Reverb day 8: strivings and blessings

The Chapel, Little London

The Chapel, Little London: an unexpected blessing thoroughly deserved

While alchemy is the active process of creating something of value, serendipity is the passive path to finding an unexpected treasure.

Looking back through 2015, what did you diligently try to create?

What great thing did you just happen to find?

I am usually very wary of the ‘pulled myself up by my bootstraps’ school of thought. I know damn well that I’m very fortunate, very blessed, that good things are showered upon me a long way out of proportion to my own deserving or hard work.

Having said that, I do feel that I’ve put a lot of work in this year, and I can trace most of the things with which I’m most pleased back to months or years of sustained effort. Everything I talked about yesterday, for a start. And plenty of more tangible achievements, too. For example: in September I wandered into a charity shop in Bury St Edmunds and bought a copy of Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Course. I’m up to page 36 now, and can play Drink to me only with thine eyes more or less accurately; I’m getting on far better with teaching myself than I’d have believed possible. And that’s partly because of hard work between September and here, and partly because of hard work going back to when I was 8 and started cello lessons.

And having said that, I can think of at least a few wonderful things that just happened. Discovering Rhiannon Giddens at Cambridge Folk Festival. An experience that I can perhaps best describe by saying that it was like finding out that a friend was a long-lost brother. There are the things I found by keeping my eyes open: the swing in the giant birdcage outside King’s Cross station, the swan giving her cygnets a ride down the Cam on her back. As recently as yesterday, walking home along the river bank, seeing a succession of anglers with their rods and their boxes and there, between two of them, a heron, watching and waiting for the fish, closer than I’d ever seen one before.

Sometimes it’s been a combination of the two: an exquisite confection of a blessing on top of the cake of effort. I’m thinking now of the first day of my birthday walk. I’d gone nineteen miles, crossed the county boundary from Berkshire into Hampshire. My rucksack wasn’t quite adjusted properly, and my knee was protesting ever louder, and I got lost in the world’s most confusing field, and… I’m going to write all this up properly, but let me just say for the moment that it was not a good day.

I was hot, cross, exhausted and in pain by the time I reached my accommodation for the night, The Chapel at Little London. I can’t begin to put into words the welcome I received there. I knew that my hostess was going to cook me a meal; I didn’t realise that it would be three delicious courses. I can’t explain to someone who hasn’t done a long distance walk how wonderful it is to have somebody take your clothes away and wash them for you. I needn’t, perhaps, say how very comforting is a capacious sofa and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or how blissful it is to lay down one’s exhausted body between cool white sheets.

And this, perhaps, typifies all the treasure of 2015: I’d walked nineteen miles, and I deserved that stay; but I know all the same that I was so very fortunate for it to have happened to me the way it did. Things can be even better than we imagine.

August Moon day 10: dum diddle dee, dum diddle dee

I love the power of music to lift the spirits. I head to the stereo and put on an entire Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Or I would, if the CD player on my stereo still worked. The radio is a crackly mess, and overall the thing is now reduced to a tape player, and I don’t possess any tapes.

But that’s by the by. Gilbert and Sullivan, now. Iolanthe, for preference. The trio in Act II that is all proverbs and little twiddly flourishes, and its reprise in the finale that’s all puns. Even the introduction (dum-diddle-dee, dum-diddle-dee, dum pum pum dum pum pum) makes me smile.

In fact, it tends to be tiny little phrases that get me. That triumphant galumph down the scale in I feel fine (‘she’s tell-ing all the world’), or the sequence of two-steps-forward-one-step-back fourths in O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (‘lift up… thy voice… with strength…’). I will take a whole song to my heart for the sake of a couple of bars. And why not, when they hold such joy within them?

August Moon day 6: just a song…

There is something about twilight that makes me feel nostalgic.

Perhaps it’s those old parlour songs. Just a song at twilight/When the lights are low/And the flickering shadows/softly come and go… Perversely, it reminds me of a childhood joke book. What’s a clown’s favourite song? Jester song at twilight… Or In the gloaming, oh, my darling, when the lights are dim and low… We sang that one in my very first church choir, when I was eight or nine, far too young to be singing will you think of me and love me/as you did once long ago? I enjoyed it, all the same. I’ve always liked melodrama, and a comfortable, melancholy nostalgia. There’s no real regret to it; it’s a musical convention that goes along with the apassionata and the con molto sentimento. Loves are always lost, the singer is always mourning the days gone by. Even the Lost Chord flooded the crimson twilight. The Victorians loved the twilight, and I have an unashamed fondness for the Victorians.

Perhaps it’s Anne of Green Gables. Nobody wrote twilight like L. M. Montgomery, and that’s part of my dreamy, romantic adolescence. Perhaps it’s simply that twilight was my own time. School done, supper done, and just enough time before bed to go and hide in the garden and enjoy the cool. Perhaps twilight has been nostalgic ever since God went walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Perhaps twilight has always told us of what we’ve lost, and has always reassured us that we are, none the less, safe without it. Night is falling, but you see the stars, and the lights in the windows?

This is the right time of year to enjoy twilight. It’s still warm enough to sit outside as darkness falls, and darkness falls early enough to want to sit out there in the deepening blue, looking for the first star and the delicate nail-clipping moon. A week from now, my in-laws will be lighting the candles on the balcony and we’ll be sitting out and quietly catching up with the family news – and the news of the town, because they’ve lived in the same place for long enough that my husband will have been at school with the person who was on the tills at Tesco today, who said had we heard that…? (I always feel slightly envious of that. It’s a long, long time since I saw any of my first choir.) And old stories will be told, and new ones. It is good to be together when night falls.

Twilight, and evening bell, and after that the dark…

Expanding the Comfort Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of expanding one’s comfort zone from within, as opposed to stepping out of it (useful posts here from Havi Brooks and Jem Bloomfield), in the context of singing – purely because I spend a lot of my spare time doing it.

I estimated a couple of months ago that I’ve averaged two hours of choral singing a week over the past decade. There have, of course, been lighter patches (2007, of which I spent a third in Spain and Germany not singing much at all, and my second and third years at university, when I decided that the need of the serving team was greater than the need of the chapel choir), but they are balanced out by the five years I spent in the choir at Holy Trinity, Guildford. During term time we did two services every Sunday, with a half hour or forty-five minute rehearsal before each one, and an hour’s practice every Thursday. As a result I know a lot of the standard church music repertoire inside out and back to front: if we assume that each piece was sung twice a year, once during a morning service and once at an evensong, then I’ve performed most of them ten times.

I was not at all confident when I joined. All my life I’ve been close to people who have more singing experience than I do and, while they have been nothing but supportive, I’ve always been able to see that their sightreading was better than mine, that they were more confident than I was, that they could hold a line against all comers and I couldn’t. Fortunately, when I joined Holy Trinity, there were plenty of other altos to follow.

I’ve joined two new choirs over the past year, and I’m still singing less than I was at Holy Trinity. They have both proved the expansion of my comfort zone, in very different ways.

The first one was one of the several choirs that run out of my parish church. The workload is considerably less: we sing one, maybe two, services every month, with an hour’s rehearsal beforehand, and a rehearsal on the preceding Friday. This is very much flying by the seat of the pants: a lot of sightreading, and no guarantee that there’ll be anyone else on your part to prop you up.

And that doesn’t scare me any more. Once upon a time I would have been too terrified even to consider joining this choir, but my comfort zone has expanded to encompass this method too.

Granted, some of this is stuff I already know from Holy Trinity. On Easter Sunday I was the only alto at evensong. That was fine: we did Blessed be the God and Father, which I have sung every Easter since 2008. On the other hand, I was the only alto at the previous evensong, and I was sightreading an anthem… I can’t remember what it was, only that I’d never seen it before in my life, and that the alto line contained several top Gs. The very first piece that I did with the new choir was Herbert Howells’ Requiem; that, thank goodness, had rather more rehearsal time dedicated to it.

The other choir is pretty much the complete opposite. In this choir, ten weeks to learn three pieces is presented as a frighteningly tight timescale. This is the workplace choir, set up by the social club and the excellent Workplace Choir Company. Its basic assumption is that nobody has sung anything since they were at school, when they were probably told by a teacher that they couldn’t. This seemed to be about right at my workplace. There was a question early on: who was in a choir already? I was one of perhaps three people who raised their hands. Three out of sixty, and the only one in the first altos.

There was the solo. (But I’ve done solos before, in front of people who would know exactly where I’d gone wrong.) There was the fact that I was doing the solo with a microphone. (That was new territory.) There was the responsibility. At one point the Director of the Executive Office told me, ‘You’re our leader’. I’m not even sure that she was joking. (I have never before in my life been the most experienced member of a large choir.) There was the assuring of everybody that everything was going to be fine.

And somehow I was able to meet it all with a general attitude of ‘Bring it on!’ Solo? Bring it on! Microphone? Bring it on! Teaching a tricky snippet to the rest of my section without reference to a piano? Bring it on! It’s being filmed? Wait, what? Er, bring it on! Thank you, comfort zone, expanding yourself while I wasn’t even looking.

I managed to appear calm through the performance, although it wasn’t until last week, when the high-quality video was made available, that I was able to see whether or not I’d cocked it up. I never know how a solo has gone after the event. I’d like to think that’s because I’m so absorbed in the music that I’ve no space left in my head to remember it, but it’s happened before when I’ve lost a bar in the middle of it.

Anyway, it turns out it wasn’t too bad, all things considered. Here’s the result. I’m the tallest soloist, in the green shirt, singing the alto part in the second verse. Me and my expanded comfort zone.

Reverb 3 and 11: wishing and singing

Day 3: What do you really wish for?

Imagine a scenario where you only had one year left to live. What is one thing that you really wish to do that you just haven’t had the chance to accomplish yet?

I would like to add: what steps could you take (however small) to ensure that you accomplish this thing in 2013?

I am a little hesitant about answering this one, not because I don’t have an answer in mind, but because only a month ago my answer would have been different. I’m not sure what it would have been, but it wouldn’t have been this:

I want to write my novel. I want to write it, and I want it to be good. And I think this is the one thing that I want to do that nobody else can do for me.

What steps can I take? Well, that’s easy enough. Write. Write every day until it’s done. (Within reason, and without getting myself so stressed out about it that I don’t want to do it any more.) Even doing ten days’ worth at the end of Picowrimo I found things coming together, of characters coming to life and beginning to drive the plots themselves, and it suddenly became plausible. I hope that if I keep working this will keep happening.

Day 11: What was music to your ears?

What was music to your ears in 2012, literally or metaphorically?

It hasn’t been a particularly outstanding year, music-wise. My two most impressive achievements were singing half the alto solo in This is the Record of John three times, and getting paid for playing the cello – both firsts. I should have done Record for the Advent carol service last year, but I had the flu.

I also escaped from the choirboy supervision rota and became slightly obsessed with operetta. We did several lovely pieces in choir – Byrd 3-part, And I saw a new heaven, There shall a star from Jacob come forth – but I don’t think there was anything particularly interesting that we hadn’t done before. But then I have been in this choir since 2008, and we do repeat most of our repertoire year on year, and so I have got to grips with most of it. Every so often I do suddenly realise how fantastically wonderful a particular piece is – it happened this year with the three mentioned above – and I really am very lucky. It’s impressive how quickly one gets used to such luxury (and by luxury I mean three practices and two services per week). I love it.

A very slow-cooked post

I seem to have been learning a lot this year; or perhaps I have been coming to understand things that I only knew before. If you’ll excuse the franglais, I am beginning to connaitre things that previously I only savais. In the process, several disparate things are beginning to join up. Take this, the end of an extremely rambling comment on someone else’s journal (a good couple of months ago, I must admit – this post has been a long time in the writing):

That said, from the comments above it does appear that it can be a useful exercise for some people, and at the moment I am trying very hard to remember that what works for me may not work for someone else, and just because something doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for other people. But that’s another story.

This is the other story. If you like, this is the first story, because I have been thinking about this for a while, whereas I only realised that the comment above could be applied without redaction to either issue when I read that particular post and the comments. Things are joining up.

I started thinking about this around Christmas, when somebody updated a Farcebook status to read something like: ‘I wonder what Carols from Kings would be like if you added a worship band?’ I contributed little to the subsequent discussion other than some rude remarks about John Rutter, but things happened in my head.

Now, the Nine Lessons and Carols works for me, just as it is. Trust me. The music works, the readings work (Authorized Version or no Authorized Version, but I do like the cockatrice); the bidding prayer takes my breath away. It works for me in a way that drums and arm-raising never have. Now, you can look back on my life and say ‘this is because X, Y, and Z’ – which will include but not be limited to the fact that this is what I grew up with – but this does not make it any less true. This works for me.

It is only recently that I have come to appreciate the converse of this: that drums and arm-raising work for some people in a way that the Nine Lessons and Carols service never has. That, when they say this, they mean it: that it is true. More importantly, that there is room for both of us and room for both our traditions. That I can express my spirituality through early twentieth century Anglican liturgy, and all manner of choral music. That other people can express their spirituality through lively movement. That, although the one doesn’t work for them and the other doesn’t work for me, neither of us ought to stop doing what works for us. That there is room for both of us.

I will tell you what would happen if Carols from Kings suddenly sprouted a worship band: it would stop working for some people. Some other people would suddenly understand what it was all about. And you can write your own Daily Mail headline.

Things work for me in a way that they do not work for you. Things work for you in a way that they do not work for me. In short, YMMV. (O internets, how great is ur wizdmz!) We find God in different places: how obvious. We knew that already, surely? But still it happens. In every tradition, there arises sooner or later a tacit or spoken assumption that everyone who doesn’t do it Our Way is DOIN IT RONG. Every tradition, I say. (I should point out that my examples all come from the rich battleground of Christianity, this being what I have come across in my own experience thus far. I am convinced that other faiths could provide their own examples, but I rather feel that it is not my place to do so.) There is, in one camp, an assumption that all who do not say mass facing the altar are little better than heathens. In another, that a choir that includes females in any capacity is not a Traditional Choir. Or, ‘move around! stop worrying about what your body does! stop being self-conscious! if you’re self-conscious you can’t be God-conscious.’ No. I only half-believed then, and I do not believe now, that my self-consciousness was a fault, to be cured by more leaping around. It was a manifestation of my discomfort with that style of worship.

That style of worship did not work for me. And that, my friends, is absolutely fine. And if my style(s) of worship do(es) not work for you, that is also fine. If you have found one that does, hold on to it.

Do not get me wrong. I am not suggesting for a moment that you should never try anything new. Quite the opposite: never be afraid to try anything new. But, if you try something new, and it doesn’t do anything for you, for heaven’s sake don’t feel guilty about it – and don’t believe anyone who thinks you should, because This Is The Right Way. It is. But it is the right way for them, and it may not be for you.