Like others, I’ve got a couple of hobbies. I don’t include reading, since that’s more like breathing, but I admire people who list reading as one of their hobbies. Good for them—maybe they have a better idea about it than I do. And I’ve certainly bored people enough with my paeans to the dramas of stamp collecting. Those are both solitary pursuits, it must be said. But the other significant consumer of my working days and evenings, and frequently weekends, is choral singing. I’ve been doing choral singing for most of my life, off and on, and my life is infinitely better for it. Singing is fun, hard work and even good for you—by reducing the variability of your heart rate. Who knew? In fact, it’s even a trending lifestyle meme, I’m assured, kind of the way knitting was a couple of years ago.
I’ve been singing since I was a sprout, and I had the lead in HMS Pinafore in 6th grade. I one sense, it’s been downhill from that point—I’ve never sung any Gilbert & Sullivan again. Still, I sang in choirs or choruses all the way through school, through much of college, and at various extended periods of my adult life. It’s not exactly a passion, although during those periods when I wasn’t singing I missed it—the singing itself, the being part of a larger project, the collective work to create a thing of beauty. There is something unique about singing in a group—the sound you make, the collective will being exercised, the search for perfection that is rarely, but nonetheless occasionally, achieved. Maybe it is a passion after all.
During the concert year, the group I sing with– the Orlando Chamber Choir– does four concerts. The group I used to sing with did five. This is a busy schedule, either way. I’ve got a weekly rehearsal, and an all-day Saturday rehearsal, for each concert. Since we’re a group that does Renaissance and Baroque music pretty exclusively, it’s pretty much all great music. Much of it was written in a religious context—in fact, it’s humbling to realize how much of the world’s great choral music is explicitly religious. I have my favorites, of course—every singer does. Mine are Schütz and Lassus. If your favorite is 19th century German romantic stuff, we’re definitely not the group for you. But there is undoubtedly a group out there that does specialize in that. We also do a summer workshop every year that anyone with some singing ability can join—this year we’re doing, hah, Schütz and Lassus. My cup runneth over. Our former musical director is returning for that, which we’re all excited about. Conductors have vastly different styles, and he’s the best director I’ve sung for. He made me a better singer, which I guess is the standard I would use for anyone in a mentoring situation—which musical directors often are.
The sheer number of choral groups out there is astonishing. In London, which I admit is not really representative of the rest of the world in this regard, there are over 420 choirs, according to British Choirs on the Net. Making Music, the group that call itself “the UK’s number one organization for voluntary music,” has over 3,000 member groups. That’s just groups that are organized enough to register as a charity with the requisite Treasurer and By-Laws and whatnot. At the other extreme, there are also thousands of church choirs. And then a whole panoply of groups spanning the two, doing show tunes, or seaman’s chanties, or Labour organizing songs, or madrigals, or barbershop, or…whatever. That’s a whole lot of singing. Some of these are professional groups—it is London, after all—but the vast majority are exactly what Making Music calls us—voluntary organizations. We really do this for love—we love the music (most of the time,) and, equally important, we love the process of making it. And if all, or even most, of these groups are like mine, these are people who put in significant time and effort into this activity. Always for no pay, the inconvenience of a night or two a week on a regular basis much of the year, the occasional resentment of teenage children as they get hauled off to yet another concert to try to keep the audience numbers up and ticket sales respectable, and the certain knowledge that you will probably have to explain all this in some detail to your co-workers at some point when you leave work early yet again to on the day of the concert.
Between rehearsals, I usually spend one night as week looking over the music. I don’t have perfect pitch (few do), and my sight reading, even after all these years, if far from perfect, although I get along. Staring at open sheet music on the underground, I’ve discovered, is an excellent way to have people you don’t know start conversations with you, even though you’re obviously looking at the music. The point is to learn the notes first. We sing with the music—most groups do. Still, who wants to hear a choir that does nothing but stare at its music during a performance. We rehearse in parts, and then mix up—this is an excellent way to find out you don’t know nearly as many notes as you thought you did. And then, after a while, it starts coming together. Every piece has a line, a collection of measures somewhere, that encapsulates the piece, and every piece has a logic of its own. Once you’ve got that, you know what to do. But getting there takes time for us–we’re not professional, although some of us could be. We’re a B+ group, which isn’t bad, given the competition. And from time to time we sound like an A. That’s when it’s magical.
We usually do a dozen or so pieces each concert, depending on the theme of the particular concert. Our last concert, for example was street songs of 16th and 17th century London—Cries of London. But not always. In October we’re doing Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien and Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater, and maybe one or two very short pieces to accompany them. This will be a great concert. I know this because I did the exact same concert several years ago with the group I used to sing with, and it was great.
I’ve also gotten myself into the position of the person who writes the program notes for each concert, as I was for a while in my last group, the City Chamber Choir. This is a bit of a pain sometimes, involving laying out the program, but I’m getting better at it. But mostly it’s great fun—I get to delve into all sorts of things relating to the music being sung, I learn about the composers and their times, I get to throw in all sorts of social history, and I learn a lot—there’s always stuff I don’t know that’s sort of a wonder to learn. Like, for example, the Puritans under Cromwell banned music in churches and public places. This I already knew. But I didn’t know that they had a lively musical life in their homes—Cromwell used to have recitals at his home. Stuff like that. It’s all very satisfying.
Singers are remarkable people. We’re everywhere. I’m happy to be one. There isn’t a culture in the world that doesn’t have some sort of group singing. And we know that musical instruments go back tens of thousands of years—musical flutes made from mammoth ivory have been found that date back about 42,000 years. So singing is probably as old as that too. Humans are a singing animal. And there’s a group out there just for you. Just look around.
The above stamp was issued by the Åland Islands, which is one of several Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. They are technically part of Finland but are autonomous, and issue their own stamps. It is the only place to have a stamp specifically about choral singing, as far as I can tell. Maybe I’ll move there. There are worse places to be than an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea.