There is no other feeling I’ve experienced like singing in a choir. It is so completely not about the individual, but about the collective sound that a group of people produce together. You may not be able to hear your own voice, you may be more aware of the voices of the people standing immediately next to or behind you, and beyond them you pick up the vibrations of the other parts. Even if you’re all singing in unison, the variations of voices create a sound that can only be built from the aggregation of the individuals. And sometimes it’s so dramatic or so beautiful it sends a shiver down your spine, because you are a part of both what is being created and what is creating it.
But I didn’t get into singing in a choir through choice. At the secondary school I attended from age 11, the Music teacher (we’ll call him “Mr L”) wanted a good choir.
But the school was boys only – no girls. And in an all-boys school, if you want to put a choir together to perform major choral works (which was Mr L’s ambition) you’re going to need to solve the problem of a shortage of Sopranos (and, to a lesser extent, Contraltos). So you need a steady flow of pre-pubescent “boy sopranos” (we preferred the term “Trebles”) to populate the upper vocal ranges. They’re only going to stay Trebles for a year or two before the inevitable happens, so every year you need a new crop.
So, early in our first term in the school, Mr L tested every boy who was new to the school and separated them into two groups. Those who had some potential musical ability (he thought) would be taught Music by him: the ones who he assessed to have no musical ability would be taught by Mr D instead – condemned, written off as musical no-hopers at the age of 11 (of course, I’d like to say that some of those in Mr D’s class went on to be concert pianists or international rock stars, but I don’t think they did).
From within his chosen group, Mr L then decided which boys would be in the choir. And I mean exactly that: he decided who would be in the choir. He didn’t ask for volunteers. He didn’t say “would you like to be in the choir?” He just gave us each a singing test and told the chosen ones to turn up for practice on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday lunchtime. And woe betide anyone who was late.
It’s hard to believe that we all went along with this. There was no refusal, no rebellion – we did as we were told, and gave up three lunchtimes a week (eat your dinner quickly – daren’t be late) to go to choir practice. Once there, we would be terrified for 40 minutes or so lest we did anything wrong. Mr L was a tyrant, who ruled his class and his choir by fear. Anyone who wasn’t looking in his direction when he raised his baton would be, at best, shouted at; for a repeat offender this could turn into kneeling in front of the choir for the duration of the rehearsal. Similarly for anyone not coming in on cue, or breathing in the wrong place, or singing out of tune (and miming wouldn’t help – Mr L would walk between the rows of singers listening to each boy to check that we were actually singing). In his gentler moments he deployed withering sarcasm.
Thankfully, teachers like Mr L have (I presume) now vanished, and been replaced by teachers who achieve their ends by making choir singing an enjoyable experience, something boys and girls actually want to take part in.
Outside of the moments of terror and the lost lunch-breaks, I loved singing in the choir. I’d have been petrified of performing on my own, wouldn’t even have dreamed of doing so (still wouldn’t), but surrounded by my fellow pupils, I sang my heart out.
And the results were exceptional. During my first year at the school, at the age of 12, I sang in the first Trebles (the very highest notes!) in Verdi’s Requiem, performed to parents and friends in Blackburn Cathedral, with an orchestra and professional soloists. One to the most memorable experiences of my life. Requiem is still my favourite classical work, the one record I’d choose to take on the proverbial desert island. This was the first time I had that thrill of being part of the fortissimo barrage of sound that suddenly drops away and leaves the echoes coming back to the singers, so you think “We did that. We made that happen”. Chills.
Once the boys’ voices broke, some escaped Mr L’s regime, but some (me included) stayed on – by choice! – as Tenors or Basses, joined by members of staff. He even allowed a couple of female teachers to join as Altos, but nothing to mar the young male purity of his Trebles. So he achieved a large choir, capable of performing some of the great choral works, but through a regime of constant fear.
Was that the only way to get the performances out of those small boys? Probably not. But he had little to work with – this wasn’t a “choir school”, we were a random bunch (although this was a Grammar School, selecting its pupils through an examination process, so there may have been an element of predisposition to compliance). And as well as the big choral work in the Cathedral at the end of the year, we also performed at various concerts and services. If we mentioned to parents how he treated us we tended to get a “well, he gets results” response – how times have changed since the 70s.
But whatever he did, and however he did it, I was glad to participate in those performances throughout my six years at the school, including a second Verdi Requiem the year I left (now singing as a Bass). We sang other pieces: Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Vivaldi’s Gloria, George Dyson’s little-known but rather lovely The Canterbury Pilgrims – all experiences I wouldn’t have known without Mr L and his choir.
And then to University, joining the University Choir for the sole reason that they were doing Requiem as well.
After University I didn’t seek a choir – didn’t want the commitment of time and, to be honest, I’m not a good singer: I can just about hold my own when surrounded by others who can sing the right notes – I’ve a good ear for following other singers.
Then, for my fiftieth birthday, my wife booked me on a singing weekend with the excellent Music Matters Ltd (I’ve included a link to their site at the bottom of this post). Around 80 people gathering in Whitby over a weekend to rehearse and then perform a choral work – that year, Handel’s Messiah. And I rediscovered the fun of singing and the thrill you get from being part of that collection of voices, and from raising the echoes in a church from a rousing chorus.
I would not advocate Mr L’s methods in any way – singing should be voluntary and fun. But I survived it, and all these years later I’m still singing (occasionally, and with the protection of a choir).
Here are a few links:
- the start of the work (which is very quiet);
- the stunningly dramatic Dies Irae (much recognised from use in various films)
- choir and soloists working together to reveal the beautiful harmonies of Lachrymosa
- Sanctus (lots of fun to sing, and watch for some lovely synchronised standing up by the choir at the start)
- the climactic finale of the Libera Me
The opening section of Dyson’s The Canterbury Pilgrims; lyrics by Chaucer
Music Matters Courses – next singing weekend June 2016.