When the German organisation Interkultur recently updated its world rankings, The Bangkok Voices choir found itself in 12th place in the pop, jazz, gospel, spiritual category and 86th in the world's top 1,000 choirs. It's a rapid rise and acknowledgement of the passion of the award-winning, 26-member Thai choir and founder Dr Kittiporn Tantrarungroj, who has also been the dedicated conductor from its humble beginnings in 2005.
Dr Kittiporn Tantrarungroj, choir master of The Bangkok Voices.
The choir won a gold medal at the 2007 Asian Choir Games in Jakarta, two golds at the 2009 Pattaya Grand Prix, and two gold certificates from the 2012 Xinghai Prize International Choir Championship held in Guanzhou.
These achievements have made it worthwhile for the 50-something doctor, whose life has been about conducting choirs as much as performing surgeries. Before establishing The Bangkok Voices, the surgeon was the conductor of the Suanplu Chorus for five years.
Thailand is still in the early stages of choral development, he said. Serving as the vice-president of the Thailand Choral Association, Dr Kittiporn is on a mission to develop the country's choirs so that more can achieve a listing in the world rankings.
Tell us how you got interested in choral music.
As a native of Hat Yai, I'm a country boy who was more exposed from an early age to luk thung and luk krung than Western pop music. Going to church, however, got me acquainted with choral music, which has become a big part of my life.
Why didn't you study music instead of medicine?
I actually wanted to study music but had to follow my father's wishes in going to medical school. He thought that as a doctor, I would be able to help other people more than I would being a musician.
Seeing how missionary doctors in Hat Yai helped the sick made me want to be like them. So after finishing high school in Thailand, I went to Singapore, then the Philippines where I took my medical education and also pursued my interest in music by taking courses and joining the university choir.
In addition, I also learned the art of conducting a choir. After returning from abroad, I was assigned to be a conductor for the choir in the church I attended. Later, I felt that I needed to broaden my horizons and do something beyond church music, leading to my collaboration with Ajarn Dusdi Banomyong in setting up the Suanplu Chorus.
Please describe how it is to be a choirmaster.
Besides a knowledge of music, a choirmaster has to do several things at the same time when he or she is directing a performance, which entails listening well and getting choir singers to perform as one. Of course, we need to have good ears in order to identify who's off-pitch and help singers correctly hit notes. Equally important is to have good intentions in your efforts to help them, so I'm more like a brother, father to my choir members.
What qualities are required for a good choir singer?
Many people might think that singing together is all the choir needs to do. No, there are a lot more things one has to consider. Choir singers should be able to sing well and interpret different types of music for choral singing. The Bangkok Voices, for instance, perform a broad repertoire, from Thai derm and luk thung to classical English and Chinese songs.
How do you feel every time you pick up the baton?
I feel that I'm up to a big challenge. I want my choir members to remember what we have practised and perform well so that the audience enjoys and appreciates what we have to offer.
After the performance, I want the audience to take back good and fond memories and hope that they will look forward to our next performance.
How can Thailand do better in choir competitions?
Participating in international competitions is very important for The Bangkok Voices in order to be a benchmark with choirs from other countries where the choir scene is much more developed than Thailand.
At these competitions, we really have to be good otherwise the other choirs and audience may raise their eyebrows, thinking: "What on Earth is the Thai choir singing?" With our success at international level, The Bangkok Voices serves as an example in making good choral music to inspire more choirs to follow in our footsteps.
Currently, the Thailand Choral Association is collaborating with an office under the Ministry of Education to promote forming choirs in schools.
We are helping them by training teachers how to properly train a choir. Hopefully, in a few years time, we will have a lot of good school choirs.
I'm looking forward to my well-earned retirement, when I can fully focus on music and the development of choirs in Thailand.
On a lighter note (pardon the pun), do you listen to music when performing surgery in the operating room?
I wish we could do that. But it is not the practice here. One reason perhaps is the different musical preferences of people in the OR.
What is your musical preference besides choral music?
Living abroad for over eight years, I was exposed to Western classical music and fell in love with it.
I was hooked on a radio programme which aired classical music all day long. Listening to the music, I would fall to sleep and the next morning, I would wake up to the sound of beautiful classical music because the radio was still turned on.
I like classical music because it is very soothing to the mind, body and spirit. Besides, there are a lot of things I can learn from this type of music.
Since not many Thais were keen on this type of music, I was asked to write reviews of classical music concerts and found myself a music critic for the Bangkok Post for a few years. Many considered my write-ups as quite straightforward, while others thought they were nasty (laughs).
How stressful is a surgeon's job?
Looking back 20 years ago, there were not many doctors working upcountry, and the medical equipment was not as good as today and so it was a lot of hard work when I was a young surgeon at a Phuket hospital. The workload really burned me out.
So I took charge of my life by moving to Bangkok, where I would have more opportunities for music-making.
I don't want to be a workaholic who makes a lot of money, because in the end, you can't take even 1 baht with you. Life is short, and as much as possible, you should enjoy it by balancing work with something that you really want to do.
Is music your remedy for stress?
Music helps me cope with stress by calming me down. On some days, when I get home with a lot of stress, I would go to the piano and play something really loud. All the tension and energy is released on the keyboard, and I would feel much better after that.
About the author
- Writer: Kanokporn Chanasongkram