Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

Pioneering Dubai choir gives disabled singers a chance to shine

Parents heap praise on the EnSENble choir for boosting its performers' confidence

Members of the the EnSENble choir sharpen up their skills at a regular rehearsal session at the Canadian University in Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National
Members of the the EnSENble choir sharpen up their skills at a regular rehearsal session at the Canadian University in Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National

People with disabilities from across the Emirates are being united by song to get in the Christmas and Olympic spirit.

Dubai EnSENble, the UAE's first choir for disabled people, is getting tuned up for a memorable few months and ensuring that everyone in society is given a voice.

The 30-strong choir has already performed a string of successful concerts, with members aged from 6 to 23 producing stirring renditions of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer during the festive season. But thoughts are already turning to next year and a big date at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi.

A global event displaying the sporting talents of thousands of athletes with special needs will provide a fitting stage for a choir successfully breaking down barriers of its own.

EnSENble (the SEN stands for "special education needs") held its first concert last year, fuelled by the passion of teachers determined to help the abilities of all shine brightly.

The UAE government is leading efforts to empower disabled people through integration programmes, education and employment schemes, all as part of a nationwide approach in which those with disabilities are referred to as "people of determination".

Rivaan Mager, co-founder of the choir and music co-ordinator at the Canadian University in Dubai, has been teaching music to children with special needs since he arrived in the UAE eight years ago.

In 2016, Mr Mager and his colleague Dusan Popovic, a sports co-ordinator at the Canadian University, started working with children through music and sports and saw the positive impact it had on their lives.

Passionate about music, the duo started the choir, a non-profit organisation funded initially by the two teachers themselves.

"Being a part of the choir calms students down and has therapeutic advantages for them," Mr Mager said.

"We wanted to introduce something where parents don’t have to pay as we want to give back to the community."

Speech and behaviour therapists and psychologists volunteer with the choir, offering a helping hand to the members whenever needed.

"Over the year we have seen a drastic improvement in children’s behaviour and concentration. Their focus is remarkable," Mr Mager said.

Zara Sheikh, a member of the UAE's first choir for people with disabilities. Reem Mohammed / The National
Zara Sheikh, a member of the UAE's first choir for people with disabilities. Reem Mohammed / The National

Mr Mager found that the children were not interested in music before they joined the choir.

"I wanted to create a platform where we could unite children through music. We watched the parents seeing their children perform and it brought them joy. The kids feel like they are part of the community and they can show their talents. This boosts their confidence," he said.

The choir members are taught stage etiquette and Mr Mager makes variations to the songs to keep them on their toes and boost their concentration.

It has grown in numbers through social media and word of mouth.

"In the beginning it was difficult as we had 17 people with different challenges, but we were fortunate to have the support of professional therapists," said Mr Mager.

Families of 13 different nationalities – including Indians, Pakistanis, Americans, South Africans and Serbians – travel to the Canadian University from Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman and Dubai every Thursday to take their children to choir practice.

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Mr Mager is hopeful the choir will keep inspiring others and show what can be achieved, regardless of the challenges.

Asad Sheikh,15, was reluctant to sing but now he performs at concerts across the UAE. Afsheen Sheikh, Asad’s mother, said being part of the choir boosted her son's self esteem.

"Asad and his 11-year-old sister Zara would do karaoke at home earlier, but he would only read the lyrics," Mrs Sheikh said.

"He has made a lot of progress since he joined the choir."

Going to rehearsal on Thursdays, is a weekly highlight for the teenager, his mother said.

"Asad was excited to be part of the choir. He has progressed a lot. When he started he wouldn’t sing that well. Now, he sings with the chorus.

"Children with special needs can sing and are like everyone else. I hope this will give others the motivation to start more avenues like this,” said the proud mother, who is from Pakistan.

Meraal Ali, 23, also from Pakistan, has been with the choir since it began.

"Anyone who comes to the choir, I can be their mentor for a day and help them. I help my friends with their sheets if they are a little stuck with the music,” she said.

Ms Ali joined the choir as she "wanted the UAE to know that it doesn’t matter what your disability is, you can do anything you want”.

"I started singing at school when I was a teenager. When we see other schools participating with us, we are very happy.”

Proud parents Afsheen and Arsalan Sheikh watch on as son Asad and daughter Zara get in full voice for the pioneering choir. Reem Mohammed / The National
Proud parents Afsheen and Arsalan Sheikh watch on as son Asad and daughter Zara get in full voice for the pioneering choir. Reem Mohammed / The National

Neena Raina's son, Varun, 20, has also been with the choir since its launch. She says she has noticed a "huge change" in the choir's members.

"Varun has autism and he has been learning Indian and Western classical music," she said. "Music is a therapy and Varun has been part of the choir since its beginning.

"Being in the choir gives the children a boost of confidence. When others see Varun, they feel everyone can do it.

Updated: February 19, 2019 04:24 PM

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