Tracing our nation’s choral history
Music student Kevin Mikhail H. Gomez returns to the roots of communal singing, rues today’s impersonal encroachments upon the industry, and hazards a forecast on why things may still be looking up for the country’s choral community.
 
Being a chorister changed my life. I grew up believing that a greater being gave us all our talents to make a contribution to the world, but it took a while for me to realize that the gift he gave me was my musicality and my musicianship. 
 
And part of my dedication to music is, for me, to be able to identify where we are now in the choral scene and what we have become. Philippine choirs during the 20th century - though given some form of international prestige by choirs like the University of the Philippines Madrigal Singers, now the Philippine Madrigal Singers - didn’t exactly have such a good reputation when it came to copyright, community building and nationalism. 
 
Choirs in Metro Manila were usually the first or the only choirs to have ever been given the chance to perform works by well-known composers and National Artists like Ramon Santos, Jose Maceda, Chino Toledo and others. Choral groups outside Metro Manila were always last in line or were not given the chance at all. This divide between Metro Manila Filipino choirs and the “provincial” choirs, during the 20th century, pushed the latter into pirating works of both international and local composers and arrangers. 
 
A story told by Robert Delgado, former resident arranger of the Philippine Madrigal Singers, mentions how someone he met in Venice wanted to show him an arrangement of “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas.” To his surprise, he was looking at his own arrangement. This incident is what led him to return to the Philippines and formally publish the first volume of a compilation of his works called “The Choral Works of Robert Delgado.” He would then publish a second volume a few years later. 
 
I also want to understand the way choirs around the country think or communicate. I want to understand their dynamics with each other and how this affects the conductors, the members and the music. I’m no expert in the field, but I have had some help from those who are. 
 
For us to have a clear and unbiased view of how choir culture in the Philippines has become in the 21st Century, I have interviewed prominent choral figures in the country like Janet “Jai” Aracama, conductor of the University of the Philippines Concert Chorus, Mark Anthony Carpio, Conductor of the Philippine Madrigal Singers, Dr. Eudenice “Eudy” Palaruan, conductor, arranger, composer and a professor in the University of the Philippines College of Music, and Jonathan “Jojo” Velasco, president of the Philippine Choral Directors Association and conductor of the Ateneo Chamber Singers. All of these personalities are well known for giving various choral workshops and clinics all over the country and abroad. I believe that their experience as clinicians and as educators in an institution like the UP College of Music is the key to finally identifying what we, as a choral nation, have achieved so far and what factors brought about these achievements. 
 
We have also done some research on how Philippine Choir Culture began. 
 
It actually began during the Spanish era when the Spaniards established the church in the country. Spanish friars employed young boys or tiples, aged 8 – 14, to be either altar servers or choir singers. The word “tiple” in Spanish means the brightest of all voices, especially those of women and of little boys. 
 
The oldest known boys’ choir in the Philippines is the Tiples de Santo Domingo, founded by Fr. Pedro Bolanos, OP in 1587. The same priest founded the Escuela de Tiples which taught reading, writing, singing and even instrument making. 
 
Letran taught orphans who became active altar servers and formed the Ruisenores de Letran from the 16th century to 1876, which was later revived after a century and is now composed of boys from Letran Elementary school. 
In 1607 and 1742 respectively, the Franciscans and the Augustinians also taught Filipino children how to sing. 
 
The Franciscans in 1606 put up a school in Lumbag Laguna where 400 boys were trained in music. These boys would later on return to their provinces to teach music. The Augustinians in 1742 founded one of the best music schools at the time, the Colegio de Ninos Tiples. The establishment of this music school was one of the most important developments for music in the country and has been a key player in the growth of music schools in the country. 
 
There is no record of any professional choral group during the Spanish era. Secular groups were made up of individual singers but they did not function as a single entity, rather a temporary choir for a production like operas.
The American colonial regime paved the way for the establishment of schools of music in public and private universities. Associations like the Choral Art Association, founded by Pacita Nolasco, were established to cultivate and promote choral art. 
 
Many protestant choirs were also prominent after the Second World War. Choirs like the Elinwood Chancel Choir were already receiving awards and recognition before schools eventually made choirs permanent campus fixtures. Other prominent Philippine-based protestant choirs include the Central Church Choir, headed by Antonio Molina and then by Flora Zarco-Rivera, Iglecia Evangelica Unida de Cristo Choir under Hilarion Rubio, the Philippine Choral Ensable under Viola Rich Smith; the Baptist Choir and the Knox Choir under Eliseo Pajaro, and the Union Theologial Chirch Choir under Lois Florendo Bello. 
 
It was only until after the Second Vatican Council in December of 1965 that the Catholic Church became more open to community singing and mixed choruses. Since then, Catholic Church choirs started catching up to the fame and the prominence of their protestant counterparts. 
 
In the 1960s, The UP College of Music founded two choirs whose prominence and influence still reverberate around the country and the world to this day: the UP Madrigal Singers under National Artist Andrea O. Veneracion, now under Mark Anthony Carpio, and the UP Concert Chorus under Former UPCMu Dean, Rey T. Paguio and now under Janet Aracama. 
 
21st Century
 
 In interviews with some of the most prominent figures of Choral Music in the Philippines, I have cited three major changes in the Philippine choral scene during the 21st century:
1. Philippine repertoire has expanded enormously.
2. Technology and digitalization became key players in both the improvement and decline of choirs. 
3. The Philippine choral network has been a key player in the improvement of the relationships between choirs and choir conductors.
 
Repertoire
 
Eudenice Palaruan presents four key points to why the Philippine choral repertoire has enormously expanded. (1) The contribution of Asian Institutions like the Asian Institute in Liturgy and Music (AILM), (2) the copyright issue, (3) the Philippine choral network and (4) the national established competitions. 
 
A pioneer in training church musicians, AILM, which was founded by National Artist for Music, Francisco Feliciano, had the pure intention to train those who were willing to dedicate their time and money to the church’s music ministry. It stood as the foremost training centre in Asia for music and liturgy. Established in 1980 in the Campus of the Episcopal Church in Quezon City, it has given birth to new songs and younger choir conductors and musicians. AILM was also essentially involved in the expansion of Philippine choral works. Prolific musicians espoused Asian Choral Tradition. Sadly, AILM has become inactive in the last 2-3 years. 
 
Now comes the copyright issue. In the words of Palaruan, “Since other countries are strict with their copyright and performance right of their pieces, Filipinos opted to do their own works and to write their own literature with a minimal fee or sometimes free. In the Philippines, most composers would rather hear their works performed than hear their works bought. So between economy and artistic fulfilment, they would rather go for artistic fulfilment.”
Kompositor, founded on September 2012, is an organization of Filipino composers who have committed their work in enhancing and promoting Filipino music literature by (1) creating artistic, well-crafted Filipino compositions on a regular basis, (2) publishing readily available compositions in hard and digital formats, and (3) collaborating with individuals or groups willing to interpret such works, thus fostering advocacy in promoting original Filipino compositions. Notable members include Alejandro Consolacion, Joy Nilo, Jed Balsamo, Ronaldo Raz and Lester Delgado.
 
The Philippine choral network, which was started by the Philippine Madrigal Singers through Madz Et Al, also played a key part in this expansion. Other choral networks also came into play like the Church choir network which was started by the Jesuits, and the expansion of the “Indigenous Churches” like the Iglecia ni Cristo. The Indigenous Churches have long been advocating Filipino sermons. This means their masses are always in Filipino, thus the music. “They also have their own college of music where they espouse their own INC hymnology,” Palaruan said. 
 
Finally, the nationally established choral competitions, like The National Music Competition for Young Artists (NAMCYA) and the MBC National Choral Competition also paved the way for more and more Filipino compositions and arrangements. Original compositions were mostly, if not always, the competition piece for these competitions. 
 
Technology and Digitalization
 
The development of technology and the fast paced emergence of the digital world became both a good and a bad thing for conductors. Jai Aracama says how “kids before had no cell phones, no iPads, no texting, not even Pocketbells, so outlets or venues for expression were mainly coursed through watching movies, walking in the park, eating out with the family and (joining) choirs.”
As technology and digitalization arose, the need for face-to-face interaction was lessened. Choir singers who were not musically intelligent in terms of reading music can now easily learn their parts with programmes or applications like Sibelius or Finale. On the other hand, choir conductors could now do more detailed research regarding their repertoire. 
 
“At the time, it was more personal, and the influence of singing together was more collaborative and more cooperative; more personal rather than through media. As the years went by, it grew and grew.” 
Programmes or applications that help choristers learn their pieces faster can, indeed, be good or bad for the choir. Some choirs, according to Mark Anthony Carpio, “helps to have, for example, the performances of choirs from abroad available or accessible by choirs here, conductors here. Which was not the case, let’s say in the 90s. As long as the conductors know what to do, or how to go about teaching the music, that (digital means of learning) helps.” 
 
Philippine Choral Network
 
Jonathan “Jojo” Velasco, President and co-founder of the Philippine Choral Director’s Association (PCDA), explains how, in the 21st Century, more university choirs and Catholic Church choirs began to emerge. Not only were these choirs suddenly appearing into the scene, they were also competing nationally and internationally—and winning. 
 
“I can definitely say that most of the choirs who performed there, are very high-level choirs. Not all the conductors are music students or conducting graduates. Some of them have their own field of concentration, pero ang gagaling. Ang gagaling nila. (but they’re so good. They were so good),” Mark Carpio, of the Philippine Madrigal Singers, said, referring to the choirs who competed recently at the European Union-sponsored FEuropa Choral Competition last May 22 at the Far Eastern University, Manila.
 
A lot of our choirs now are competing against each other. But we can’t say for sure that this competitive spirit among some conductors is healthy. One of the observations of Velasco in his years of adjudicating choral competitions and interacting with conductors and choirs around the country is that there seems to be some kind of unhealthy competition among choirs. This means some choirs are starting to make “winning in competitions” the ultimate goal of their existence as a choral group. He says, however, that this is not a general observation as he can only notice this among a few choirs.  
 
One of the reasons for this sudden emergence of high-standard choirs in the Philippines can be attributed to PCDA and its vigilance in training conductors around the Philippines. 
Most of our choirs have been touring and competing more frequently than in the past. I believe that this is because of a more connected network of conductors which was initially started by the Philippine Madrigal Singers via Madz Et Al, and strengthened by the PCDA. 
 
Established in 2004, PCDA was not active until about 2009 when they had their first national convention in Davao City. I was a college student in the Ateneo de Davao University when they visited the city, and I remember being in the press conference of Velasco, who was there along with his Secretary General at the time, Oscar Pantaleon.
 
Since then, the board members of PCDA have seen a dramatic increase in standards among university choirs, high school choirs, grade school choirs and even Catholic Church choirs. This was the effect of the regular workshops, conventions and conferences of the PCDA and also the annual Kodaly Workshops by the Kodaly Society. 
 
“Overall, I would say, from 2000-2016, if you were to graph it, you would see a really ascending line especially in the last six to seven years,” says Velasco. 
 
There came a time when a tightly-knit choral network was established in the country. Conductors were talking to each other, learning from each other, and even failing together. So everyone was also improving with mentors like Jonathan Velasco, Eudy Palaruan and Mark Carpio leading the way for them. The spread of knowledge was viral; it was fast and  astonishing. As a result, more and more of them started touring and competing abroad. 
 
Because of its national and regional conferences held regularly everywhere in the country, there is now a marked improvement in the quality of the choirs outside Metro Manila. Velasco adds, “I think that’s something good that happened out of PCDA. People are more aware nationally of the choral movement. Also the audience now is levelling-up with regards to listening to repertoire they would not normally listen to.”
 
I believe that the Philippines has come a long way in terms of choral culture. From the Spanish era to the present, choral music has been part of our identity as a nation. We have become a choral nation and a nation that continues to build up its identity in its music and its art. 
 
The past 15 years have proven how choral conductors, both graduates and non-graduates of music degrees, have become smarter in terms of their choice of songs and professionalism towards other conductors. 
 
We also observed how social media and the rise of the digital and technological age have done more good than harm. In terms of learning how to read music and doing extensive research for well-crafted repertoire, the Filipinos have done wonderfully. 
 
As they say, there’s nowhere to go but up. Hopefully, this upward graph in terms of well thought-of repertoire, technological advantages in rehearsal and performance practice, and quality in music continues on in the years to come.  (Kevin Gomez is a sophomore at the University of the Philippines College of Music. —ed.)
Bibliography
Delgado, R. (n.d.). The Choral Works of Robert Delgado (Vol. 1). Manila: The Voice of Manila.
CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (Vol. 6). (1994). Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines
Sambalikhaan Foundation and AILM. (2012). Retrieved May 24, 2016, from http://www.sambalikhaan.org/ 
Kompositor. (2012, September). Retrieved May 25, 2016, from https://web.facebook.com/KompositorPH/?fref=ts