I breathe deeply, readying myself. The sound of 100 adolescents from all over the world erupts so loud I can feel the vibrations in my feet. In this prestigious Association for Music in International Schools’ (AMIS) high school honor choir festival, many cultures merge in a vibrant combination, creating dissonance.
This annual festival, AMIS, hosts around 200 high school students from international schools around the world for five days, usually from a Wednesday to a Sunday. During the day on Thursday and Friday, we spend the whole day (equivalent of a school day) rehearsing up to 11 songs with our respective choirs and the festival culminates on a Saturday with a gala concert that is live streamed around the world.
There are three choirs: the Soprano-Alto choir, the Tenor-Bass choir, and the Mixed choir. The Mixed choir is generally composed of about 100 singers, while each of the other two are made up of 50 each. Each has a distinct sound and atmosphere. While I haven’t been part of the Tenor-Bass choir, I have equally enjoyed singing in both the Soprano-Alto choir and the Mixed choir. While the former choir is more intimate, the latter has a more full sound as eight separate vocal parts unite in harmony, an experience that was rare and breathtaking for me, as a singer coming from choirs mostly made up of women.
There are three conductors for the three choirs, and it is these conductors who chose the repertoire (songs we will sing during the festival). All the conductors are experts in the musical world, and each brings something unique to the choir, playing a crucial part in its sound. Our conductor in Berlin (2018), for example, chose some of her songs to speak to the feminine experience, and we spent part of rehearsals discussing this. Our conductor from last year, on the other hand, was more vocal about historical oppression and conflicts, with his songs portraying slavery, Apartheid, and the Holocaust. While these conductors had vastly different styles, both contributed to my experience at AMIS and allowed me to grow immensely as a musician.
The songs themselves hail from many corners of the world, are composed in many different languages, and are set in many different contexts. For example, three of the most moving songs from AMIS last year were “Great God Almighty,” which conveyed a slave’s plea to God for their pain to end; “Khutso,” which translates to “peace” and was composed during the Apartheid; and “Even When He is Silent,” a song based off of words found inscribed on a wall in a concentration camp: “I believe in the sun, even when it's not shining/ I believe in love, even when I feel it not/ I believe in God, even when He is silent.”
AMIS is hosted in a different country every year. A primary and particularly enjoyable part of each festival involves exploring the host country. Whether it was visiting the local market in Hong Kong (2014) or going dune bashing in Abu Dhabi (2017), these festivals have allowed me to explore each country in a novel way. I have also gotten to know them through music, whether it was through attending a concert of choral chamber music in Berlin (2018) or a Kung Fu show in Beijing (2019).
What is so special about AMIS, unlike other festivals around the world, is that it is international; choirs are composed of individuals from all over the world, each of whom have a unique voice and perspective to add to the ensemble. And, each individual is very qualified, as they have passed through selective auditions (around 1 in 6 high schoolers is selected to participate), making for a choir of high caliber. Beyond the choir, though, one of the highlights of the festival is meeting like-minded individuals who are just as passionate (and sometimes just as nerdy) about music as you are. Especially when you have been attending festivals for a long timespan, as I have, you tend to meet the same people every year and form new friendships. After all, as Mr. Montgomery, the head of AMIS, reminds us every year “Amis means “friends” in French.”
This year’s festival, which was to be hosted in Muscat, Oman, was unfortunately cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. As this would have been my seventh year attending AMIS, I was extremely disappointed. However, I know that the memories I have made at AMIS, whether they be of the countries I had the opportunity to explore, the musical knowledge and inside jokes I shared with the conductors and the larger choir each year, the songs I thoroughly enjoyed singing, or the friendships I formed with people from all over the world, will stay with me. AMIS has been and will continue to be one of the highlights of my high school experience.
The song is almost over. Glancing around me, I finally grasp why I return to this festival each year. In uniting diverse people, AMIS has created a group made up of many voices - each voice distinctive in the dissonance. I realize now that “dissonance” is a misnomer. In blending many voices, it is truly harmony.