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Listen to the music, see the grandeur of God

Established in 1946 by Helen May Johnson as a celebration of classical music, the Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival (TTMF) is one of the oldest national music festivals in the English-speaking Caribbean. Alan Cooper, who is involved in the festival, offers his perspectives.

Recently I have found myself musing over the words of Pope Francis: “The artist, the interpreter and—in the case of music—the listener, all have the same desire…to understand what beauty, music and art allow us to know of God’s grandeur. Now perhaps more than ever, men and women have need of this.

Interpreting that reality is essential for today’s world.”

The Pontiff’s words have special meaning to me because I am a musician: a pianist to be precise. But not only am I a musician—I am also a development economist. That’s just a fancy way of saying that, unlike some economists who are mainly concerned with banking and finance, some of us are more interested in poverty alleviation, social equity, development and the environment.

Economics seems so practical and useful for creating a better world compared to music which can be considered a luxury that we can live without.

The TTMF is a series of events that takes place at Queen’s Hall, the Naparima Bowl and various venues in Tobago over a month.

It is a competition that brings together amateur singers, instrumentalists, choirs, arrangers and composers. By the end of the competition, the best performers compete head to head for the title of ‘champion’.

There’s scarcely a name in local music that hasn’t been impacted by the festival, regardless of genre.

This year, one of my important jobs is to work at the festival in the capacity of ‘official accompanist’, that is, I meet with the competitors and rehearse with them to ensure that when they present themselves to the public, they sound prepared.

I get to meet with a wide range of musicians: from seven-year-old pianists to spritely retirees who have a passion for singing; from semi-professional singers who aspire to perform at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York to professional women and housewives who put aside singing for several years to raise their children and who use the festival as a chance to get back to music.  Sometimes too, there are parents who always wished to have learnt a musical instrument and now vicariously live their dreams through their precociously talented children. It is interesting and there is no one size fits all when it comes to the personalities and backgrounds one meets as an accompanist.

This year’s festival is unique for me because it was the first time I worked with a musician with special needs. A young man of 30 years, Jamaal**, a clarinettist, had a pleasant demeanour; he didn’t talk or smile much but was extremely grateful that I agreed to accompany him.

As he explained to me at our first rehearsal meeting, he had been playing the clarinet for just two years and when he lost his job as a messenger, he decided to kill the boredom by practising the clarinet and challenging himself with the festival.

He didn’t choose a very difficult piece and wasn’t the most proficient musician. Nevertheless, he tried his best. He was often accompanied by his mother, a simple woman who seemed both proud of her son and nervous like any parent would be seeing their child prepare to participate in a big competition for the first time.

After weeks of preparation, the competition came and went. Two exceptionally good university students copped the top prizes. Jamaal didn’t place. Yet I felt particularly proud of him; I think we all did. He had set a personal challenge and did his best. His performance was not perfect, but it was certainly not a disaster.  Afterwards, as I thought about Jamaal, the meaning of Pope Francis’ words makes some sense to me: in this simple clarinettist, a ‘person with special needs’, I saw a man striving for his personal best and putting himself up to an incredible challenge. He’s doing more than so many other people.

In him, I see the grandeur of God. We are all made in His image and likeness.

The Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival runs from March 1 to 28 at Queen’s Hall, the Naparima Bowl and various venues in Tobago. For more information visit the festival website or Facebook page: and @ttmusicfestival. For info, call 624-1284, 680-8879, 652-4704 or 771-1872.

(** Name changed to maintain the privacy of person mentioned)