Musician Faith Ragland speaks to ESTHER ELIAS about his tryst with instruments and choirs in towns across Tamil Nadu and Kerala .
Faith Ragland’s living room narrates an elaborate love relationship with music. Two acoustic guitars hang from walls, a cello stands upright beside a cased violin, a keyboard lies uncovered beside piano shaped floor tiles and a music stand with open notations sits pretty beside a happy Christmas tree.
It’s the perfect introduction to a man who’s trained and conducted numerous choirs across Tamil Nadu, and now conducts the Coimbatore Chamber Chorale (CCC). The CCC is among the few choirs in South India to clear the prestigious Silver Choral Assessment by Trinity College of London (TCL) and the first city choir to do so. Faith, himself, is a practitioner and professor of sports physiotherapy, a Performers level violinist and a Grade V cellist, who plays the piano for kicks.
Faith’s musical journey began in a small home in Sivakasi where he was one of three brothers, each of whom sang a voice in their home-grown quartet. At 10, he learnt the violin from his self-taught father. By 17, he’d completed five Trinity Grades. Every year, he’d travel with an uncle to Madras (then, the only centre in the State the British examiner would come to), lunch at Buhari outside Musee Musicals and give the Grade exam. “The exam hall was the first time I even saw a piano, and the trip’s highlight was the Rs. 100 we’d be gifted by local organisations if we topped!”
Finding a voice
Without a formal tutor, his growth as a violinist stagnated after Grade V. Later, academic pursuits drew him to Christian Medical College, Vellore, where his memories of fiddling with his father’s bellow organ were put to use in the chapel choir. Eventually, his voice was too. “My foundations of conducting were laid here — from the importance of diction to choir discipline,” says Faith. It was also here that he conducted his first choir of 20 children. “They couldn’t catch a pitch when we began, but in two years, they were singing Handel’s Messiah! That’s the beauty of raw voices. They can be honed to stretch to surprising limits.”
The experience stood him well in Nazareth, a small town in Thoothukudi, where he worked in a hospital. On weekdays, he completed his violin Grades. On weekends, he travelled to Srivilliputhur to conduct a youth choir. Here, traditional anthems were contemporised and new-age songs stood at par with age-worn ones. “Srivilliputhur taught me the art of selecting a repertoire that spanned a wide spectrum. While the music that Bach and Mozart wrote are sketches for us to interpret, contemporary music has a depth that resonates with today’s audience,” says Faith.
The music was further modernised in Tiruchirappalli, where marriage took Faith. The local church replaced the organ with a keyboard and vocal rhythms with live percussion. Alongside, he began teaching street children the violin. Three even completed their Grade III exams. “Teaching individuals is a whole other ballgame from conducting choirs. Teaching largely depends on the student’s commitment and motivation, but conducting requires you to connect with each individual in your group and link their abilities to your vision,” says Faith.
This knowledge gave most fruit during Faith’s first job after post-graduation at Somervell Memorial Mission Hospital in Karakonam, a town near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. In his six years there, he built a hundred-voice choir from scratch, replete with tailor-made choir robes and a library of choral music to call their own. “They were from varied cultural backgrounds and of even more varied musical expertise,” says Faith. Rock and pop blended with choral arrangements (and, sometimes, Carnatic elements), backed often by the Trivandrum Chamber Orchestra.
“It’s where I learnt to read music vertically, not horizontally. Each new stave will tell you the musical elements needed, so you match available resource with requirement.” His professionalism here won him a scholarship to the yearly Sarteano Chamber Choral Conducting Workshop in Italy. There, he learnt the detailed preparation that every choir rehearsal demands as well as the particular colour each period of music has.
Building a repertoire
Faith’s journey of learning has come together in CCC’s repertoire and style. Two months after their performance at Kasthuri Srinivasan Gallery, the 40-voice choir headed to All Soul’s Church, Race Course, to perform three vocal exercises and three arrangements in 25 minutes before a TCL examiner who graded them 84 on 100 (High Merit) — three short of Distinction. The next Friday, they were back in YMCA for their weekly rehearsal, this time to perform with Austria’s 84-strong Vienna University Orchestra and Choir, which will visit Coimbatore in February 2013.
Says Faith, “When a conductor becomes sensitive to every choir member’s phrasing, articulation, dynamics and vocal shaping till every voice’s natural timbre comes out, and the choir becomes sensitive to the conductor’s every lead, the experience of coming together is unparalleled.”