By Barbara Stuart
Joining a choir is all the rage and some say that choir memberships are getting younger. It’s like knitting and bingo — it’s cool to sing in a choir. Not in the choirs around here, not yet!
Every English choral society has its stalwarts; ladies (sadly mostly ladies — there are never enough men) who run the committee, enjoy a frisson with the young(ish) conductor, share lifts, and find friendship. Some have very fine voices indeed. Some find it harder nowadays to control their vibrato. All give a lot and get a lot back.
Twice or three times a year, regular as clockwork, the choir employs local musicians to form their orchestra. The singers have rehearsed the notes accompanied by their faithful pianist for months. Then, at around 7:20 on the Wednesday before the concert, the final rehearsal, an assorted bunch of local instrumentalists pitch up and, for the first time, the choir becomes part of the work performed as the composer intended. The impact of those opening few bars makes all the hurried dinners, the trips out in the wind and wet, the missed glasses of wine worthwhile.
I’m a clarinettist and I’ve been doing these gigs for years. The orchestra is picked from a small pool of local players — an even smaller pool of wind players. We turn up to the same faces sitting in the same places time after time. We only ever meet up in school halls and churches, but there’s a warmth and comfortable understanding grown out of a common purpose. It’s like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers; everyone knows the etiquette, what’s expected of them, how it goes. We know that there’s only one toilet and that it’s a better bet to slip out to the pub next door to avoid the queue. We know to wear two t-shirts, a jumper, and a fleece under our coats because St Andrew’s in February is the coldest church in Oxfordshire. We know that we’ll get a welcome cup of tea at half-time and if there’ll be biscuits. And we know to set out from home ridiculously early on concert night so we’re sure to be in our places at least 15 minutes before the downbeat. No point giving our colleagues extra worry lines or risking the conductor’s angry stare.
After a few years of turning up on time and playing respectably you’re part of the gang and the ladies sitting in the front row of the choir just behind you know your name and include you in their chat. The back row of the winds has a special function — sopranos unknowingly rest their vocal scores on your heads as their arms sink with the weight of a chunky Mozart Requiem. Those sitting immediately behind have a good enough sight-line to be able to follow the clarinet and bassoon parts note by note and they will whisper encouragement and maybe the occasional compliment after a successfully-negotiated solo.
Why do we do it? It’s not for the money. There are longeurs a-plenty (so you don’t forget to take your phone and the latest Private Eye to rehearsals), but when a performance goes better than you ever thought it could, and it often does, being a small part of something so big and beautiful is a high which isn’t often to be had. I hope the ladies in the front row feel the same.
Barbara Stuart is Marketing Manager for printed music at OUP and a busy amateur clarinettist.