I loved singing with my junior school choir; albeit that forty-five years ago it was not the done thing for children to offer renditions of popular music and so we had to make do with hymns, ballads and rousing ditties from the trenches of the first world war. One that sticks in my mind to this day went something like:
“Peas, peas, peas, peas, eating Goober peas;
Goodness how delicious! Eating Goober peas.”
I considered myself lucky to get into the choir – I wasn’t the most tuneful child but what I lacked in tonality I certainly made up for in enthusiasm. An old granny approached me after one school concert and gave me two shillings (ten pence in the ‘new’ money) for being the most smiling child on the stage. Funny how such small things can influence your adult personality – I still want to be Tigger most of the time.
Sadly my choral career did not extend beyond primary school; I was kicked out of the recorder group for forgetting to attend a lunchtime practice on a day when the sun was shining and the grass on the school field was newly mown offering opportunities for building dens and other more exciting pursuits. The teacher was not mollified by our abject apologies and after ranting at myself and a friend for ten minutes offered us the ultimatum: “do you want to be in this band or not?” I was a timid child in those days so was being truthful rather than cheeky when I opted for ‘not’. To say that I was ‘scarred’ by this experience might be a bit over the top but I was certainly wary of applying for the orchestra when I arrived in high school, even though it meant the free loan of intriguing instruments like violins and horns, trumpets and trombones and one double bass which necessarily went to a child big enough to get it home on the bus. I secretly knew that the generosity of the loan probably came with more than one set of strings – a heavy guilt trip about practicing and the loss of break-time from here to eternity. But I have to admit to a pang of jealousy when the orchestra got its moment of glory in the end of year concert – a kind of glory that brings tears to your eyes and a heavy weight in your chest.
A couple of weeks ago I felt the same combination of pride and admiration when I had the privilege to attend the final performance of Kearsney College’s championship routine that won the folklore section of the World Choir Olympics held in Cincinnati this year. It was beyond impressive. The programme was in a different league from the school concerts I remembered – a combination of classical and ultra-modern; harmonious voices with lights and movement – it would not have been out of place on any West End or Broadway stage. But what struck me most was the sheer scale of the choir – over sixty boys, no doubt all with individual talent but together creating a spectacular feast of synchronicity. I admired the temerity of the teachers who had trailed this massive entourage of burgeoning testosterone around the streets of New York and Washington – but I was incredulous at the man who led them on stage. I asked the mother of one of the boys afterwards – “what’s the Choir Master like?” He was clearly a musical genius and a generalissimo to have pulled these boys together (and possibly an ogre into the bargain – how do you get this level of performance out of a bunch of adolescent boys?) “Oh no, he’s wonderful” she told me – “yes, he’s strict and he admits he got a bit tense at times, but the boys love him – they have had so much fun doing this.” And inside my heart leapt a little at the thought that in one small place the philosophy of education is moving in the right direction. I wish that all kids could experience it.