I joined a community choir about 6 months ago, under slight duress (I do virtually everything under slight duress actually – apart from eating and sleeping.) A couple of ladies from another tiny little choir I’d joined, at around the same time (this time under friendly duress) suggested I go along to the proper, bigger choir with them; which was actually brilliant, since I’ve always had to join club-type things alone, living as I do without relatives around the corner. And there’s something very off-putting about joining group activities ALONE, especially when you’re riddled with social anxiety-type thingies, and stammery-type stuff; as I am.
So, I thought I may as well give it a go (having sung with choirs in the dim and distant past.) The first unsettling problem occurred when I discovered, on arrival at my first ‘taster session’, that all 80 of us had to line up and register in, by saying our names out aloud………and this is where I’m going to directly refute all the literature out there, stating that a bit of choral singing gives untold health benefits, turning you into the happiest person in the universe.
Singing with a bunch of other people is good for the soul, the NHS claims, and so do various musically well qualified experts. It brings a sense of togetherness, a sense of belonging and does wonderful things for your physical and mental health. The NHS is urging us to join choirs as a cheap alternative to mood altering drugs. But we’re already singing from the same song sheet (choral-based joke) as there has been a surge in choir memberships during recent years, which I’m attributing to something I’m calling ‘The Gareth Malone Effect.’
My choir’s conductor is a maths lecturer, who has something of the Gareth Malone about him, being very thin, quite posh but not quite so authoritarian; in fact he’s laid-back; so laid-back that he frequently loses the musical plot, in terms of rhythm, notes and what page we’re on, but that doesn’t matter because he’s very enthusiastic about the whole choral experience, beginning every practice with a warm-up, yoga type session, as we raise our arms above our heads (breathing in) rest our hands on top of our heads (breathing out) and then run up and down the scales going la la la, ooh ooh ooh, ah ah ah, before our very nice conductor says, with a big smile, now that feels better doesn’t it?
The miraculous side-effects of singing with a choir are, allegedly:
- You will live longer
- If you’re depressed, you won’t be anymore
- Singing will release endorphins, temporarily relieving chronic pain
- Belting out a few songs will improve your lung capacity
- Learning those songs will maximise brain power
- It will reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and heart rate
- You will go home feeling upbeat, full of joie de vivre and love for all mankind
- You will relax, feeling a sensation of Zen-like calm
Calm was the last thing I felt as I waited in line, heart beat racing, blood pressure rising, brain power diminishing, to proclaim who I was to the bloke in charge of the register at the first taster session (I have since got round this stressful bit of choir malarkey by sticking my name on my music folder and shoving it in his face.)
The second non-Zen like bit was being immediately split up from the ladies I’d arrived with, because I sing Soprano and they sing Alto, which meant we sit at opposite sides of the large, draughty church (Baptist variety) hall. And so I rapidly regressed to the playground, roughly aged about 5, as I asked the first non-threatening looking woman I came across, if I could sit with her. I did this by saying: “Can I sit with you please, I don’t know anyone”, in a sort of whiney, pleading, non-grown up voice………. by the way, ‘non-threatening’ in my book means someone who looks a bit ‘mumsy’ (usually wearing a nice aran cardi and sensible shoes) and goes around with a perpetual smile on their face.
Turned out I’d picked just the right person, because she was overflowing with the milk of human kindness and immediately introduced me to her friends who all sat in the same row.
A couple of weeks went by before I realised that my friendly lady, and her pals, were all Christians (which probably accounted for the milk vat of human kindness.) A slight contretemps occurred, one week, when they asked if I went to church and I had to publicly proclaim my atheism, leading to a sudden silence in which you could have heard a flimsy piece of sheet music drop. After getting over the shock of the ungodly being in their midst they all, as one, very generously said: “that’s ok we forgive you’.
I’m presuming this act of forgiveness was necessary because everyone knows that atheists are very, very evil and prone to starting wars, and committing acts of terrorism, all in the name of Atheism……… I’m going off topic.
I soon realised that the ladies who pray were pretty representative of how people join choirs and the suchlike, because it became clear that almost everyone there had come along with either their sister, their brother, their mother, their father, their friend or work colleague, which meant they conveniently had someone to hang with and talk to at the next stressful, heart palpitating bit of choral shenanigans.
Which was the ‘tea break’. The tea break lasts 15 long, agonising minutes, as we all file out into another smaller hall and stand around drinking revolting tea/coffee. It’s supposed to be a chance to ‘get to know each other’ but, in fact, is where the people who already know each other gather in tight little groups, mostly ignoring the other tight little groups of people who already know each other.
But the height of non-Zen like calm will occur tonight at the Christmas concert, in aid of charity, and sung to approximately 200 relatives and friends. I will be relative and friend-less, as hubby is otherwise engaged (luckily for him.)
As well as singing with the main choir, my Alto friends wanted to join in with something called Choir Plus, being roughly 20 male/female singers who feel they can handle the more difficult stuff. The more difficult stuff being nothing by ABBA, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, or anything from Frozen or The Lion King, or anything remotely popular; in favour of something that nobody has heard of and dates from around about the 17th century and is sung in LATIN – which is guaranteed to be a real audience winner.
The main, non-difficult part of the choir goes on from 7 – 9 pm, which is more than enough time out of the house if, like me, you generally don’t go out of the house much, if you can help it; and, scarily, Choir Plus goes on until the ungodly hour of 9.30 pm; a time when I’m normally in bed, warm milk in hand, beating Candy Crush into submission. But I agreed to stay behind, hopefully gaining even more of those choir inducing, miraculous benefits to be had from opening my mouth and giving it some welly.
It became clear, however, that Choir Plus is also not a stress free Nirvana, in that the difficult stuff would seem to be just a bit too difficult, judging by my lovely Christian lot’s (who are all up for the ‘difficult stuff’) reaction to my going home early the past two weeks due to a cold and sore throat.
‘Are you going Susan?’ (lady no. 1)
‘Yes, my voice is really hoarse, don’t want to lose it completely for Friday.’
‘why are you going?’ (lady no. 2)
‘Well I’ve still got this cold thing and my throat is sore.’
‘We need you for the Gloria bit’ (lady no. 1)
‘ok, well I’m going home cos my throat is sore.’
This situation has arisen because a few choir moons ago my lovely non-threatening lady discovered that I could sight read, so when I sing I tend to hit the right notes. This led her to come up with something she called the ‘ripple effect’, which is where yours truly is to be relied upon to find the right note for the Soprano section, in amongst all the other notes flying around in the alto, tenor and bass sections. This note is then picked up by said lady and relayed to her neighbour, and so on and so on, like a choral Chinese whispers. And the ‘Gloria bit’ is also very, very difficult timing-wise, being written in a strange rhythm known only to the 17th century; meaning that an ability to read music either makes or breaks it – being that our very nice conductor sometimes misses the beat.
Which begs the stressful question – what happens if I don’t hit the right note on the night or screw up the sight reading? And what happened to all those Zen-like health benefits of choir singing?
Of course, there must be other Sopranos hitting all the right notes, but I’m the one in closest range, so this has led me to (uncharacteristically) take something seriously for a change (apart from the eating and sleeping that is) and this past week I was to be found singing along to the soprano bit of Vivaldi’s Gloria (the difficult one) via YouTube, in an attempt to make sure I know exactly how it goes and, as my throat is still not right, I’ve been losing my voice (such as it is), which Gareth Malone warned me about on his website last night, where he frighteningly states that you should NEVER sing with a cold or you’ll permanently damage your voice – yikes, why didn’t I check Gareth out a week ago? Things are not looking good for the ‘ripple effect.’
Anyway, here’s Vivaldi’s Gloria – try to listen to the whole thing – unfortunately tonight’s audience won’t be able to press the pause button.
Imagine 20 amateurs trying to get away with that one.
But it’s all good. When it comes to group activities I’ve always been slightly abnormal, preferring solitary pursuits – the pursuit of blog writing is as solitary as it gets – so I’m not qualified to say whether singing along with a bunch of (mostly) strangers, comes with all those miraculous, documented health perks – and improved mental health. The singing part is fine – the rest of it feels a bit more like hard work.
Our Friday concert is ending with this lovely Christmas number and by that point I’ll be feeling very calm indeed, and probably overflowing with love for my fellow choristers, not to mention feeling very christmassy too.