this (singing) life
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.