Sing for Something
Perceiving that I needed to get out and do more, following our corporate bankruptcy in the spring of 1996 my wife suggested that I should go to a singing class she had seen advertised in the local paper. It was in an upstairs room near the cathedral in the nearby city of Gloucester. The teacher was a generously proportioned woman called Marion Taylor. I found myself one of a group of about nine, the only male.
I now appreciate that it was an unusual gathering, since we were not in any sense a choir: we were a number of pupils, mainly housewives, who could not afford individual singing lessons. I have not come across a similar set-up since. I certainly couldn’t find £25 or £30 an hour for private tuition, as my PR business had recently folded thanks to having too many clients who would not pay their accounts on time. The long-drawn-out suicide over a personal matter of one of the directors, too, had taken the lustre off the business world, and I realised only later that I was in a profound state of depression.
Singing seemed to lift me out of it, although there was no socialising with the others. Not for the first time, I found myself alone in a group of women who did not know what to make of me, nor I of them. I was born, seemingly without any ability to make contact with people, other than fellow sociopaths. Ten years in boarding schools and being a bookish only-child with an absentee film-making father and working actor mother had only hardened the shell of isolation I constructed around myself. Any friends I did let in had first to be tested, almost to destruction.
After a few weeks, Marion declared that we would each have to perform a song solo to the others. This was regarded with trepidation by everyone as a cathartic moment, wrestling with demons we would all somehow have to overcome. Numbed, I thought little of it. What was there to be afraid of? It was hardly the Festival Hall, we were all in the same boat. I sang Jerome Kearn’s familiar standard, ‘Ol’ Man River’, mostly in my bass register, except towards the end where, unless you were Paul Robeson, the tune can either go either way on ‘I’m tired of livin’, and scared of dyin’’, where I ended up as a rather uncertain, husky tenor.
Never mind, it was good enough. The curious expression on the faces of the listening women, that I misinterpreted almost as hatred, but perhaps was merely mild astonishment, told me I had achieved something unexpected, unusual even. I turned to Marion, who was also staring at me in a rather speculative manner. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘Was I out of tune?’ ‘I don’t think so’, she replied. ‘Look, you cup your hands like this and you can listen to yourself’. So I did, and I didn’t go back to the class the following week.
Soon afterwards, I auditioned for a spot with a semi-professional a cappella choir, connected with the cathedral, that performed mainly for charity all over Europe. This was the moment at which, dear reader, you expect me to report that my celebrated career was launched. I sang Vaughan-Williams’ well-known arrangement of William Barnes’ ‘On Linden Lea’ across the piano lid, clutching the instrument for dear life, to a waspish young choirmaster with that brittle, hypersensitive manner I recognised with dread from impossibly prissy music teachers I had known in the past.
‘You can’t read music!’ he snapped, as if he had suddenly discovered I was infected with herpes. It seemed I had mislaid a dotted crotchet somewhere. ‘I want your voice’, he said, encouragingly. ‘But I don’t want you. Come back when you’ve learned to sight-read!’
At £25 or £30 an hour? I was unemployed, 46 years old, with a wife, two kids and a mortgage to feed. ‘I don’t care about that’, he said. ‘It’s up to you, what you choose to do.’
I never did go back. Years of subsequent experience of singing with choral societies has taught me to follow a score, if not to interpret the music unprompted. I know what the notes on the stave are called, of course, although it takes a moment to count the intervals in the bass clef, as I became a bass-baritone only late in life; luckily, if I don’t think about it, I tend to go to the right notes by instinct. Hearing the start-note only once, I can both retain it in my head through many repetitions in rehearsal, when (much to my satisfaction) I find choir leaders who refuse to trust me will spend ages fiddling with their little tuning devices, only to agree I was on pitch all along; and develop the rest of the melody away from it.
Through much practice, I gained an ability to acquire and retain at least a few lines, enough to perform them back immediately. By the following week, the piece is entirely forgotten, even the title – until I hear the start-note once more, and the opening phrase of the lyrics, whereupon it all comes flooding back. I have developed an instinct for knowing where a tune is probably going to go next, and recognise common harmonic progressions. I lipread cues virtually instantaneously from better singers, and have taught myself through bitter experience of being ‘outed’ for breathing in all the wrong places, to cunningly conceal those little breaths snatched illicitly in the middle of words, that get singers like me, ex-smokers, who tend to tense-up and can’t breathe properly, to the end of a line. And whenever I have had any money, I have taken a few theory lessons, although I am still baffled by tempo and key signatures, the Circle of Fifths and the relative minor.
In short, I have become a valued (and not atypical) member of several local amateur choirs!
The relationship I have with these community choirs is, unfortunately, a complicated one, owing to their repertoire: a curious mix of world, folk and 60s pop music adapted for part-singing and delivered at a basic level. I don’t enjoy singing most of that stuff, but there is nowhere else I can go to sing with other voices, except on my walks with Hunzi, that does not involve tackling huge and frankly tedious requiem masses – some for the fourth or fifth time. A solo career would depend on having a reliable, unpaid accompanist. They don’t exist.
Singing with mixed-ability choirs, whose members frequently fail to show up owing to some important social engagement or other, people leaving and new people starting every week, who may not come back the next week, and constantly changing leaders, can be frustrating. There’s no fixed repertoire. It means putting up with an instantly forgettable diet of what I have unkindly christened ‘Zulu campfire songs’ – endlessly chanting meaningless words over the same tedious quatrain, now loud, now soft, now just the tenors, now the basses, for hours until you hyperventilate; or otherwise, sitting around for ages while the leader patiently goes over the alto part again and again, peering encouragingly into the crumpled, worried faces of unconfident singers desperately struggling to absorb what seem to me to be the simplest of musical lines, or to master short phrases pointlessly in some Xhosa or Abkhazian village dialect, that generally translate as ‘the power of many women will bring us the light of freedom’, or some such right-on sentiment.
Once again, I find myself enrolled amongst groups mainly of women. To make up for the lack of men willing to join these groups, there are women tenors – even women basses. Most of them being of a certain age, living in this part of the world, they will have had shared experiences of being camped out at Greenham Common in the 1980s to protest the cruise missiles, of being arrested at Fairford; of marching for nuclear disarmament, and singing for water. Many will have arrived here as part of the self-sufficiency movement in the 1970s, migrating from unsatisfying urban jobs to revive abandoned Welsh farmsteads, sharing the gritty values of organic produce and veganism. Some may be former hippies, dwelling amid nature in yurts and tepees, now grown old and settled. Many have done and do selfless voluntary work among the homeless, the damaged and confused. They are all admirable: strong, practical, sisterly women with communitarian, earth-centred belief-systems and grandchildren in New Zealand.
But theirs is not my experience, nor really my way. I don’t want their smoke-tinged beliefs and values informing absolutely everything we are asked to sing, to the exclusion of other kinds of music. My musical world almost from birth has been the Great American Songbook. If I had wanted to engage in feminist geopolitics, to identify closely with the oppressed tribespeople of a vanishing world, I would have joined UNESCO. If I had wanted to chant myself into a deeply mystical headspace, I would have taken up Sufism.
I am neither admirable, nor altruistic, nor vegan. I don’t travel well, or often. I experience my own deeper meaning, my underlying values and strengths; I count myself as decent a person as I can be, helpful and caring, if not very useful. I oppose consumer capitalism and spend little time shopping, except to impress girlfriends with my fortitude. I could cheerfully see a Tory politician or a billionaire ‘asset manager’ swinging from every lamppost in the Mall. To me, though, there is something neo-colonialist and smugly patronising about comfortably-off, provincial English folk ransacking the poorest nations of the world for their obscure musical tropes, to invoke some sisterly connection with their simpler way of life, their deeper instinctive knowledge of nature. (I picture these wise and humble village women, with their zero-carbon footprints, dutifully excising their daughters’ clitorises with old razor-blades.)
I yearn to perform more complicated music: jazz and modern blues, Cole Porter and Tom Jobim, Schubert and Sondheim, Dowland and Carole King; even Welsh hymns and gospel songs. Music with narrative progression, wry wit, tragic or compassionate lyrics, schadenfreude; a beginning, a middle and an end, that doesn’t ask me to stand around in a circle, holding hands, chanting incomprehensible mantras to the Universal Atman while the leader takes a narcissistic showerbath in wavering celestial crunchy harmonies.
None of it should demand that I believe in any higher metaphysical purpose than that of learning and performing music, reflective of someone’s actual human experience; or that I can reverse the horrors of the world and bring about lasting peace on earth, merely by vibrating my larynx in an upstairs room for an hour and a half once a week.
In the end, the reason for my attendance comes down to one simple point: I don’t know where else to go, to be with a few companionable faces for a while, who seem willing to tolerate my sullen efforts at self-mastery, my selfish and socially gauche interjections, my tiresome attempts at throwaway humour, my sometimes accurate start-notes, in exchange for my deepest bottom ‘F’!
And then, there’s the bar afterwards.