Shining moment. The UST Singers weep and smile in triumph as their conductor, Fidel Calalang Jr., holds the singing group’s second Choir of the World trophy. Photo courtesy of UST SINGERS

THEY SAY that success is not a destination but a journey.

For the UST Singers, the road to being the “Choir of the World” for the second time was full of bumps and hurdles—from airport mishaps to homesickness and family heartbreaks.

“We made a lot of sacrifices before, during and after our [Europe] tour,” Karen Arriola, the singing group’s president, said.

The group had to spend hours in musical training, which usually went on for long nights, in order to give way to most members who are still students.

School days are spent for practice from 5 to 9 pm. Practice is at times extended to the point when members would plead the guard to allow them to stay longer on campus. Once they were almost locked up at the Tan Yan Kee building, where they held their rehearsals. Weekends and holidays are also no exemption for the group, Arriola recalled that they would also hold rehearsals on Sundays.

“Last December, we were practicing in UST while the others were enjoying their Christmas break,” she added.

But it’s not all-work and no-play for the choir, for their conductor, Fidel Calalang Jr., gave them time in between rehearsals for fun and to make their bond stronger.

Aside from rigorous training, the Singers also kept themselves in shape for competitions and performances, through healthy eating habits and adequate sleep. But these steps, according to Arriola, were not imposed to the group.

“We know we should discipline ourselves so we could stay fit,” she said.

Tales of mishap

These sacrifices came in handy when the group flew to Europe for a tour last summer.

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Not only did they have to sing gregariously in front of an audience, but they also wanted another claim to the esteemed Luciano Pavarotti Grand Prize which they first won in 1995 at the Llangolen International Eisteddfod, the oldest and most prestigious choir competition in the world.

But the Singers went on to be tested as they faced other adversities that threatened to pull them away from their goal.

Even nature didn’t seem to cooperate when the Eyjafjallajokul volcano in Iceland erupted, leading to cancellations of flights including that in Korea, which 11 group members were supposed to take to go to Ireland.

The stranded members had to wait for another flight and spend the night at the Incheon International Airport. But those who were already in Ireland also encountered a problem of their own. Arriving at the Heathrow Airport for a stopover, some of the choir members lost their luggage, forcing them to compete in the Bangor International Festival with different sets of clothes.

This mismatch of outfits did not stop the group from bagging four first prize awards in the competition.

On their way to another competition in Hutshenhausen, Germany, five other members, including Arriola, encountered another stranded fiasco when they vouched for a budget airline going to Belgium.

“We were trying to save money since we had a long way to go,” the choir’s president said. “But the plane was five seats short so we had to wait for another flight.”

Leave of absence

It was also during this trip that Calalang’s father had a stroke. The conductor was forced to leave the choir for a week to tend to his ailing father. His absence only made him realize how closely-knit and independent the choir was.

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“I saw how strong they were, practicing by themselves while I was gone,” he said.

Arriola assumed responsibility over the group amid doubts and fears of being without their conductor for long.

“There must still be progress in what we were doing so we had to continue our rehearsals for our concerts in Germany,” she said.

Lia Kustandi, one of the choir’s soloist and an Indonesian national, received news that her brother had passed away. She had to fly to Singapore, where her family was based, to mourn for the loss and attend the ceremonies.

Her absence forced adjustments within the choir, with the other sopranos pitching in extra effort to fill in her role.

Grand moment

The Singers were reunited once again when they stepped in the Llangolen competition, aiming to secure the title they had once. In order to qualify to compete for this award, they had to win first place in any one category.

“We made sure that we would qualify for it so we sang in two categories,” Arriola shared. “We entered the Chamber Choir and Mixed Choir categories.”

They fell to third place for Chamber Choir, which put a lot of pressure and hope on their performance for the other category.

Singing with pride and passion, the group won a cliffhanger triumph that gave it the pass to compete for Choir of the World. The choir had to go up against tough contenders such as the Cywair Choir of Wales, White Rossettes Choir of England, and the Cantabile Choir of Lindburg, Germany.

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The Singers used the obstacles that they went through as their motivation in that last performance.

“When we looked back at what we’ve gone through to get there (championship), we thought we couldn’t waste all the efforts by losing,” Arriola said. “If we lost, then it would [have been] a big blow for us.”

As if fate was making it up to them, the choir clinched the title once again. Arriola admitted that there were no words she could use to express what they felt upon getting that sweet victory.

“We were going crazy on the stage,” she recalled. “Winning was enough to soothe the pain from all the hardships we went through.”

Nonstop

The choir arrived back in the country last August 9 and was welcomed by more accolades and praises from Filipinos. A victory dinner was hosted for them by the University, and they were also featured in television shows.

They will also be having a thanksgiving concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines on September 19.

“The [batch] that won in 1995 also had a concert,” Arriola said. “It’s becoming a tradition that after winning Choir of the World, we have to show [our fellowmen] what we performed abroad.”

Aside from the concert, they will be holding a series of charity works. In September 2011, they will be singing at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in celebration of UST’s quadricentennial.

Photo by P. A . R. Quiambao

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