Not long after moving into the village, I consider it is about time I became more involved in village life. I hear of a village choir that sounds just the sort of thing I am looking for.
In the past, my husband and I have sung in amateur Gilbert and Sullivan productions. We’ve recently tried joining a choir in Bristol, near where we both work, but it was far too stuffy and serious. The choirmistress didn’t approve of talking in the ranks, and having instructed me to wear a particular colour blouse for the imminent concert, demanded that I should show it to her for approval before wearing it. She sapped the joy out of singing.
Unfortunately, my husband is not allowed to join the new choir I’ve spotted, because it is an offshoot of the Women’s Institute. There’s not a great call for bass parts in the WI.
Most of the choir are WI members, but there’s no obligation to join. I can simply pay a small sum to join the choir instead of a larger one for full WI membership – for which, being in my early 30s, I am not yet ready.
We meet every Tuesday in the village hall for an hour and a half. The first five minutes of each meeting is spent arranging chairs in strategic lines that allow similar voices and friends to sit together. The next ten minutes are spent trying to stop little huddles of friends from gossiping and shrieking with laughter, so that we can get on to some (almost) serious singing.
The choirmistress, Pauline, is a sweet, smiling slip of a thing who is used to keeping three small sons under control. The WI choir is more of a challenge, but using much the same psychology – the right measure of coercion, flattery and shouting – she manages to keep us more or less in order.
On joining, everyone is given an important-looking black binder in which to keep their music. These are of varying antiquity and states of repair. Apparently, we have an established repertoire, but we learn new songs for special occasions – and then relearn the old ones that we have forgotten in the meantime.
The standard of singing varies. Some of us read music, some of us don’t. Those who regularly forget their reading glasses may have trouble with the words. This makes every performance unique, but we take any hiccups in our stride on the assumption that enough singers will have a sufficiently tight grasp of the words and the tunes to carry the rest of us along with them.
Thus at rehearsals the chairs gradually stray from the neat lines in which they’ve been set out, forming into muddled clusters, as their occupants surreptitiously home in on the stronger singers. At the centre of one of these clusters is Pat. She is a tall, handsome woman with steel grey hair and determined blue eyes but twinkling blue eyes. More importantly, she has total recall of both tune and words, a rich, strong voice and a protective, caring manner towards the ladies who gather around her. Some of these have been known to hold her hand for added strength as they sing, as if tunefulness may be acquired by osmosis.
“I think I got that one rather wrong, dear,” one of them confides, not quite as often as she does get it wrong.
“Ooh, don’t worry, dear, I didn’t notice any difference from the usual,” Pat always reassures her, beaming.
For the altos, of which I am one, the mainstay is a schoolteacher. I am very glad when she befriends me; seated in her shadow I can belt out the harmonies with confidence.
Pauline eggs us on, finding something new to praise in every rendition – a tribute to both her patience and her imagination. Despite the level of self-discipline that one might find in the school choir of St Trinian’s, we are somehow coerced into public performances.
We offer to sing at weddings, despite knowing that most of the choir is likely to cry throughout any village wedding, where most of the choir will know all the key players and possibly at least one of us will be the mother of the bride or the groom.
Minstrels on Burns’ Night
We jump at the chance of special events and get dreadfully excited at the chance to sing at a Burns’ Night, which for some reason that is unclear (this is Gloucestershire, after all) is celebrated in a big way in the next village.
We take this engagement very seriously, enlisting the help of the village’s Scottish diaspora (i.e. Sam) for language coaching. We aim for accuracy with accents and phrasing for “Flower of Scotland” and “Auld Lang Syne”. Added to the challenge of the latter is a beautiful two-part harmony written especially for the event by Pauline.
The venue for the Burns Night is a splendid old hall in the Big House of the next village. There is a spectacular minstrels’ gallery, to which we are despatched, giving me new insight into how it would have felt to live in the age of the feudal system. Arrayed in any old bits of tartan we could find in our wardrobes, we gaze down like excitable servants on the toffs gathering below in all their finery.
Such is our sense of occasion that we throw ourselves heart and soul into the songs, singing unaccompanied, apart from the single note from an electronic keyboard at the start to give us our bearings. It’s just as well that we’re unaccompanied, as by the time we finish our slowing lilting rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”, we’ve dropped at least two whole tones. However, so moving has our performance been that no-one appears to notice. The evening is over all too quickly, and we are sent on our way.
In Concert at Bath Abbey
Our most distant engagement comes when we’re invited to sing in Bath Abbey with three other WI choirs. We find safety in numbers and the critical mass required to fill this huge venue with song.
Our hired coach takes us there much too early, so, dressed in our uniform of long black skirts and white blouses, we head in little groups for a source of refreshment to while away the time. My group ends up in a small Italian café, as excitable as 1950s teenagers in a milk bar. Nervously sipping my cappuccino, I realise that quite a few of our choir have actually been 1950s teenagers in their time.
Fortunately, the audience in the Abbey consists mainly of WI members, plus a few dutiful husbands, feeling conspicuously male. This means the audience is predisposed to be kind to us. The evening goes well. By the end of the concert we are on a roll and looking forward to the promised stop on the way home at Pauline’s husband’s favourite pub. The landlord has promised to stand us drinks if we sing for the regulars.
The regulars regard us with suspicion. It is not natural, they may be thinking, for large groups of ladies to go about dressed exactly alike. They might wonder if we are on an outing from an institution.
But we do not care. We are still on a post-performance high, particularly after sharing the bottles of wine that were awaiting our arrival. We quickly raise our voices for a spirited rendition of our best pieces.
The pub empties even more quickly than we emptied our glasses.
“I could do with you lot at closing time,” says the publican wryly, wiping down the bar. But he’s not too worried – he knows that as soon as they hear our coach leave the village, his regulars will return.
The Christmas Concert
It is just as well that we are undaunted by this experience, because the following week we are to entertain our own village. In our parochial minds, the Hawkesbury Upton Christmas concert is much more significant than Bath Abbey’s. The WI will manage the event, setting out the tables and chairs cabaret-style, and decking them with white cloths, red candles and evergreens. Steaming punch and hot mince pies are provided for all.
The choir is also suitably decorative. The dress code is our usual black-and-whites, plus “something Christmassy”. This is, unwisely, left open to interpretation. The religious go for a cross and chain, the modest for small gold star earrings, while the flamboyant go for full office party effect. Tinsel in the hair, flashing battery-powered brooches on the blouse and Christmas baubles worn as earrings. We fall about with laughter backstage, but as soon as the curtain rises, the sense of occasion silences us.
Apart from the stage, the hall is entirely lit by candlelight. In little pools of light throughout the hall are all our neighbours, packed round little tables, radiant with excitement and expectation of what we are about to provide. The warmth of the stage lighting wafts the scent of hot mince pies and punch into our nostrils. I am as awed as a child on stage for her first nativity play.
But knowing the audience is composed of our dearest friends puts us at our ease and soon we are singing in fine voice. Tumultuous applause meets the end of every song, which ensures we make the next one even better.
The programme is varied and interesting, ranging from standard performances of traditional carols which the audience are invited to join in, to new and beautiful arrangements of old favourites. Even after all our rehearsals, these bring tears to my eyes (and in a good way). As we strike into the third verse of “In Dulci Jubilo”, with Liz and I leading the altos in a beautiful harmony, I feel as if I’ve already ascended into heaven.
We rest our voices as one of our number, a talented flautist, plays a solo of the theme from “The Snowman”. We all sing in our heads as she plays, and the snowman’s life flashes before our eyes.
Then comes a comic piece – a carefully prepared Australian version (no, I don’t know why either) of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. This includes strategically placed props such as five fish heads in a freezer bag, waved stagily at the audience for maximum effect. Inevitably, this brings the house down.
A little later in the programme comes one item for true musicians to appreciate: the four strongest singers’ rendition, unaccompanied, of a traditional Tudor carol. This piece has been rehearsed behind closed doors, so as Pat, Amanda, Liz and Ruth move to the front of the stage, the rest of the choir sits down to relish the opportunity to hear it at last.
Just as we are floating away on this beautiful quartet, each of us following the part that would suit her own voice best, a fifth sound comes into play. At the far end of the village hall, in the darkness beyond the candles, a small girl, over-excited and over-full of the free mince pies, and perhaps just a little taste of her grandmother’s punch, has not quite made it to the exit. Abandoning herself to her fate, she is being violently, noisily sick.
The hideous noise travels the length of the hall (the acoustics are excellent), and the silent choir members blanch on behalf of the four stars. We are also trying hard not to feel sick ourselves.
However, the four soloists carry their song to the end, through the remaining two verses, while the child continues to retch. (It must have been an awful lot of mince pies.) They are so composed that I’m beginning to wonder whether this is some sort of village tradition that I didn’t know about, as none of them is turning a hair.
Finally silent, the poorly child is ushered out. The closing chord of the four-part harmony is met with a rattling of mops and buckets from the broom cupboard at the back of the hall.
The quartet know they are good, but as they take their bows, they look mystified to be met with such rapturous applause. Peggy, never far from Pat’s side, leans forward and tugs at her friend’s sleeve.
“Well done, dear!” she whispers appreciatively. “I don’t know how you managed to go through to the end, with that poor child being so sick.”
Pat swivels round to look at her.
“A child being sick?” she asks, genuinely surprised. “Well, there’s a thing! And I didn’t notice any difference to the usual!”
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