Viable experience turned victorious for Holy Faith Convent Penal

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Captain Julianna Neilson of the Holy Faith Convent Penal steelband, winners of the Secondary schools Junior Panorama 2024 competition, during a celebration at the school on Wednesday. – LINCOLN HOLDER

What was intended to be a viable experience for Holy Faith Convent Penal (HFCP) students to enter the National Junior Panorama competition for the first time turned into a historic victory for the school.

On Wednesday, the school transformed into a Carnival-like atmosphere at a victory celebration honouring this year’s winners in the secondary school category.

The main attraction was the performance of the HFCP Steel Orchestra, the first-time winners, playing Kees Dieffenthaller’s Savannah Grass, the song that wowed the judges at the finals at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, on Sunday.

Since November, the students have been vigorously training under the leadership of music teacher and arranger Neil Simon. Most of them had little to no experience.

Principal Sharon Francois-Ransome addressed the gathering, saying it was with immense pride in the 57-year-old institution that it affirmed the words of its foundress, Margaret Aylward: “Under God, it began, through God it has grown.”

She said the school has a rich tradition and legacy of excellence in academia and the performing arts.

Holy Faith Convent Penal students perform their winning piece for the Secondary schools Junior Panorama 2024 competition during a celebration at the school on Wednesday. – Lincoln Holder

“Today, we stand firmly on the shoulders of those pillars, those HFCP stalwarts who have gone. We give God the praise and glory for this historic accomplishment. Imagine first-time participants in the secondary school Panorama competition, and we emerged victorious,” she said.

She recalled that the school was trying to get its pan programme off the ground before the pandemic hit. The school was trying to restore some old pans and solicit help to acquire new ones.

She added, “Our hope was further elevated when we interviewed a young man with a superstar name, Neil Simon. He had a grand vision for music.”

The principal recalled that Simon strongly desired to enter the competition this year.

He and a team led by the head of the department, Nina Lake-Whiskey, began to bring this dream to fruition.

“We acknowledge the tremendous collaborative efforts involving all our talented creative teachers, our dedicated and supportive parents, our enthusiastic and hardworking students, and the management of Panasonic Connection Steel Orchestra for facilitating our orchestra and for allowing full access to their pans and a place for rehearsals,” the principal said.

She also thanked members of the rhythm section and their parents and well-wishers for their unwavering support.

She said after celebrating Holy Mass in Penal on Sunday, parish priest Fr Robert Christo went to the savannah to pray with and motivate the players and performers before they took to the stage.

“There are no words to describe this historic feat, which has bolstered school pride and school spirit,” Francois-Ransome said.

She said people from all over the country and abroad have called, messaged, and sent emails extending their heartfelt congratulations. “We pray that this will spark greater willingness from those who can assist to support our music and performing arts programme at the school,” she said. Like many people, she praised Simon for his superb arrangement.

She also encouraged the team to continue to shine brightly as beacons of hope, light and excellence. “You are testimony to what is possible through sheer hard work, sacrifice and the right spirit and attitude.”

Simon gave an insight into his musical career, saying at age 13, in 1991, he was a member of the Laventille/Port of Spain Police Youth Club.

He said in 2003, he was a member of the National Steel Orchestra. He was still a member when the orchestra was re-established and renamed in 2007 as the National Steel Symphony Orchestra.

He stayed until 2017 and left to work as a guest entertainer on a cruise ship for two years.

In 2019, he applied to become a teacher and had a short stint at Pleasantville Secondary School before ending up at HFCP.

He shared five core values that he believes the students possess.

Pan arranger for Holy Faith Convent Penal Neil Simon and his son Jazz during a celebration at the school on Wednesday. – Lincoln Holder

The first was passion. Simon said whenever people are pursuing a goal or performing a task with a sense of passion, their energy is positive.

“You tend to give it your all. Your passion is evident in your work. People see it, feel it and experience it. Your passion was evident on stage and the audience felt it,” Simon said.

He also called on people to believe in themselves and others.

Simon also called on people to stick to the task and believe in the process.

He said people should have faith, saying faith without work is dead.

He also lamented the importance of a support system. His three-year-old son Jazz Simon danced as the band performed before the appreciative audience.

Scores of people, including Penal Debe Regional Chairman Zanifer Mohammed, gave remarks and congratulated the school.

Staffer Lake-Whiskey recalled that at the start of the academic year, September 2023, Simon came up with the idea for the school to enter panorama.

She recalled him telling her that he knew the time was short but wanted to give the girls a try as it would be a viable experience for them.

Lake-Whiskey also recalled a student asking her if the band had a sponsor.

She added, “I told her no. I told her we were still able to achieve based on our faith in God. She replied, ‘Miss God is our sponsor’.”

The band captain was Julianna Neilson, 15.

She, too, praised Simon for his input. She said despite the naysayers and doubters, Simon persisted with his vision and prepared the students.

She said she experienced absolute joy playing with her comrades at the finals.

“The overwhelming feeling when the results came out brought me to tears,” she said.

A 37-second video posted on the school’s Facebook page on Wednesday afternoon showed the Savannah Grass singer congratulating the school and thanking the band for using his song.

“I love your school. I grew up knowing people from your school. Thank you very much for the support. You are family. Blessed, “Dieffenthaller said.