervous voice.

I then told myself “I think I am not meant for this group” while I sang til the end while everyone listened patiently. A verdict was quickly announced: I am a tenor.

Our Lady of Dolours choir after third day of Simbang Gabi.

The learning curve at Himig Sandiwa was steeper than I anticipated. For instance, I have to know my (and fellow tenor Mark Angelo Alarcio’s) notes so as to blend well with the other voices. But it also opened floodgates of knowledge. I learned to read musical notes, something that Ms. Blanco, my music teacher in grade school used to teach the class. I learned to record my voice so it can be remixed with other voices as COVID-19 prompted us to be creative in delivering our songs without violating the mandated social distancing and prohibition of church gatherings. I also learned to be more patient in many ways, just as Giselle Amanda Goloy, our choirmaster, has shown in various instances.

Honestly,  I think my singing skill is rated ‘meh’ but I guess more than just the ability to sing, it’s also the availability to sing.

Overall, there are things I learned as a member of the choir over the years.

  1. A choir group is like a team. Like in a basketball tournament, office department working on a project, or a strategy game online, it takes a lot of commitment, enriching your craft, and working on what you can contribute best to bring out the best in a choir. I did guitars, sang, or played the kahon or percussion in some choir services, hoping that I contribute to a well-orchestrated group rather than earn praise for what I am doing. For a team to perform well, it takes practice, and skipping one is like letting other members down, especially when I don’t know the notes nor miss the pitch in the actual mass. When things don’t go well as planned, we should be prepared to look after each other and keep the group intact. This can happen when technical problems occur, there’s a sudden change of song lineup or unexpected absence of a key member of the group. This segues well into point #2.
  2. Being a member requires commitment. When Kuya Benjie said we’ll have our practices every Tuesday 6:45 pm, I had the same reaction when I first heard how frequent we’ll have our SFC household meetings. But I gave myself, and Himig Sandiwa a chance, and there were no regrets at all. In fact, when the lockdown was imposed in March, I missed the practices.
  3. It pays to be a listener. I learn a lot by listening. Which is why I’d like to stay in the corner during practices as if I don’t care at all. But it’s when I’ll get less distracted and focus more on absorbing bits of knowledge. When Melissa plays the piano and rehearses us with the Latin hymns Fr George would like us to sing, it’s much easier to reflect and listen to the message beyond the melody. This applies to my current struggles as a tenor when I let Mark record his piece and I try to replicate his powerful voice.
  4. Enjoying each other’s company helps improve the choir service. Back in Jay’s group, we had a few intersecting groups that allow us to mingle beyond song practices and mass services. As SFC members, we join assemblies and teachings. Under Buddy’s group, we have dinners at each others’ homes, get invites to parties (see above photo), and I even enjoyed a fishing trip with him. Time at the beach during Australia Day was the most memorable one I had with Himig Sandiwa — looking forward to post-COVID outings. In these gatherings, we don’t just talk about song notes or what is the offertory hymn. We talk about other interests, and in the process, we learn more about each other.

As we sing praises to God, may this service in the choir, despite our individual weaknesses and failings, be pleasing to Him.

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