IT’S eight o’clock at the Taurenitis School in Jurmala, a resort town some 25km west of Riga. 78 children, half of the school’s total number, have assembled for their twice-weekly choir practice.
Sitting with their backs straight, and giving the conductor their full attention, they rehearse Latvian folk songs—as do children in ordinary state schools across Latvia every week. This early choir drilling has turned Latvia into the superpower of choral singing.
“Singing is just something Latvians do,” says Diana Stirna, a 20-year-old student in Riga. Ever since the Soviet era, they’ve done so in a highly organised fashion. Latvia’s Soviet school curriculum featured mandatory ensemble singing starting in the first year of primary school; singing for all pupils was one of the few Soviet policies Latvia chose to keep. Ms Stirna, who began singing in first grade, now sings soprano in Sola, a professional-level youth choir in Riga.
Latvia, with a population of 2m, has some ten youth choirs of international prizewinning calibre. In the 2014 World Choir Games in Riga (awarded to the city after another Latvian youth choir, Kamer, won the top prize in three categories), the host nation won more medals than any other country, followed by China, Russia, the United States and Indonesia.
Like Latvia’s other top youth choirs, Sola has a demanding rehearsal schedule: three hours twice per week in addition to individual voice lessons. Ms Stirna insists that the rehearsal schedule doesn’t bother her. Choral singing in Latvia provides exciting chances to travel: a dozen Latvian choirs will compete in this year’s World Choir Games, which take place in Sochi in early July. Another world-class youth choir, Balsis, has been invited to sing at Moscow’s famous Tchaikovsky Hall this autumn—a rare recognition of Latvian excellence by Russia.
These choirs are the result of nationwide coaching in schools, the kind in which the Taurenitis School’s music teacher, Maija Ozolina, engages her young adepts twice a week. According to Latvia’s National Centre for Education, the country has 277 school choirs for children in years one to four; 224 choirs for pupils in years five to nine; and 24 boys-only choirs.
This makes Latvia to choral singing what China is to gymnastics—a country producing stunning results among teenagers thanks to comprehensive teaching starting young. At Ms Ozolina’s choir rehearsals, the children sit in neat rows on benches arranged according to their year group, with Ms Ozolina conducting and playing the piano. “I like that we sing in many voices [harmony], not like at home when we sing in one voice [unison],” explains Marcis Vanags, a seven-year-old.
Though Taurenitis is a regular school, not a specialist music school, the children produce a clean sound, often dividing into two or three parts. The pupils receive individual vocal lessons twice a week which, like choir rehearsals, take part during the school day. “Today, parents think more about their children’s education, and the ambitious ones really want their children to sing in choirs,” Ms Ozolina—who has been teaching singing at Taurenitis for 35 years—observes. “30 years ago, people didn’t think like that.”
In recent years school choral training has, however, lost some of its power as the government has made it voluntary. Today 10% of school children sing in a school choir. Ints Teterovskis, the conductor of Balsis, remembers the days when everyone sang until fifth grade, giving him such a talent pool it was hard to choose candidates for higher training. During his 18 years with Balsis, however, Mr Teterovski has noticed a decrease in applicants’ vocal skills. As a result, he has added extra vocal-technique trainers, as have other schools.
But—aided by the additional training—the youth choirs keep producing stunning results. At a recent rehearsal led by Mr Adamsons Sola’s 50 singers expertly, and with a clear tone unsoiled by vibrato, navigated their way through complex arrangements of Latvian folk songs. Some of the pieces are required for a major event this spring: nationwide auditions, beginning on April 2nd, for Latvia’s 2018 Song and Dance Festival, in which over 350 choirs will participate. The festival has been held every five years since the late 1800s, and attracts tens of thousands of participants.
A bit like China’s gymnastics cadre, Latvia’s youth choir singers now approaching their 30s face the choice of what to do next. Elite singing provides a lifestyle—albeit an unpaid one—that many are reluctant to leave. As Madara Ambrena, a soprano now 29 years old, explains, there aren’t many as many good choirs after the youth level.
Back at the Taurenitis School, Ms Ozolina doesn’t have to worry about such issues. But she, too, is preparing her youthful choir for a competition. The only thing that has changed during her three and a half decades of teaching choir, she says, is the repertoire: “In the past we had to do songs about Lenin. Now I can choose whichever songs I like.”