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Pastimes: Join the chorus

YOU ARE one of 80 voices and part of a wonderful, musical animal responding to your leader, the conductor. The orchestra blasts away, your shared spirit soars, the audience is hooked. You might be a chorus of Israelites, Priests of Baal, angry townspeople, holy women, or even a Storm. The adrenalin thrill of the concert performance is the reward for your many dedicated rehearsals.

It all started with the hard grind of note-bashing: the mystifying little black dots and time signatures on the score, and the conductor’s unreasonable assumption that you are going to produce music from it. But, with teaching and cajoling, what seemed impossible at first becomes gradually attainable and finally — wow! Was that really us?

My first seriously choral experience was in a performance by north-London schools of Handel’s Messiah under David Willcocks. Having rehearsed separately in our girls’ school, we were thrilled to join the huge choir, with tenors and basses booming around us. We felt professional and obedient, transformed by this brief relationship with a real conductor.

I’ve also sung in university choirs, amateur opera, church choirs, even in a medieval banquet, in Latin, German, Italian, French, and even Irish — not necessarily very well, but delighting in the challenge.

Not everybody in a choir can sight-sing, or sing like a nightingale. Not all choirs audition their members. You need to be able to listen, both to yourself and others: to concentrate on singing your own part and not be drowned out by the basses, to control your urge to chat to your neighbour. You will be asked to produce funny noises to stretch your vocal cords, make huge efforts and take risks for the music’s sake. And because of that, a bunch of ordinary people will become passionate and artistic.

The downsides? Choir members are expected to promote their own concerts, possibly to sell tickets. Audiences may have to sit on hard church pews or stackable seating (often unstacked, and then stacked again, by choir members). Tell them to bring a cushion.

Choirs keep term times and have weekly evening rehearsals — more at concert-times. Usually for concerts, women wear long black skirts and white blouses, and men wear dinner jackets.

Members pay an annual subscription to pay the musical director, accompanist, soloists, and orchestra. Henley Choral Society, to which I belong, has the usual structure of committee, AGMs, and audits; we also hold friendly fund-raising events. We have given some super concerts, and commissioned new works.

Some examples of subscriptions: North London Chorus, £140 a year ("sometimes reduced for members on low incomes"); London Oriana, £100 first year, £150 thereafter; Highgate Choral Society, £180; East Cornwall Choral Society, £75; Henley-on-Thames, £60.

Search the internet for choral societies, and you will find hundreds of them, calling out for new members, especially men.

 

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