Although I am trained principally as an organist and pianist, it has dawned on me in recent months (too much enforced thinking time perhaps?) that it is singing which has become my obsession. Not for myself, but for others. More than that – when someone told me a few weeks ago that I was first and foremost a musician, I surprised myself at how passionately I defended myself as being a teacher before I am a musician. Wow, what has happened to me?!
Don’t get me wrong, I am at my most content seated at a piano, really I am. But more often than not, and for longer than I care to remember, I have used my keyboard skills almost exclusively in the context of teaching – accompanying or rehearsing with a student, aural training, piano lessons, choir rehearsals.
When I arrived at Monkton, nearly 12 years ago now, it quickly became apparent that singing was going to be the best way to connect with the school, and in the early days of the ‘Choir who can’t sing’ I would spend countless one to one hours each week with boys who for some strange reason had discovered that singing made them feel good; this was a most remarkable discovery for me too. And at the same time, accompanying the school in Chapel became all the more wonderful too. I have always loved leading a congregation in singing hymns – there is a difference between playing hymns and leading singing – but with a new batch of enthusiastic singers downstairs, this was different. For some of the boys, short of ideas on what we could sing in our lessons, I would pick a hymn which they knew, and so when that hymn conveniently came up in Chapel a few days later I would look down from the organ loft and catch their eye, just to encourage them to go for it! And if there were a few of them in a group, they would look up with big grins and sing with renewed enthusiasm!
I have always considered it to be a huge privilege to lead the school in whole school singing practice every fortnight, and these morning rehearsals afford an amazing opportunity to encourage the whole school in the value of singing together. I love unpacking hymns, showing how so often the music enhances the text – “musical evangelism” I call it. They might be sleepy at 8.25am, but by 8.35am it’s a completely different picture. Just before they leave for their first lesson of the morning, I remind them that ‘when we get to the high note at the end of the penultimate line in this hymn in Saturday Chapel, make sure you go for it!’ And as the moment approaches, I love to watch how many pairs of eyes glance upwards as they remember…
On the day before everyone went home in March 2020, we had a final Chapel service at which we sang I cannot tell (to the tune Londonderry Air). I have genuinely never heard a congregation of teenagers sing with such heartfelt passion – every one of them, as far as I could tell. They realised that this was a significant moment, and they seized it. Something quite remarkable happened in those few moments. I hope none of them ever forget it.
As ‘master in charge of ensuring that the school realises that singing is one the most amazing things which they do together’ it is hard to describe how much I have missed playing hymns in Chapel over the past year or so. It may still be a while away, but just as in the last few days we have begun to rediscover a few simple pleasures as some restrictions have been lifted, I’m beginning to get excited about getting everyone excited about singing together again. And maybe, just maybe, when that day comes Monkton will lift their voices with the same conviction as they did last March as they realise again just what an extraordinary joy it is to be able to sing together.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to heaven, and heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is King!