It was just last January when students of the American University of Sharjah (AUS) Choral Ensemble began training to sing. Some were novices, others had voices well honed by years of practice and a few were truly gifted.

This month, the group delighted colleagues on campus with their first performance at the AUS Spring Choral Concert.

Active participation

Almost 60 undergraduate students performed at the choral concert, which is part of the class work of the Visual and Performing Arts Programme.

Students performed a wide range of music including Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, Brahm's Three Folksongs , Hewitt's Symphony of Brotherhood, Mansour Bakheet's Ya Ommy, Al Rayhan Band's Tala'a Al Badro Alaina among others.

The students come from a wide spectrum of academic disciplines and majors. Some of them were singing for the first time.

A passion for music

Janet Hassouneh, AUS adjunct faculty in the Visual and Performing Arts Programme and director of the choral ensemble, said: "Music is a phenomenon known to all people in all ages and the study of music lies naturally at the heart of a liberal education."

Hassouneh said that AUS's programme aimed to develop choral and individual singing techniques through the study and practice of a wide selection of music including Western art music from the 17th century to the present, world folk songs, musical theatre and Western popular styles.

"The students have a real passion for music and the performing arts. For the first Choral Ensemble class we did not hold auditions for students to enter the course, but we will do so for next year's course as it has proven to be quite popular now. By holding auditions it will further raise the standard of this exciting choral ensemble," said Hassouneh.

Performance jitters

Tenor Abdullah Al Khateeb said the experience of performing in front of a large audience was nerve-racking. "It was different. I've never done something like this before," he said.

The 20-year-old civil engineering student was part of the Phantom of the Opera medley, which is among his favourite songs.

Al Khateeb admits that at first he took the class to get an easy three credits "but by the end, after a lot of hard work, I was having so much fun and meeting people from different majors".

For mass communication and advertising major Shahd Mahmoud, the reason she joined he ensemble was her "unbelievable passion for music". The Egyptian national is head coordinator of the alto section and helped her group practise. She is also a pianist.

Omar Abu Holy, 21, said: "This is by far the best class I've taken. I took it as a free elective and don't regret it at all."

The civil engineering student, who was part of a performance of Luigi Denza's Funiculi, Funicula, said he probably would not pursue singing as a career but enjoyed singing in the choral ensemble immensely.

Abu Holy was also quick to sing the praises of Hassouneh. "She's one of the most amazing, caring and sweetest people I've ever met. I came to class because I like her, not because I have to attend. I've had zero absences in this class while I have skipped other classes," he said.

Broadening horizons

The AUS Choral Ensemble is part of the College of Arts and Sciences that has increased its offerings in music, drama and art classes.

Hassouneh was brought on board as a music teacher to get the choral programme going. "I'm very happy to say that there's a lot more waiting to happen in the classes to come," she said.

Currently Hassouneh's classes entail training students to improve their individual singing capabilities and to cultivate their abilities to sing music that is written in unison and in four part harmony which means further training with the singer's aural skills.

Music reading is also taught. "Most of these students are of Arab origin and so most have advanced aural skills, which are part of their culture. They can reproduce complex rhythms easily. I teach them to read music as it opens them up to many kinds of music, which is not normally part of their day-to-day music experience," Hassouneh said.

Students are exposed to a variety of musical styles as well, which broadens their cultural perspective, she added.

Choral singers at a glance

A choral group usually has the following structure:

Soprano is the high female voice. They usually sing the melody. Because our ears are calibrated to hear higher pitches more clearly, the soprano is usually what we hear first when we listen to a choir.

Alto is the low female voice. They sing harmony, which usually means lots of work and little glory. You'd certainly notice the difference, though, if they all got tired and left. Altos add warmth and richness to the sound.

Tenor is the high male voice. The tenor voice is relatively rare, which is why tenors are valued in the choral world. They add brilliance to the sound.

Bass is the low male voice. Don't pronounce it to rhyme with "grass"—that kind of bass is a fish! "Bass" sounds just like "base," and that's what they are: the base of the choir's sound.

Treble, mezzo-soprano and baritone are a few other voice types you might encounter. "Treble" is usually used for boys who sing in the soprano range. "Mezzo-soprano" is the medium female voice, higher than alto and lower than soprano. "Baritone" is the medium male voice, higher than bass and lower than tenor.

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