The chronicle of the ISTA song
By Greg Pliska
In the late 80s and early 90s I was frequently responsible for music at ISTA festivals, and specifically full-group music. Sometimes I would write a song with a small ensemble, getting the students to create melody and lyrics and even accompaniment, and then I’d teach it to the whole festival. Most of these are lost to history.
After a few of these ad hoc creations, Pat Zich, the chief executive at the time and one of the founders of ISTA, suggested that we have an ‘ISTA song’, an arrangement of something that could be taught at every festival (whether I was there or not) and provide a kind of musical unity to the experience across cities, countries and continents. We ended up with an excellent choice: What a Wonderful World. The original Louis Armstrong recording is a beloved classic, and it touches on themes essential to ISTA: the interconnectedness of the world, the many colours that make up our global rainbow and the promise of a new generation.
Enough students knew the melody (and after a year or two of hearing it at festivals, pretty much everyone did) it was easy to get started, though working on harmony and counterpoint parts required innovative choral teaching. I always taught while standing at the piano, since it was the only way to see and be seen in a huge group (and in one of the not uncommon acoustically suboptimal workspaces), and often ran around the room to hear different sections or sing parts directly to groups when they were being done in a round or counterpoint.
In the end, the sweat and hoarseness and acrobatics were worth it. For all the silliness and laughter and challenge of getting the piece learned, it never failed to provide a moving conclusion to the festival, as students and artists stood arm-in-arm, singing: ‘I see friends shaking hands / sayin’ how do you do / they’re really sayin’ / “I love you”.’ Looking back on the many years of ISTA experiences, it is still true: what a wonderful world.