…when I got there. By 7pm on a very wet Wednesday in February all I wanted to do was head home and slide into a hot bath. But it was the first rehearsal of the year, and I was committed. So I left the Big Bloke at the Shed, and headed into the storm. Fordwich is the country’s smallest town, and it has some of the narrowest roads, just to remind you on your way through. The small group of singers who had braved the deluge shivered in the old school rooms until we got warmed up.
Then I remembered why I love being a member of a choir. Singing is something that is part of me. It doesn’t necessarily matter what we’re singing (though a bit of Bach usually gives the vocal chords a good workout), there is warmth and delight in being part of a vocal ensemble that feels like home.
Even when, especially when you’re sight-singing, and, getting to the end of a phrase, the only thing you can vocalise is ‘oops’. 16 people arriving at the same place in the music sixteen semi-quavers apart is quite something.
So tonight I Was Glad I’d bothered. Especially when we picked up Parry’s ‘There is an old belief,’ number 4 in the set of 6 motets – Songs of Farewell. I’d never sung it, nor to my knowledge heard it. It’s wonderful. And ok, to start with, we tortured it. No music deserves what we did to it. But then, suddenly, the strange harmonies and odd-cornered melodies began to make sense. There was a moment, on page 4, of ‘oh, so THAT’s where it’sgoing’. And after that, it was, whilst not exactly easy, something you felt you could sing, really sing, rather than just tiptoe around.
And that’s when your back straightens, your head lifts and your heart starts to beat faster. That is when the rush starts, the same feeling of excitement you get from a good run, chocolate…or, whatever does it for you. It’s probably similar to the feeling that a climber gets, or a racing driver, but without the element of danger. Though I can tell you, the way the stomach drops when you’re in the middle of a chorus, in performance, as it all starts to go wrong, is as close to panic as I ever want to get.
From the audience, as an experienced singer or orchestral player, you can always tell when danger is approaching, as the conductor’s movements become ever more exaggerated and those who, perhaps, had had their faces a little buried in the copies, suddenly begin, one by one, to make prolonged eye-contact. You hold your breath, willing them to hold it together, to get to the other side of the page, to the cadence which will give them a chance to regroup, take a deep breath and head off once more into the subdominant. Or wherever.
When you’re singing, right there in the eye of the storm, your senses sharpen and your attention homes in on the only things that can help. The conductor, the first cello (or whoever is playing something that will help you), the person next to you who you can trust (you hope) to be getting it right. And then, when you get to that cadence, and you’re all in one piece (or even if you’ve all slid down the phrase and landed at the bottom in a heap), off you go again. At the end – pride, relief, joy, sadness (sometimes), gratitude, delight, exhaustion, thirst…I could write a list that went on for pages. Singing. It’s one of the best things you can do.
There are even studies that prove it’s good for your long-term health (singing for health). More on this another time.
I’ve taken a bit of a break from it, for about five years now. I didn’t realise, until I joined this choir just before Christmas, for Messiah, how much I’d missed it. The best thing about this choir is that it is directed by a friend who I sang with in my University days, and one of my dearest friends is a member. The last 20 years don’t exactly melt away, but there’s an immediate feeling of belonging. That’s got to be good.