Sunday, July 21, 2013

Music is the Window to the Soul

Noel, me, and Adam: the 3 judges for the competition in 2012.

“Music is the window to the soul.”  This is an often-used quote I hear when people are trying to say how important music is to them.  But there is an event that I have been fortunate to be a part of that clearly shows how true this is.  Last week my husband and I had the chance to serve as judges for the annual Mandaue Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Talent Show.  This was the second year for us and both times have left us feeling inspired and wanting to do more with music in the community.  Thank you so much to Noel Seno (a schoolmate of mine from USJ-R, a colleague of the Dramatics guild, and now counselor of Talamban) and his sister for inviting us to judge.  It really has become one of my favorite events of the year.  Kuya Noel has always been promoting music and dance events in the city as well as many other community events and awareness seminars.  He is always concerned with the youth of our city and want to give them positive venues for them.

The inspiring young couple.   She is holding his lunch as he plays
Last year, Adam and I were a month from our wedding day and stressed out with getting everything done.  Every day was full of errands and meetings.  Judging the talent show was exactly what we needed.  Aside from the music, we witnessed a young teenage couple who were both blind.  The boyfriend played piano for nearly every singing contestant.  He would plunk a few notes to find the right key and then accompany the contestants with amazing accuracy.  A special moment was when he got to accompany his girlfriend, as she was one of the contestants.  She was amazing and went on to win the competition (even beating the boyfriend’s brother!).  The whole day we watched as they supported each other, the girl even held her boyfriend’s lunch as he has to play for an unscheduled contestant.  The whole time they were smiling and you could see true love.  Definitely inspiring to us as we were about to be married.

They taught me how to clap in sign language!
There is something special about watching a person with disabilities sing.  It is a pure and natural expression.  Music has a way of transcending life’s problems.  There is no pretense, no underlying motive; it is about the performer and the music.  There were some contestants who were not able to hold a conversation, but their face lit up while singing and they memorized the entire song.  My heart was touched watching all of the contestants cheer for each other.  When the winners were announced, there was no crying, no pouting, no complaining.  It was all smiles and congratulations to all the winners.  In my mind they were all winners!

I couldn’t help but compare this competition with many of the others I have attended.  In the usual singing competitions, the contestants who don’t win complain about the results and give a fake smile to the winner.  At this competition, you could hardly tell the winner apart from the rest as they were all happy to compete and proud of their accomplishments, winners or not.

No matter disability of not, people express what’s in their heart through music.  The lyrics are what’s in your heart and the melody draws our attention and makes us want to listen closer.  A good song tells a story and a good singer brings that story to life.  The disconnect between the lyrics and the performance are usually what makes the difference between a good singer and a great singer.

One lesson I learned is that life is what you make of it.  You have the choice everyday to wake up and realize your blessings or you can also choose to look at everything in life that you don’t have.  I was so amazed at this event both years, I see nothing but smiles from the contestants, the family and friends, and the organizers.  I learned it is physically impossible not to smile along.  They are so happy and content with their lives, I have no reason to not be the same!

At this year's competition held at J Centre Mall in Mandaue

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Where Words Fail, Music Speaks

This post is actually something of a request.  Even though we’ve only been married for 10 months, my husband and I have been through a lot together.  We have faced life-threatening disasters, business issues, and more.  I know that in the end all of the challenges make us stronger.  You can never really know how strong you are until you've been stretched and tested.  One thing we’ve learned is that no matter what situation we are put in, we have used music to bring people together and create peace and unity.  When we might be used and abused and taken advantage of, the more we rely on music.

In March 2012, my husband (we were engaged at the time), Adam, and I were working onboard the Azamara Quest, a luxury cruise ship.  Adam was the drummer in the ship’s orchestra, and I was a featured singer in the production shows in the ship’s theater.  It led to great opportunities to travel the world together.  But even onboard a world-class luxury ship, problems can arise.

Upper left: Adam, me, and Reese before leaving Hong Kong
Upper right: Guests trying to stay cool outside with no air con
Lower left: My makeshift bed on the open deck
Lower right: A Philippine Navy ship as our escort
The cruise started in Hong Kong, which was the last time we were to visit during our contract.  We were able to have lunch one last time with my brother Reymond, his wife Aissa, and their daughter Reese.  It was an exciting cruise because we were going to be docked in Manila for two days.  As with most cruise ships around the world, a majority of the crew was from the Philippines.  Seamen are gone from home for months at a time and the families only get a small glimpse into their loved one’s world through pictures.  This was a chance for family and friends to see the ship in person and even sign up to go onboard while the guests were off exploring the city.  My 2 bestfriends, Adrian and Jenny, and my sister Ate Maye flew from Cebu to see us.  It was Adam’s first time to visit the Philippines, even if for only 48 hours.

To make a long story short (ok, maybe just shorter), the day after we left Manila we were headed to Sandakan, a city on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo.  But as we were at sea, a fire broke out in the engine room.  After performing a show that evening, we were relaxing when the emergency alarms were sounded.  We decided to head downstairs and already began to see this was potentially a huge problem.  Each step down the stairs led to a stronger small of smoke and we could see people being helped up the stairs to safety.

Shortly after the general alarm was sounded and everybody onboard the ship was ordered to go to their emergency stations.  This was like a scene from the movie Titanic.  My husband’s station was in the front of the ship and mine was in the back.  We had just spent nearly a year in long distance as we worked on different ships and I couldn’t hold back the tears as we had to leave each other.  But he assured me that everything would be ok and he would find me no matter what.  Like I said, it was like a scene from a movie!

My husband and me after a show during easier times
We did our jobs of making sure guests were accounted for and kept them as calm as possible.  While we go to the stations at least twice a week for drills, this was the first time in a real emergency situation.  My station was too close to the fire so we were moved to the middle of the ship.  I have to say I am very proud of my fellow crewmembers as we handled the situation.  The Captain continued to make announcements, he remained as calm as possible and was in control from the bridge.  His first announcement was honest, but did little to calm us, it was that there was a fire in the engine room and it had not yet been contained.  A fire is one of the scariest things onboard a ship.  There is not outside fire department to call to help you put it out, you have to rely with what is onboard.  Luckily an announcement came the fire was put out and cheers could be heard throughout the ship.  But our problems were far from over as the fire destroyed a lot of equipment in the engine room and we were without power.  A brownout is hard enough to deal with on land, but imagine on a ship.  No power means no lights, no water, no air con (this was March just south of Mindanao), and worst of all no engines to make the ship move.  We were stranded.

The waiting began and guests were given water and soft drinks.  I had an idea of how I could check in with my husband.  I got a garbage bag and started collecting trash.  As I finished with my station, I quickly went to my husband’s station.  I was never so happy to see his face.  This continued for a couple of hours when the guests were released to go back to the cabins.  Unfortunately for the crew, our cabins are located on the lower decks and the air was not safe enough.  We were allowed a few minutes to gather some things and then we spent the night on the floor of the theater.  It was hot and uncomfortable but at that moment we were happy to be alive.

My husband's sunburned legs
The next day was the first time in my life that I saw human beings go into true survival mode.  We didn’t know how much food there was or when we would be given our next meal.  Food was rationed and when my husband questioned somebody for taking 3 sandwiches, they almost started a fight with him.  We spent most of the day on the open deck because it was so hot inside.  Although we stayed in the shade, my husband got a 2nd degree sunburn from the reflection off the water.  Too put it simply, life was becoming miserable and anger was starting to flare up.  And it wasn’t our fault, but our department, the entertainment department, didn’t have work.  You can imagine the dirty looks we got from crewmembers who were working 16-18 hours a day under difficult circumstances.  With no power meant that the theater was not available.

Fast forward and after 24-48 hours they were able to get one engine working so we could finally start moving, but still no air con and no theater.  We finally made it to Sandakan for the most important repairs and then we would head to Singapore for 2 weeks of more repairs.  As we docked and before guests were off the ship, we did a show for the guests on the pool deck.  As much as we could, we tried to lift the spirits of the guests and help them take their minds off of what had happened.  This would give me an idea for later.

Things continued, the entertainment department still couldn’t work and other departments were being stretched beyond comfort.  But on our part, there wasn’t much we could do.  I don’t think they would want me to try and fix the engines.  Once in Sandakan, they were able to fix the engines enough to restore the air con.  But tensions were still high.  We could hear the comments and see the glares as we went through the food line.  I decided that we had to do something.

Our production cast of 8 singers and dancers from 6 different countries:
Philippines, USA, Canada, UK, Brazil, and Ukraine
I asked our cruise director if it would be possible to do another concert on the pool deck.  We no longer had guests onboard, but I thought it might help the atmosphere if we did a show for the crewmembers.  Maybe we could show them how much we appreciate their efforts through music.  He agreed and thought it would be a great idea.  My husband was my musical director and we quickly put together a show  and started asking other musicians and singers if they would perform along with us.  Most immediately agreed and gave 100%, some even going beyond and offering to add extra to the show.  But not all were as enthusiastic.  Some flat out said no, because they didn’t feel that they should have to perform if there were no guests on the ship.  Others said they would play, but it was obvious that they weren’t very happy about it.

Within the crewmembers there is usually something around 60 different nationalities.  It is like a mini, floating United Nations.  Even on a good day there can sometimes be cultural differences, but this was different with a fire, no power, long hours, and bad working conditions.  But that night it didn’t matter; music once again brought everyone together.  The show was a huge success!  We received a personal thank you from the Hotel Director and the Staff Captain.  I was so proud of what we were able to accomplish, especially given the circumstances.  After the show, the people who refused to participate said they wished they had perform.  They saw what we were able to do on that stage.  One musician who had to be talked into participating said he was so happy he did, he felt good about making a difference in the morale of the ship.

That 90-minute show was a turning point for the crew.  We no longer got the glares in the food line; we never heard another comment made behind our backs.  We still didn’t have 18 hour shifts in smoke-stained conditions, but at least our fellow crewmembers knew we cared about them and we supported them.  Music brought us together in a way that nothing else could.  And the timing couldn’t have been better, since we still had 4 weeks of hard work left to get the ship back and ready for guests.

I know that we are not done facing challenges in our lives.  Life is full of ups and downs, and it is in those down times that you can grow so much and learn what you are really made of.  When I was thinking of a title for this post I found a quote I knew I had to use.  The author Hans Christian Anderson said, “Where words fail, music speaks” and I have always found that to be true.  Whenever my husband and I face challenges we know that it will be faith in God and music that will keep us strong and give us everything we need.

The crew of the Azamara Quest, taken 3 months before the fire