By Heidi Trautmann
They are flocked around the piano, Ipek 11 years, Görsev 10 years, Sena 14, Ayşe 11, Miriam and Ferdiye 12 and Yasemin only 5 years old. Görsev plays a piece on the piano, her face highly concentrated, two other girls take over, one after the other, and then all together, six hands on the keys.
We are in the musical room of a Belediye building in Karakum where a group of 25 children have gathered for their weekly choir rehearsal. It is a Saturday morning. Öznaz Uzuner, the director of the Girne Belediye Choir – who also teaches music at the Anadolu Fine Arts College in Nicosia during the week – prepares this morning’s programme while her daughter Görsev Tepe plays again, applauded by the other choir members. She was interviewed by the Cyprus Observer just last week where she talked about her experience of playing in public. She is one of the youngest pianists in Cyprus, I have learnt. Having been brought up by parents who are both musicians, mother Öznaz herself a concert pianist, she was drawn to the keys of the two pianos in their house even as a baby. From the age of 5 onwards, she was taught by her mother. She is currently a student of the Russian pianist Rauf Kasimov who has been living in North Cyprus for 2 1/2 years.
Cypriot Turkish people have great sensitivity and their enthusiasm for music and fine arts is remarkable. Parents support this and try to give their children the chance to gain as much creative education as possible.
Öznaz calls the children to attention and we remain at the back of the room. They are warming up, standing up and moving their arms. First the muscles of the upper body, the arms and hands, the muscles of the face, the mouth, pulling faces; the humming and sch sch sch combined with sudden movements of the arms, then sss sss sss, then hum hum hum and sum sum sum, always with deep breaths. Finally their scales, up and then down, proceeding higher and higher with Öznaz giving the note on the piano.
Some latecomers knock at the door to be let in and the teacher is not at all pleased, and taps sternly at her watch. She is a good teacher, I can see that, and she uses a body language of her own, stretching and bending, the arms up. As I understand, music does not only involve the vocal chords but the whole body, and she conveys this to the children. She catches the children’s attention, guides their voices with hand movements: come, follow me, come up, high…and the children follow. Most of them. The age of the choir members ranges from 5!! to 14 years, little Yasemin being the youngest, the tiniest. She is very funny to watch yet I find myself watching her with respect as her spirit and attention is utterly absorbed in her practice, the short legs not reaching the floor. I observe two girls who not only came late but do not seem to be too keen to join in the singing, their bodies and faces manifesting boredom; perhaps here the parents’ ambition does not conform with the children’s; perhaps they would have rather stayed in bed with a book and some sweets – at least, they look as if they would have preferred that. But, I think, they should continue to participate and I am sure one day their mind will open to the music. There are only two boys among the group of 25, and Öznaz wishes that there were more.
For us, the guests, a friend from Germany and I, Öznaz asks the choir to sing some parts of the concert they gave in Ankara in summer this year, during a children’s choir workshop.
What an experience for children to travel and meet other choirs from different countries! They all seemed very self assured. What they sing for us this morning is a journey through many cultures and around the world: A Spanish song from Pau Casals, a Russian song Mama, Music with her Silver Sound with the lyrics by Shakespeare, Sub Tuum Praesidium by Niklós Kocsár, then more secular ones Can you hear me by Bob Cilkot, A train, and Siyahamba, an African song.
I asked Öznaz, who was born in Nicosia in 1972, how she came to be so involved with music. She looks at me as if I had asked her an obscene question: “I was always involved with music, I grew up with it. My parents did not play any instruments so it was my teachers who discovered I had a talent. I played the piano from an early age, just as my daughter does now. One day, my sister took me with her to Izmir to play before some teachers of the Conservatoire as she thought that I was very talented. I was twelve then. So I became a student at the 9 Eylül Izmir State Conservatoire after my parents had been persuaded that it was the right thing for me to do.”
Where did she live in Izmir, I asked. “I lived in a boarding school, and for the first year I felt very homesick and missed my parents, but later on, I became used to it.” Did she have time to play games as other children do? “We were not allowed to play certain games like playing ball or climbing trees where we might have injured our hands and fingers. When other children were playing, we had to practise at the piano.”
Where did she go from there? “When I was 15, I went to Ankara and studied piano at the Hacettepe University Musical College, from where I graduated with a Master’s degree in piano playing.” What did it mean to her, this life on the path to becoming a musician?
“We were highly motivated and worked hard, but it was all worth it. It was a very happy moment when I received the Ihsan Doğramaci Award when I was 23.”
Now, you see you own life repeated in your daughter’s and you are supporting her. Do you apply different methods to help her along? “When I started playing the piano, I was almost 12
years old. We started much earlier with Görsev. The methods are more or less the same and unfortunately, she also has to be careful with her hands and practise several hours every day, which means of course that there is very little time for games.
Musical education embraces so many aspects which are very valuable in life, not only for children who want to take up a musical career. “Working with a choir especially requires the children to work on their discipline, social behaviour, tolerance and cooperation. On the other hand, they are rewarded for their efforts, for the time they spend away from their playmates, the time they spend with music. Their little minds are opened to appreciate the beauty in music, music gives them satisfaction and happy faces. And in the end come our shows in public, our journeys to other countries for festivals, as, for example, when we were in Ankara this year, where they met other groups of young people with whom they have something to share.”
The Girne Children’s Choir is indeed very young, founded in December 2008. Considering the short time, much has been established. Some of the children have come from other choirs, some are new. Öznaz’s programme is ambitious. Next year they want to go to England, all of them together. What an opportunity for the children to learn new things, to travel and meet others. “We have some experience of going public with performances in Bellapais, in the Büyük Han.”
For eight years, Öznaz has taught music at the Anadolu Fine Arts College – piano, acoustics and musical theory. The age of her students there is higher, and most probably even more oriented towards musical careers. Where do these young people go to get further education? “Some of them will go to Turkey or England and get further education in a conservatoire,” – or even to Germany; I know of some musicians who did.
While these thoughts about the choices available to young musicians go through my mind, I watch the children practising Muammer Sun’s “Biz Atatürk Gencleriyiz” and two girls are called forward to take over the conducting. They do it with great seriousness. But then, little Yasemin jumps up from her chair – she obviously has something important on her mind – and whispers something into her teacher’s ear. She wants to perform a solo and without batting an eyelid, she stands in front of the choir and sings at the top of her voice.
Finally, just shortly before the break, a part of the choir does a farewell performance for us, a short play including dance steps and solos, one solo by Bariş, one of the boys who has a very good voice. Among them is my little friend Miriam who helped me with meeting the choir.
They wave goodbye to us as we leave and as we close the door, we hear Öznaz call them back to their seats, and we hear her play the piano to give the chord for the next round of practising...
What a bunch of young talent, I think, as we drive home.