When I was trying to justify my existence as a music student I often suffered from crises of confidence. In talking to colleagues years later it is some comfort to learn that I wasn’t alone in thinking that everyone else was far more talented and that sooner or later I would be, ‘found out’.
Apparently we all, (apart from a very few confidence-ridden individuals) have thoughts about not really belonging where we find ourselves.
In my case it was particularly apparent when it came to singing and my own vocal identity. As a boy treble from the ages of 9-13, I sang solos regularly in a world-renowned cathedral, and was treated as a professional singer at the top of my game. An unknown piece by Kurt Weill was rediscovered and I was chosen to sing a duet live on Radio 3 alongside the BBC Singers. I remember a small amount of nerves, but basically it was all in a day’s work and I was probably thinking more about the cricket match the following day.
Come the age of 13, and it was time to leave this bubble for the outside world. I didn't really want anyone to know at ‘Big School’ that I had been a weedy chorister, and although I had a music scholarship I more often than not chose a football kick around over choir rehearsals and just sight-read during performances. While not proud of these decisions, looking back I can identify part of the problem, which then continued into later years.
My voice had broken into little bits, and I lurched from dodgy alto to a narrow, low tenor with no top range. Too high to be a bass either, I ended up in the choral no man’s land of baritone, but often ended up singing tenor and flitting into falsetto above an E… I was aware this was not what ‘proper’ singers were meant to do, a situation made all the more apparent at university where everyone else’s voice fitted perfectly into one of the main four categories and mine clearly did not.
I remember feeling very left out on one summer choir tour because I was not perceived as having an identifiable voice as such.
I alleviated this a little by organising and conducting many choral concerts, and found the fact I was able to give notes to any voice in the choir a distinct advantage, and that the quality of the voice didn't matter so much. It was more my role to encourage others to sing better than to expect it of myself.
After uni, and probably due to my sight-reading ability (I thoroughly recommend the musical education of being a chorister to anyone!) and the fact that my treble voice had slipped into a passable falsetto, I was able to find work deputising as an alto in various cathedrals and churches in London, but I was never good enough to secure a first team place anywhere and I drifted into other parts of the music world, arranging, copying, involved in pop and rock, and teaching guitar, but also keeping up some work as a choral director.
How different things are now. In 2008 I received a call from an adult education team at a local school:
“We have an eight- week ‘singing for fun’ course all set up but the leader has pulled out - you were recommended.“
“That’s interesting” I said, “When does it start?”
I jumped at the chance and spent a happy eight weeks creating a community choir without knowing it. We sang spirituals, folk songs, rounds, easy pop songs, and a Byrd three-part round which I had sung every Sunday lunchtime as a chorister.
When the course finished, I was delighted that most of the members wanted to carry on in some form. Another local choir had sprung up to commemorate an anniversary and was looking to expand so we joined forces and officially formed Milton Keynes Community Choir in Autumn 2008. Now 120-strong, we are about to perform our 10th anniversary concert to an audience of over 400 and we will once again raise thousands for national and local charities, and much fun will be had by all.
It has been a source of great pleasure to discover that this story is far from unique. Community choirs have sprung up in their thousands all over the world, and although there are many different types, they all seem to have one thing in common: that their membership is largely made up of people who don’t really class themselves as singers. Not only that, many of our members never thought they could sing, let alone in harmony - let alone at a concert that people paid money to witness.
So it has taken me many years to learn what was always there in the first place. Singing belongs to everyone, there is a place for you no matter what you or other people think of your vocal ability.
Of course, a lot of communities have known this for centuries - schools, folk groups, churches, pubs, scouts and guides, and countless other situations where singing together in a raw form has always bound people together and meant something. But now it is available to so many more and long may it continue.
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