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THE DEVELOPMENT OF MALAYSIAN UNIVERSITY

CHOIR: A CASE STUDY ON CURRENT CHORAL PRACTICE
FROM THE PERSPECTIVES OF CHOIR MEMBERS
Dayang Siti Aishah Awang Matali1 and Thia Sock Siang2

1
Faculty of Applied Art & Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Malaysia
ssthia@unimas.my

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this study was to study the development of Malaysian university choirs. Specifically, this study
focused on current choral practice from the perspectives of choir members. Although the number of university
choirs has multiplied over the past twenty years due to the increased tertiary music programs being offered in
Malaysia, very few studies have been conducted from the choir members’ perspective, especially in the
Malaysian context. In seeking greater understanding, this study was conducted using quantitative method.
Questionnaire was distributed to choir members from selected universities to gain insight into their experiences
with the choirs, to discuss the challenges they faced, and to seek strategies in improving the overall quality of the
choir. As a result, all choir members acknowledged the importance of choral activities. Financial constraint was
the most crucial challenge faced by the choir groups. Besides, greater opportunities to get involved in
performances and competitions especially outside Malaysia was essential to ensure a better standard of the choir
as a whole. A lot of talents are supposed to be seen and assisted as they are also contributing to the good
reputation of a university as well as a country. Financial problem should not be an obstacle to the development of
choir in Malaysia. Therefore, this study provides a better understanding about the development of university
choirs in Malaysia by looking at the choir members’ experience, identifying challenges faced by them, and
formulate possible strategies in order to raise the overall standard of university choirs in Malaysia.

Keywords: Choir, Choir Member, Choral, Malaysian University Choir

1. INTRODUCTION

Choral music refers to music which is sung by a choir group. Choir is an organized
group of singers who sing together, especially in church (Collins English Dictionary, 2009)
while OnMusic Dictionary (1999) defined choir as a group of singers who usually sing in
parts with several voices on each part. There are several types of choir: 1) Mixed Choir which
is the most common type consist of Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass voices often abbreviated
as SATB; 2) Male Choirs which have the same SATB voicing as mixed choir but with men
singing the upper part called trebles or boy soprano and men singing the alto known as
countertenors; and 3) Female Choir which consist of soprano and alto voices and this type of
choir often abbreviated as SSAA. Choral singing has been more important and popular than
ever in society in the 20th century, with increasing numbers in both size and quality of school
and college choirs. In addition, choral music has also become an essential part of the school
curriculum (Garretson, 1993). Singing in choir is ‘being with’ and ‘doing with’ which
highlight qualities of interconnected among the members and it give new experiences of unity.
The choir serves as a platform where the choir members felt safe, connected with other
people, and experiences a sense of unity (Hetty, Astrid & Staffan, 2008).
There is still a lot of work to be done to bring Malaysia's choir to international
standard choir. In Malaysia, there are several platforms that are polishing and highlighting
artistic talents especially in choir among children until adolescents. For example, Permata
Seni Koir under the administration of Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara (JKKN),

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and Young Choral Academy (YCA) which was established by Malaysian choral director,
Susanna Saw. Permata Seni Koir serves as a platform for children gifted in singing to be
given exposure to vocal art especially choir. They taught vocals through reading and listening,
as well as sing in harmony in choir group. Besides that, Young Choral Academy (YCA) also
work with children’s, school, youth, collegiate and university choir from all over Malaysia
and they provide mentorship specifically in areas of choral development and management.
Both organizations play a significant and very important role in providing exposure, forming,
and honouring children’s and teenage talents in the early stages. With their initial exposure to
music, it provides useful experience and knowledge before they enter the university or engage
more seriously in music especially in choir.
There are many choir groups set up for example, church choir, government and private
department choir, community choir, and choir at higher education institution such as public
and private universities and colleges. After conducting surveys on choir groups at several
universities and colleges in Malaysia, the survey found that there are two type of choir groups
set up. The first group was a choir group who signed up for examination purpose. Choir
members comprise students from faculty or music programs who enrolled for choir subject
and they are required to attend the choir class according to the schedule set by the university
and preparation for choir examination will be conducted by the choir lecturer during the class
session. Whereas, the second type of choir group is a choir group set up for performance and
competitions at national and international levels. They are comprised of current students who
are merged with the former students of the university and the members of this group are not
necessarily students of music faculty. The purpose of establishing such choir groups is to
bring their respective university profile to national and international level through
competitions and performances. This group is guided by conductor who are experienced in
choirs. The annual choir festival among public universities in Malaysia plays a significant role
in promoting the choral singing culture, and at the same time it is the only way to motivate the
members to give full commitment and participation to attend extra rehearsals and to strive for
quality.
In choral singing, a person who lead the choir is called choral director or choral
conductor. According to Jansson (2013), leadership is needed whenever a group of people
sings or plays together and it’s not just for deciding when to start and stop the music. As a
choral conductor, teaching a choir group is not an easy and simple task. According to Phillips
(2004), it is important for today’s conductor to know something about the roots and the
foundation of the choral art. Additionally, as eloquently stated by Willets (2009), there are
four most important skills needed in a conductor which are a) the ability to inspire and
encourage the best from one’s singers, b) the ability to translate and transmit musical ideas
and phrases, c) the ability to detect problems such as pitch, rhythm, balance, and diction and
d) the ability to correct there problems through efficient and effective techniques. Besides
leading a practice, rehearsal, or choir performance, a conductor also plays a role in selecting
the appropriate and suitable choir repertoire (Broeker, 2000), recruit choir members (Philips,
1994), organize choir rehearsal and performance (Ekholm, 2002), train the singers (Norris,
2004; Henry, 2001), and plan rehearsal and performance schedules (Philips, 1994). To
establish an appropriate and effective rehearsal atmosphere, the conductor’s rehearsal
behaviour certainly occupies an important role (Price and Byo, 2002).
In order to improve music awareness and raise the quality of music in Malaysia, we
require good music teachers. Each conductor might have their own rehearsal methods used in
a choral ensemble since they have their responsibility to achieve the best results, and personal
growth of everyone in the group through increasing musical awareness and skill (Bauman,
2013). As mentioned by Blackburn (2014), rote teaching is a technique used by many
community choirs in various countries. In Malaysian context, it is the way of teaching
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traditional Malay songs and it is used by many generations besides, it would be a successful
and specifically ‘Malaysian’ way to teach in choir. It was also analyses by Trimillos (1983)
that the music teaching system traditions around the world and found that rote teaching is an
intercultural constant. Conductors and educators not supporting rote teaching may argue that
although rote teaching may be effective at teaching songs, but it is an ineffective way to
prepare the students or choir members for future music challenges (Cremata, 2003). Phillips
(2004) explained that choral directors must have a strong understanding of the voice as an
instrument because “many fine sounding choruses have been produced by directors for whom
voice was not the major instrument” (p. 222).
Malaysia is one of the country which is rich in musical heritage. Every ethnicity plays
a significant role in promoting Malaysian identity in term of culture, particularly the music
itself. However, there is less music groups, especially choir that highlights and promotes
Malaysian music in their performances. The present generation is influenced by pop music
and they give less attention to the musical culture that reflects the culture of Malaysia.
Malaysian choirs participating in international level competitions often find it very difficult to
locate music which represents our culture. This matter is closely related to the quality of
arrangements by our local composers. In recent years, various choir workshops and
competitions were successfully organized in Malaysia. This is a good start to further increase
awareness and quality of singing and performance in choir among choir groups, at the same
time be able to attract more students and music teachers to set up their new choir group.
However, this can be enhanced by inviting choir experts from abroad to help raise awareness
and the standard of choral singing.
There are many other areas to be improve such as providing better halls with good
acoustics for voice, obtaining better financial and media support including financial support
from Malaysian government, non-government organization and public. Financial health is
vital for the long-term success of the non-profit performing arts organization. Direct state
funding to the arts in the United Kingdom since the Second World War has been increase in
its amount and its consistency (Kirchner, Markowski & Ford, 2016). Harvie (2006) indicated
that the implied and unambiguous reason for the government to support art is to; a) foster
excellence; b) help keep arts accessible to all despite their proportional cost of production; c)
be aware of important value in developing quality of life; and d) to auxiliary education or
raising profile of the country.
As stated above, it is supported by the report by the International Federation of Choral
Musicians, Malaysian Choir Director, Saw (2008) which she outlined the issues she identified
as holding Malaysian choral music development back. The issues are: a) a lot of properly
trained teachers and musicians but not many of them are trained in choral conducting; b) lack
of music; c) lack of time or knowledge to find music scores online; d) inability to choose
suitable music for the choir; e) lack of local music arranged for choir-folk songs and not
widely revived by musician; f) insufficient training in the field of choral arrangement; and g)
composers in Malaysia focus more on orchestral works. There are several crucial areas which
need to be focused on now with a view towards long-term investment.

2. OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY

The purpose of this study was to conduct a survey among university choir regarding
their choir experiences in university, challenges faced by the choir members and their
initiative to upgrade their quality in choir. Based on the purpose of this study, there are several
objectives that should be considered as research guide: 1) to investigate the development of
university choir members in Malaysia; 2) to determine the experiences faced by university
choir members; and 3) to identify the challenges faced by university choir members. The
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purpose of this study is to investigate the challenges that limit the development of university
choir in Malaysia. Understanding development issues could give us- universities; academics;
researcher; choral conductors; and students- better perspectives that can help in formulating
and designing strategies that can be done to improve the quality of university choir in
Malaysia.

3. METHODS

This research specifically was conducted using Case Study of Developmental
Research Method (Chua, 2016). Research is conducted using questionnaires as research
instruments and the data collected from survey research was in quantitative forms.
Meanwhile, the data collections were collected based on the primary source- a questionnaires.
The questionnaire was distributed to the choir members via Google Form. All questions
answered based on their own opinion and point of view. The secondary data was collected
from articles, books, websites, and other sources that have a suitable reading and explanations
related to the research topic.
Respondents (n=100) consist of choir members from Universiti Teknologi MARA
(UiTM), Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), and UCSI University who are involved in
choir performance and competition at national and international level were required to answer
a set of questionnaires. The experience of choral singing in a university choir is the criteria in
selecting the samples. This was to ensure that all respondents are competent choir members
and active in the choral singing field.
A set of questionnaires were designed and distributed to the choir members. It consists
of four sections. Each section is provided with clear instructions. Section A is a multiple-
choice question while Sections B, C, and D use 5-points Likert rating scales: 1- strongly
disagree, 2- disagree, 3- not sure, 4- agree, and 5- strongly agree. The four sections in the
questionnaires are; a) demographic background where demographic information of choir
members for the independent variables- gender, age, name of university, qualification, major
instrument, voice type (SATB), and choir singing involvement are collected; b) choir
experiences with the purpose to reflect on the experience as a choir member at the institution
and to get a clearer view on activities and their experience throughout their study in
university; c) challenges faced by choir members with the purpose to determine the challenges
faced by choir members in participating in choir group, and; d) initiative undertaken by the
choir members which focuses on the time spent in a week doing activities as stated in the
questionnaire.
After the questionnaire have been answered, raw data were transcribed from the sets of
questionnaires. The collected and sorted data were further evaluated using Cronbach’s Alpha
in Statistical Package for the Social Science (SPSS). Besides, Smart PLS software were used
to generate data to find out factors that influenced their experiences, challenges, and initiatives
undertaken by the choir members.

4. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

This section discusses the findings of the analysed quantitative data obtained from the
study based on the research questions. Through data collection and analysis, three focus were
observed to explain the respondents’ perspectives towards the experience, challenges, and
initiatives which contributes to the development of university choir in Malaysia.
Questionnaire have been distributed to target choir members through Google Form
and as many as n=100 choir members have answered the questions completely within two
months. After all questions were answered, researcher entered the data into SPSS and analyse
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reliability of the questions using Cronbach’s Alpha. Based on preliminary result in Table 1
below, level of reliability is sufficient where α= .953. It was supported by Nunnally’s rule-of-
thumb, assessment that achieves an alpha (α) that exceeds .70 as the level of reliability is
sufficient. Scale to measure the reliability has been recommended by Nunnally (1978) where
reliability of .70 or more (but not much beyond .80) is for basic research, and between .90 and
.95 in cases where important decisions are to be made based on the assessment scores
(Nunnally, 1978).

Table 1: Reliability Statistic of Cronbach’s Alpha

Reliability Statistics
Cronbach's Cronbach's Alpha N of Items
Alpha Based on
Standardized Items
.953 .950 37

4.1 Demographic Background

The questionnaire of this research was answered by n=100 choir members from
Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), and UCSI
University. The items in this section comprised of: 1) gender; 2) age; 3) university; 4)
qualification; 5) formal music education; 6) major instrument; and 7) years of involvement in
choir.

Table 2: Demographic Background

GENDER Male 43%
Female 57%
AGE 18-20 2%
21-23 43%
24-26 39%
27 & above 16%
UNIVERSITY UiTM 57%
UPSI 25%
UCSI 18%
QUALIFICATION Diploma 14%
Degree 83%
Master 3%
FORMAL MUSIC Yes 40%
EDUCATION
No 60%
MAJOR INSTRUMENT Vocal 73% S 29%
A 10%
T 24%
B 10%
Piano 15%
C. Guitar 4%
Others 1% respectively
YEARS OF INVOLVEMENT 1-2 years 27%

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IN CHOIR 3-4 years 26%
5-6 years 17%
7-8 years 15%
9-10 years 8%
Others 7%

Out of N=100 choir members, (43%) were male and (57%) were female. Members
from age 18-27 and above are ranked accordingly. There were more samples from age
between 21-23 years old (43%), followed by age 24-26 years old (39%), (16%) from age 27
and above, and (2%) of 18-20 years old. There are (57%) choir members from UiTM, (25%)
from UPSI, and (18%) choir members from UCSI. From n=100 choir members who answered
the questionnaire, majority of them (83%) have a bachelor’s Degree in music qualification,
(14%) Diploma in Music, and (3%) Master in Music. A majority (60%) of choir members did
not learned music before entering music program in university. In contrast, only (40%) have
music background such as ABRSM, private music class, and Sekolah Seni Malaysia. There
are a majority of (73%) are a vocalist where Soprano (29%), Alto (10%), Tenor (24%), and
Bass (11%). In contrast, (27%) are instrumentalist and highest rated instrument are the piano
(15%), classical guitar (4%), while another instrument was rated (1%) respectively. The
duration of how long that choir members have involved in choir are mostly dominant by the
first 4 years where 1-2 years (27%), 3-4 years (26%), followed by 5-6 years (17%), and 7-8
years (15%). The most experienced choir member among the respondents rated (8%) for 9-10
years and (7%) rated ‘other’ where they stated up to 14 years of experience in choir.

4.2 Experience

This section seeks to discover the choir experience as a university choir member and
provide the view based on the options stated in the questionnaire. Table 4 show the ranking by
mean response values of each choir experience in university feedback where mean response
values are identical for multiple items of a Likert rating scale. The higher the mean response
value, the more important the choir experience of choir members at their institution.

Table 3: Choir members’ experience

Choir Members’ Experience
N Minimum Maximum Mean
SB1 100 1.00 5.00 4.1600
SB2 100 1.00 5.00 4.1900
SB3 100 1.00 5.00 4.1400
SB4 100 1.00 5.00 4.1700
SB5 100 1.00 5.00 4.0600
SB6 100 1.00 5.00 4.2000
SB7 100 1.00 5.00 4.2200
SB8 100 1.00 5.00 4.0400
SB9 100 1.00 5.00 4.1100
SB10 100 1.00 5.00 4.3400
SB11 100 1.00 5.00 4.3300
SB12 100 1.00 5.00 4.2000
SB13 100 1.00 5.00 4.3400
SB14 100 1.00 5.00 4.1500

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SB15 100 1.00 5.00 4.1800
SB16 100 1.00 5.00 4.1800
SB17 100 1.00 5.00 4.2900
SB18 100 1.00 5.00 4.2700
Valid N 100
(listwise)

Table 4 shows that “SB 10= Opportunities to get involved in competition will improve
the singing quality of choir” and “SB 13= financial support from the university help to
increase the opportunities to get involve outside university” was ranked with similar average
or mean value and score the highest (with mean value M= 4.34) among all choir experiences
stated while the lowest (with mean value M= 4.04) was rated on “SB 8= it is very important
for a choir group to attend an intensive camp from time to time to strengthen relationship
within the group. It shows that most choir members aware of the important of financial
support that related to the opportunities for the choir group to involve more in choir
competitions outside the university. A strong financial along with good singing quality can
guarantee the opportunity to participate in more choir performances and competitions.

4.3 Challenges

Table 4: Challenges faced by choir members

Challenges Faced by Choir Members

N Minimum Maximum Mean

SC1 100 1.00 5.00 3.1000

SC2 100 1.00 5.00 2.7300

SC3 100 1.00 5.00 2.0400

SC4 100 1.00 5.00 2.1900

SC5 100 1.00 5.00 3.0200

SC6 100 1.00 5.00 2.9500

SC7 100 1.00 5.00 3.1500

SC8 100 1.00 5.00 3.2200

SC9 100 1.00 5.00 3.5800

SC10 100 1.00 5.00 3.6300

SC11 100 1.00 5.00 3.5400

Valid N 100
(listwise)

This section is to measure the average value of challenges faced by choir members in
participating in choir group. From Table 5 above, most of choir members rated “SC 10=
Financial constraints prevent some choir members from participating in performance or
competitions abroad” (with mean value M=3.63). Meanwhile, the lowest (with mean value
M= 2.04) was rated on “SC 3= you feel choir singing is something that is not as important as
other subject in university”. It was clearly rated by the choir members that the biggest

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challenge for them to actively involved in choir is related to financial issue and they still think
choir is an important activity besides other subjects in university.

4.4 Initiatives

Figure 1: Initiative undertaken by choir members

This section is to determine about how many hours each choir members spend in a
typically 7-days week doing all the activities such as “SD 1=memorizing lyric individually,
SD 2= participate in sectional practice without looking at score in group, SD 3= participate in
additional practice without looking at the score in a small group involving all voices before
the actual choir practice, SD 4= analyse choir repertoire in terms of form and meaning of the
piece individually, SD 5= analyse choir repertoire in terms of form and meaning of the piece
in group, SD 6= mark dynamics written in score, SD 7= and check accuracy of dynamics in
group according to voice type (SATB), and SD 8= check the accuracy of dynamic in a small
group involving all types of voices (SATB)”.
Based on the Figure 1 above, it clearly shows the percentage of chorister who rated 1-
5 hours a week of doing all the activities was very high and very few put some effort to
practice more than 16 hours and above. Cox (1986) in his study revealed that appropriate
rehearsal time usage is an important issue in the final preparations of a choral ensemble
regardless of age, maturity, and experience. Normally, choir members will be given a choir
repertoire by their conductor at a first meeting or the first session of the choir practice. While
based on findings on the initiative taken by choir members as in Figure 1 reveals that they
averagely spend only 5 hours to practice without a conductor’s presence. It shows that early
initiative taken by choir members to study the repertoire is very important to improve the
quality of the singing in a choir group.

5. CONCLUSION

Based on the results, university choir members in Malaysia demand more financial
support from related organization- university, government, non-government organization, and
public- to help them in increasing the opportunities to get involved in competitions and
performance outside the university especially going abroad. The financial issues also lead to
their involvement in competitions which they agreed to be a factor in improving their singing
quality. Findings from the Challenges section shows that the main factor in restraining a choir
to participate in competitions and performances was also due to financial problems. Their
experience and challenges that they faced shows the highest mean value and the issues is
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similar which the financial matters are very important to be focused on. Besides, initiative
taken by choir members to study the repertoire is very important to improve the quality of the
singing in a choir group. Therefore, these two matters are closely related and should be taken
seriously by the institution, university choir conductors, as well as the choir members for
better quality of university choir in the future. Unknowingly, a lot of talents are supposed to
be seen and assisted as they are also contributing to the good reputation of a university as well
as a country. This problem should not be a barrier to the development of choir in Malaysia.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The authors wish to thank choir members and choral conductors from Universiti Teknologi
MARA (UiTM), Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), UCSI University, Universiti Putra
Malaysia (UPM), and Malaysian Institute of Arts (MIA) for their support with the research
activities. This research was funded under the Fundamental Research Grant Scheme
(F03/FRGS/1499/2016).

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