Yesterday evening Monkton’s Choir who can’t sing did a flash mob during supper! Pupils realised something was up when the strains of the intro to “You raise me up” became audible over the usual background conversation noise in the school Dining Hall, which has a very lively acoustic. A few boys stood up to sing the first phrase, and then a few more, and then a few more until about 25 boys stood in various groups around the hall, singing for all they were worth. I admire their courage so much.
Several of them told me afterwards, as they have done many times before, that choir rehearsals are genuinely the highlight of their week. And they mean it. Of course I agreed that they were the high point of my week too, but then I found myself questioning whether that’s entirely honest. After all, Chamber Choir rehearsals are also the highlight of my week …. and so are Monkton Combe Choral Society rehearsals on Tuesday evenings. And many of the members of these choirs feel the same way too.
Singing is a complex thing. It makes us vulnerable. If you stand face to face with someone, even a good friend, and ask them to sing, chances are they’ll decline the invitation. Singing is deeply personal. Hence the many people who tell me that they can’t sing – it’s a safety mechanism: what they really mean is “I don’t want to share that with you.” Sadly, for all too many it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; they tell themselves that they are inadequate, that they can’t sing, and so they don’t. How many other aspects of their lives suffer the same fate?
Last week I took singing practice at our prep school, and for one of our warm ups I had them stand and do ‘jazz hands’. Of course, that’s actually a silent activity, since waving your hands doesn’t make any noise. Very swiftly the whole school became aware that not only were they, individually, being silent, but that they were collectively silent. It was a very powerful moment. In Choral Society last Tuesday we rehearsed the chorus Since by man came death, which is unaccompanied and which requires very carefully attention to tuning. We sang softly, not because Handel asks for it to be soft, but so that we could listen to each other. Their tuning was superb. Singing in a choir is not about people singing at the same time; it’s about singing together. The result on Tuesday was thrilling, for all of us. The Monteverdi Choir might sound better, but nobody missed the extraordinary intimacy of ninety people making themselves vulnerable to each other – by singing together.
Herein lies the magic of singing in a choir. It’s not just the music (although of course that’s also an important factor). It is, I believe, to do with finding our own voice, and in knowing that those around us are equally prepared to make themselves vulnerable to us as well. There are few things which come closer to defining being human.
I was deeply upset by a series of articles in the press earlier this year; whilst adult choirs seem never to have been more popular [thank you Mr Malone and others!] it really worries me that our children are not being taught to sing. I am gradually working my way through the entire pupil body at Monkton, literally one by one, and although I love every moment, ultimately it is immensely depressing to discover just how many boys don’t know the basic mechanics of how to sing a single note in tune. What has happened? If there is a single argument to put singing back into the curriculum, for our children to sing every day together, it is this: to enable them to discover and develop their self-confidence and their sensitivity to others. I believe that our children need this more than just about anything else.