This year we’re supporting the Cayman Youth Choir through our Play On fund, specifically their Stronger Together Choral Festival, which recently brought together young people in the Cayman Islands in a celebration of music and song led by choral director Mark De-Lisser.
We asked Naomi Allnutt, Musical Director, to tell us more about the choir and the festival.
Can you tell us something about music making and education in the Cayman Islands?
There’s a strong tradition of music-making, with a varied collection of folk songs and steel pan adding to its musical tapestry. Our young people are from a huge range of backgrounds. Instrumental tuition and classes are often financially out of reach for many families; unfortunately, this means there is a gap in the experience of our children.
How does the Cayman Youth Choir support young people?
The choir, part of the Cayman Arts Festival programme, has a message of inclusive and diverse singing, accessible for everyone. We have four choirs, free to join without audition, with members from nearly all districts and over 25 schools, including students who are home-schooled or in specialist schools. Our annual calendar includes four concerts and guest appearances at community events.
Mark leading 185 young singers for the finale of the Stronger Together choral festival - copyright Ryan Dumaguing.
How did the Stronger Together Festival come about?
The festival was a few years in the making due to the pandemic. Back in 2021 we knew we wanted to secure a world-class choral director to work with us – someone who shared our ethos of accessible and joyful singing. We knew that Mark De-Lisser was someone who would fit our choirs and our island-wide young people perfectly.
Fast forward to 2023, when we were able to restart our planning. We wanted to involve as many young people as possible. Being a teacher at one of the government high schools, I know how our young people need positive experiences in their lives and having a strong role model like Mark coming to work with them could be life changing.
Can you tell us about some of the young people involved in the festival?
Boyz2Men is an organization for at-risk young men in government education, with RISE and GirlForce having a similar role for our young women. In addition, we wanted to include students with special educational needs from the Lighthouse School. Most of these young people had never experienced singing in a choir and it was the first opportunity for many to work alongside students of different ages, from different backgrounds and schools.
Diego from Boyz2Men told us: “I never liked the idea of singing in a choir, but Mark had a way of making it fun and I really enjoyed it…we had the opportunity to make our parents proud and the experience left a positive impact on me and left me seeing choirs in a new light.”
Mark working with the RISE girls and bringing his unique energy at the choral workshops - copyright Scott Swing.
What did the festival involve?
Thanks to ABRSM and their Play On sponsorship, Mark was able to work with us for a week of workshops and studio sessions. Our plan was to involve all students in a choral workshop, where they would learn a song individual to their group and a collaborative song for everyone. Mark pitched each session to the needs of the singers and we chose repertoire that was relevant and impactful for each group. Mid-week, all 185 singers went one group at a time to a local studio to record the collaborative song, to edit into one recording. Finally, we invited the community to a gala concert.
Can you tell us more about the concert?
The gala concert was a joyful culmination of the week’s work. There was not a spare seat or space to stand. As the Lighthouse School performed Bob Marley’s One Love, everyone joined in with arms raised. Lighthouse School student Seyanna summed it up saying: “I felt happy because we got to sing and dance.”
When all 185 young people, aged 4 to 18, came together to perform Together by For King & Country, no one was seated; everyone was on their feet, smiling, clapping, singing and celebrating. We ended with cheers of joy and tears of pride.
Mark told us: “It's one of my highlights over the past ten years. I left feeling uplifted with this renewed purpose that singing is for everybody and everybody can do it. Every single face, every single voice, every single note that was sung, absolutely showed that this thing we do called singing, that’s called music, is for everyone.”
How do you feel now, looking back at the festival?
None of this would have been possible without the support of Cayman Arts Festival and ABRSM. Thanks go to Mark for his generosity of time, spirit and love in leading the week so perfectly. Music really does make us stronger together, and we at Cayman Youth Choir are so proud of what we achieved.
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