At the age of 13 I vowed never to sing again in a choir, which was a bit unfair to the choir I was actually in for four years. It was quite fun and it had its advantages. Choir practice occurred during the long midday break, so we got an extra half hour added onto our bedtimes by way of compensation. Or, in the summer term when everyone got the extra half hour, we got an extra sweet ration. We had a good choirmaster, and we learned a good mix of religious and secular songs. We often got the day off to go and sing at weddings, for which some form of edible recompense was usually available. I remember us all being invited to the reception, once, where I learned that caviar tastes exactly like you would expect fish eggs to taste. There were occasional ventures to singing festivals or competitions in the area and I remember being part of a multi-choir festival thing singing ‘Carmina Burana’ to a packed house.
But it was also all a bit too much like hard work for something that was meant to be enjoyable, and after the mandatory term in the choir decreed at my next school for all new boys who could sing, I exercised my right to leave for good. I still know how to sing in tune, keep a beat and hit my notes - all useful skills.
As an adult I’ve toyed with the idea of joining up again, here and there, now and then – a local choral society, maybe, or something G&S – but again the thought of all those rehearsals to be any good just seems too time consuming where I could be doing something else. But when your local church advertises the chance to do Messiah, rehearsals and performance in one day only - experienced soloists and orchestra, otherwise no experience required - what’s to lose?
And so I was one of about 100 volunteers of varying experience – knowing every note backwards down to complete debutantes – who turned up at Christ Church on Saturday morning. I was ahead of some in that I had actually sung in a choir before, albeit 33 years earlier. The church was arranged landscape format to accommodate choir and a small orchestra, and we were left to self-sort into soprano, alto, tenor or bass. I guessed I would probably be bass and this turned out to be correct.
I presume that anyone who was totally, irredeemably, awfully flat (and I know for a fact they exist in our congregation) would have been gently turned away, but that didn’t seem to happen. There again the organisers may have adopted the Florence Foster Jennings philosophy - “they can say I can't sing but they can never say I didn't sing.”
As a final shakedown we ran through scales and phrases, with the advice that “if you can’t sing this then you’re a [whatever comes next down]”, right up to the point where bats fall out of the sky as the Hallelujah Chorus’s “King of kings” gets ever higher and higher. And then we started.
I had vaguely assumed different workshops for different voices but no, we worked through the whole thing together, chorus by chorus and learning to put the right emphasis on “Wonderful counsellor”, the right scorn and disgust into “iniquities” (say it like you’re Michael Howard, is the answer to that one), the right sarcasm into “he trusted in God”.
The assumption was that everyone who came at least vaguely knew the piece already, which is a dangerous assumption because when you have to sing a specific voice you come to the sudden realisation that you don’t actually know the tune. You know “the tune”, i.e. the bit you could whistle or hum if you listened to a recording, but you don’t know the specific notes you ought to be singing which sometimes are completely not the notes you thought you knew. Fortunately I was sitting next to one of the knows-it-backwards crowd (whose friend was a Doctor Who fan, I discovered by virtue of wearing my TARDIS cufflinks), and I can read music well enough to tell how many beats each note should last and approximately how further up or down the next one is than the last one, so all in all I got by.
My school choir only had one voice – unbroken boyish treble, and if you had the nerve to start adolescing in the run-up to some concert or other big do then the choir master’s disapproval was made plain – so I had never really appreciated what it is to sing in parts. You’re much more aware of feeding in to a greater whole; you feel much more part of the organism that is the choir. Team work! And over a gap of 33 years all the old habits came flooding back – how to stand, how to hold the score, how to keep an eye on the conductor – so, no problems there. Actually, at school I would have got told off for closing my score with a satisfied snap after the final ‘Amen’, but I make allowances for myself.
And what a thing it is to sing, eh? A cunning selection of Bible verses that take you from the bright and bubbly “And the glory of the Lord” through to the lowest points of the Suffering Servant and then onwards into Heaven where everyone is praising God. For ever. And ever. And ever. Hallelujah. At the end you can almost believe that’s where you are, until you go out into the cold, dark car park and think, “okay, still a little way to yet.”
For the last two years on this weekend we've been to Salisbury cathedral's candlelight Advent service to kick off the season. No candles this year, but otherwise a fully satisfactory substitute.