The Star, December 21, 2007

Making music with the vocal cord

A cappella singers do it without instruments

Story and photos by Renita C. W.

Unless you are Italian, a Catholic priest or a choral singer, you would probably not know what the term “a cappella” means.

In the old days in Europe, when money was scarce and entertainment an elusive luxury, neighbours would sit around their little close-knit community and sing together as a means of fellowship and fun. They sang without the use of musical instruments.

With the rigors of institutionalised religion, this sort of community singing got translated into the Western churches.

A cappella refers to singing by a group of people in a church. In the old days, no music instrument was used to accompany the singing. The singers harmonized the tone of their voices to create the musical effect.

The reason no musical instrument was used was basically because most people could not afford them. At the same time, music instruments were considered by the conservative religious leaders to be unholy, immoral and even as an abomination as they were then generally used for the decadent arts or to call horses at the races.

A cappella, hence, is perhaps the least expensive orchestra musical group to organise. There is no need to buy expensive gold plated mouthpiece instrument, or a dreadfully expensive Stradivarius violin, or even a cheap simple flute or panpipe.

All a person need is his or her own vocal cord, controlling the voice from the low timbre and lullaby like the basses, all the way to the high-pitched, ear piercing sopranos.

The pure human voice, with all its harmonious beauty, despite its evident imperfections, makes a cappella a truly unique genre. It has that creative human element to it, with nothing else to boost it or augment its quality.

Today, choral groups that employ the singing of music in harmony without the use of music instruments are called “a cappella” choirs.

The SnL is one such group comprising 10 very bewildered and mazy singers, including a struggling writer, a Korean drama enthusiast, a retired piano teacher, a hospital equipment specialist, a regional manager of some IT product company, a freelance architect and two lecturers. Almost all have different degrees of piano skills.

Although the SnL is made up of 10 singers, each of them takes turns to sing at various events, depending on their availability.

In keeping with the tradition of a cappella of not using music instruments, the SnL singers use their vocal cord to simulate sounds of music instruments to sing harmonously together.

While they are adept at performing jazz and close harmony, they have also sung light rock, madrigals, pop, blues and some classical works.

But what they enjoy most is carol-singing during Christmas time in the supermarkets and hotel lobbies.

“However tough the day has been, it always makes our day when we see listeners pass by with a wide grin on their faces,” SnL founding member and group leader Serena Djatnika said.

According to Serena, some foreigners from the West have often expressed their nostalgia for their home and family while listening to the carolling.

Serena said that to sing a cappella together in such a group was no easy task.

“Other than ensuring that we sing the right note, we also have to understand each other’s singing styles,” she said.

Serena said that each member would have to find the balance of ensuring every one of their voices was heard and blended well with the voices of the other singers.

“It is interesting to note that each singer gives a personal touch to his or her own sound to form one harmonious sound that each of them cannot produce alone,” Serena said.

“In a way, a cappella is like a lesson in human interaction. We can’t all be divas, and we all have to learn to meet heads on, no two ways about it. One for all and all for one,” SnL member Quan Zhin Teng said.

Quan said the time he spent in singing in the group had been an interesting and exhilarating experience, especially when their voices started to blend with each other to achieve an overall harmonious sound.

Another enthusiastic member Lisa Ho concurred with Quan, saying that the SnL was all about learning to blend well musically.

“It does not mean we all sound alike, but that each person has a part of him or her that is uniquely SnL. It only comes out when we sing together, and laugh together. That is how life is. We learn to adapt and make it beautiful,” Lisa said.

“Think of the SnL as a giant blender for a milk shake. We want to taste the vanilla, milk, banana and cream, but not too much of any of them, else it will spoil the entire shake,” Lisa said.

“That is what the SnL is all about — learning to give and take to ensure we have the right “milk shake,” Serena said.

The SnL performs at different occasions, including birthday parties, wedding and corporate functions.