this (singing) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Rose van Son

THE choir­mas­ter, Martin, had told us to wear black. Black T-shirts and black trousers or skirts for the girls. Al­though we were far from be­ing girls, I felt a girl­ish ner­vous­ness come over me for the first concert in my new choir. I had been singing with the choir for only six weeks: one day a week for two hours.

We were singing pop­u­lar mu­sic al­though there were a cou­ple of pieces that could be re­garded as soul or spir­i­tual and one in the old English of past cen­turies. There was also Ave Maria, one of my mother’s favourites, which she sang as she went about her work, in the sum­mer pick­ing grapes in the hot sun of the vine­yard or hang­ing wash­ing on the clothes line strung be­tween two posts in the back yard. It seemed that be­ing out­doors in the fresh air made her want to sing. ‘‘You used to sing, too,’’ she would say.

This day I waited in the wings with the so­pra­nos, milling around, chat­ting like school­girls, the ex­cite­ment writ­ten on our faces. I had sung in pre­vi­ous choirs — as an alto — and had found the ex­pe­ri­ence en­joy­able yet try­ing, keep­ing to that even keel of the alto, not per­mit­ted to sing the main part of the song, keep­ing a lid on things.

The so­pra­nos, I had heard years ago, were the divas, their voices strong, car­ry­ing the main tune of the piece. Al­though I en­joyed singing alto to a point, it wasn’t un­til I found my­self with a friend singing among the so­pra­nos that I re­alised I had been keep­ing ‘‘a lid on things’’ all along; that so­prano was where I liked to be. I sud­denly found my­self with the free­dom to let my voice go; to be heard, to sing from the heart and from the mind.

It was my first choir per­for­mance. The choir­mas­ter was keen for us to re­lax and en­joy our­selves. I looked around at the faces in the venue — a lodge in a de­light­ful re­tire­ment vil­lage — the faces look­ing back with ex­pec­ta­tion, seem­ingly en­joy­ing our warm-up ses­sion. I smiled at a woman wear­ing a sky-blue dress in the front row, her eyes meet­ing mine.

We sang for al­most an hour: songs many in the au­di­ence would have known; songs we en­joyed and re­mem­bered from the hit charts of 30 to 40 years ago: Go­ing to the Chapel, Ain’t Mis­be­havin’, Break­ing up is Hard to Do.

One Morn­ing Soon in­cluded one of my favourite lines: ‘‘I heard the an­gels singing.’’ And I felt, lost in the mu­sic and sound, that at times I did in­deed hear the an­gels.

I had joined the choir for my­self, to help me fill a day when, al­though I had lots to do and many friends, I some­times felt lost. It was to feel that cer­tain ex­cite­ment that only singing can give; to drive home hum­ming af­ter re­hearsal and know the lungs have been ex­er­cised and the mind in­spired and re­freshed, the mu­sic still on the tip of my tongue.

I had joined the choir, self­ishly, for my­self, hop­ing for mu­sic and friend­ship.

But I re­alised, af­ter our en­core that Satur­day at the end of that first free concert, when I talked to some of the res­i­dents, par­tic­u­larly the woman in the blue dress in the front row whose eyes never left mine as we spoke, that it was a par­tic­u­larly spe­cial day.

To­day I had given some­thing. The joy in her face ap­peared real; she seemed to feel the joy I had felt while singing. In that mo­ment I knew I had been given more than I had expected when I first joined the choir and that to re­ceive re­ally is to give.

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