On this weekend just before Valentine’s Day, it’s quite appropriate that I should be writing about what Shakespeare described as ‘The Food of Love”. I’m talking about music, of course.
Music has always played a very important part in my life. I think I was born singing – although I fancy my mother probably had another word for the noise I made!
My father was always singing and to this day, I swear he made some of the songs up! I can remember him and his sister around the piano in my grandparents’ house singing Silver Threads Among the Gold and “A Rose in a Garden of Weeds”. Then there was “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch. That would always make me cry. (Unintentional pun there – sorry!) But I have never been able to track down the words to Where’s my other flippin’ sock? That one’s down to you, Dad.
One of my earliest musical memories was one Saturday morning. I was about five and was doing my chores, part of which involved sweeping the broad concrete paths that divided our house from the one next door.
I was beyond thrilled when our next door neighbour called out to me from her kitchen window and gave me sixpence for ‘singing so nicely that it cheered her up.’ Dad, however, suggested she’d probably paid me the money to make me go away. And he may well have been right. I went back on several consecutive Saturdays, sang my heart out but never received another sixpence.
I longed to learn to play the piano. We’d inherited the one that belonged to my grandmother and it took pride of place in our sitting room but was only used to display family photographs. I would sit at it for ages, peering at the sheet music, learning the words but failing to make any sense of the notes. But with six children to feed on a farm worker’s wages, there was never any money left over for luxuries like music lessons.
So when I started grammar school, I was thrilled to see Music on the timetable. Was this, then, my big chance? Alas, no. Looking back on it, I think the elderly music teacher looked back longingly to the days when she taught at a private school. She certainly didn’t teach the majority of us anything about music, preferring to address herself only to those girls who had private music lessons, so most of what she talked about went way over my head.
However, there was one thing she did that I loved She ran the school choir and I couldn’t wait to join. I tried and failed several auditions but eventually she must have grown tired of saying no to me and allowed me to join.
I can still remember some of the songs we used to sing, like The Ash Grove, Barbara Allen, many of these lovely old songs which are now in danger of sinking into obscurity. I can still remember them now (don’t ask me where I put my car keys yesterday though!) One of these was an arrangement of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I still know all the words to that – and often sang it to my boys when they were little. What was I thinking? They must have hated it because it does have rather a disturbing ending!
When my children were young, we were lucky enough to move to a village near Wells and I joined the cathedral’s Oratorio Society. And rediscovered my love of singing.
But this time, I had better luck. The conductor – and my fellow altos – were very patient and I learned so much, including how to read music. The first piece I sang (or, I confess, mimed to for a lot of the time) was Bach’s St Matthews Passion and as soon as I heard it, it was like coming home. Like I’d just found something I’d been looking for all my life.
I learned more about music that first season that at any other time in my life and I was totally hooked on choral music. The thrill of being in a large group of singers, with an orchestra, in that lovely building never left me. I stayed with the society for many years and enjoyed some memorable moments, one of which stands out and still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
We were doing Britten’s War Requiem and it had involved some long and difficult rehearsals. We always had a final afternoon rehearsal before the evening performance. These would be with the (professional) soloists and orchestra and could be quite hard, intense work.
This particular afternoon, the tenor stood up to sing ‘Move Him Gently Into The Sun” but instead of singing it towards the nave of the cathedral, he turned and sang it to us, the chorus! It was so moving and we were so touched by his gesture that there was hardly a dry eye among us and when it was our turn to sing, we were all choked up. At least it got all that emotion out of the way in time for the evening performance and maybe that was why he did it. But it was a wonderful gift and a memory I treasure.
I enjoyed my time with the society so much that even when they introduced auditions I kept going and managed to scrape in. Just like I had at school.
Then life intervened and things happened and I stopped going. By the time I rejoined several years later, much had changed. Gone was the kindly, gentle conductor who carried out the auditions in a small private room well away from the eyes and ears of other people.
Instead, I was warned that the auditions would be held after rehearsal, but we were never told which one. So, one evening, at the end of rehearsal, he suddenly announced that those who were hoping to join should stay behind for the auditions.
It was a nightmare. While everyone else was chatting, milling around and putting chairs away (this all took place in the main body of the cathedral) we lined up. Those who were better prepared than me had brought their own music and we waited in turn. This took me.right back to those school music lessons when everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and I hadn’t a clue.
By the time it was my turn, I was rigid with fear. I explained that I didn’t have any music (maybe I should have taken my chances with ‘Where’s my other flippin’ sock?!) so I’d sing what we’d been rehearsing that evening and I got about three bars into it and just gave up. I walked away. And cried all the way home.
Many years later a choir was started in our village. No auditions necessary. So I joined and it was great fun. But then I developed asthma which involved (and still does) a lot of coughing and so I gave up.
Until lockdown. When the lovely lady who runs the choir started a virtual choir on zoom. This was the sort of choir for me, I thought. I can sing and no one can hear me. So I joined and rediscovered my love of singing. My sort of choir. Although I had no intention of joining the real one when things got back to normal.
Then a few months ago, the village choir was allowed to meet for real – and, because I have some very ‘bossy’ friends, (in the nicest possible way) I went along. We meet in the village hall, with all the door and windows open and everyone bundled into multiple layers of clothing so that we look like a choir of Michelin men.
And we’re singing songs by Katie Perry, the Beach Boys and lots of other people I’ve never heard of (I hadn’t heard of Katie Perry either but I’ve just googled her). And it’s the best fun.
So it might not be Bach. It might not the splendid surroundings of Wells Cathedral. But the thrill I felt that first time when we sang together, in harmony, was as great as ever.
And no auditions.
And, if, as I believe, that no experience, however painful, is wasted on a writer, below is a short story I wrote a few years ago which drew very heavily on that nightmare of an audition. It still makes me hot with embarrassment just thinking about it!
The Day The Music Died
Maggie stood tall, straight-backed, her throat almost closed, her eyes over-bright. Her only thought was to get away without having to speak to anyone. Without having to see the pity and embarrassment in their eyes.
Too late to wish she’d never come. Too late to wish she’d never let Lindsay talk her into it.
“It’ll be good for you, Mum,” Lindsay had said. “You used to love choral singing – and look, it says here the Cathedral Choral Society is looking for new singers, especially tenors.”
“But they’re male voices,” Maggie said with a smile, knowing Lindsay didn’t share her love of classical music. “I’m an alto. Or, rather, I was. Who knows what I am now? I haven’t sung for years.”
“Then why not give it a try?”
Maggie felt quite guilty about the way her dear, well meaning daughter, who had more than enough to do looking after a young baby, worried about her. Even now, more than a year after John’s sudden, shocking death from a massive heart attack, Lindsay kept finding things for Maggie to do, as if a succession of non-stop activities could somehow fill the un-fillable hole in Maggie’s life.
But this time, maybe Lindsay had got it right. Maggie used to belong to the Cathedral Choral Society years ago but had to give it up when the demands of her job and family had made it difficult to attend the weekly rehearsals. When she saw they were doing Bach’s Mass in B Minor this coming season her heart did something it hadn’t done for a long time. It gave a little lift of joy. Bach was one of her favourite composers and she knew she’d enjoy singing those wonderful soaring choruses again.
John used to shake his head at her, puzzled and laughing, as she tried to explain how she got almost as much pleasure from looking at Bach’s music, with its undulating lines of musical notation rippling across the pages, as she did from hearing or singing it.
Going into the cathedral for the first rehearsal of the new season was like meeting up again with an old, dear friend. She’d forgotten what a thrill it was to walk through that magnificent building, darkened except for the lights in the rehearsal area. She’d always loved the feeling of belonging, of having the place to herself (at least, her and the other hundred or so members of the Choral Society) now the tourists had gone home.
She loved, too, the deep shadowy corners, the sonorous echoes, but above all the feeling of reaching back across the centuries as the music she was helping to make soared heavenward into the cathedral’s highest places, the different voice parts weaving in and around each other like ribbons around a maypole.
It felt good, too, to take her place among the altos again Not that she knew any of them now. And she certainly didn’t know Simon, the conductor, a young and ambitious man who was, according to the woman on her left, destined for ‘great things.’
As the rehearsal got under way, she realised he was a much more exacting task master than his predecessor. James had been a soft spoken, gentle man who coaxed the music from his chorus. Simon, on the other hand, demanded the highest standard right from the very first rehearsal. But, to her surprise, Maggie found that as her confidence returned, she actually relished the challenge.
“You do realise there’s an audition, don’t you?” the society secretary had explained. “Simon likes to do it after rehearsal. Probably in a week or two. Is that ok?”
“That’s fine.” Maggie remembered all too clearly when auditions had been introduced, back in James’s time. Everyone had got very agitated and worried about it, but in the end, it was all done very calmly and kindly. A bit of sight reading and a few easy scales to show you weren’t tone deaf which Maggie had managed with ease.
Simon, however, did things differently.
On the third week, during the break for notices he announced he would be holding auditions after that evening’s rehearsals and would those this applied to please stay behind.
Her first instinct was to put on her coat, hurry out and not come back. Particularly when she realised the auditions were not going to be like last time, when one by one they were called into a private room, with kindly James urging them to relax and telling them it was nothing to worry about.
Instead, they clustered around the piano in the middle of the rehearsal area, which was still bustling with people chatting in small groups, or busily putting the chairs away. She stood in line with the other hopefuls, all of whom appeared much better prepared than she was.
She felt her first moment of panic when the first singer opened her mouth. She had a beautiful soprano voice and gave a near perfect solo performance, her clear pure voice rising above the hubbub of one hundred plus people making their way home.
As, one by one, the line grew shorter, each voice was the same stunning standard as the first. Maggie grew more and more uneasy, a sick feeling in her stomach, her hands clutching her music as if it were a life raft and she had just leapt off the Titanic.
She’d decided she was going to sing the Dona Nobis Pacem chorus they’d been rehearsing that evening. It was something she knew well and figured that at least she wouldn’t make a complete fool of herself by losing her place.
There was no encouraging smile from Simon, seated at the piano. Just a one bar introduction, during which Maggie forgot all she ever knew about breathing, still less about pitch. What came out of her mouth was the kind of sound her dog made when someone stepped on his tail.
“I- I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I – I’m a bit nervous. I forgot to breathe. Do you mind if we start again?”
He didn’t exactly sigh and look at his watch. But she could tell from his body language it was a close run thing.
This time, Maggie forced herself to relax and focus on the music. The beautiful, beautiful music that had made her cry the first time she heard it. The beautiful, beautiful music that deserved the very best of voices.
She was half way through the seventh bar when her throat, which had been getting tighter and tighter, finally closed over completely and she gave up. Simon played on for a few more bars then, when it became apparent she wasn’t going to join him, stopped and looked at her.
“That’ll be a no, then?” Maggie said, trying to make it sound casual, like it was no big deal. He nodded and she walked away, back through the still lingering groups of people. She walked briskly, shoulders back, her head held high, not looking at anyone. Not wanting to see their pained expressions – or worse still, their pity.
And that was the day the music died for Maggie. She’d sung all her life, from as far back as she could remember. She sang when she was happy and sometimes when she was sad. She sang when she was driving and when she was out walking the dog. She sang when she was working and when she was playing.
Until the night of the audition when something inside her, that little kernel of joy that was everything music meant to her, shrivelled and died. Like a frost stricken rose.
After that, she never sang again. Not even Happy Birthday to Harry, her little one year old grandson who was born three months after his Grandad John died. Instead, she just mouthed the words as her daughter and son-in-law sang.
“So I was wondering, Mum, if you’d mind looking after Harry tonight?” Lindsay asked a couple of weeks after the audition. “Unless it’s your rehearsal night?”
“No. I decided not to go after all,” Maggie said. “I didn’t really enjoy it that much, you know. My voice isn’t what it was. And it’s – it’s not so good coming home to an empty house. I’m still not used to that.”
“I understand,” Lindsay said quietly. “But what a shame. I thought you loved it –”
“What time do you want me tonight?” Maggie cut in. She wasn’t exactly thrilled about being asked to look after Harry. Not that she wasn’t very fond of him. He was a dear little chap, with a smile to melt your bones.
But, the truth was, she wasn’t very good with babies. Never had been, when she came to think about it. John was always the one who could calm Lindsay and her brother down when they were little. He was one those people who was completely at ease with small children. Not awkward and over anxious like she was.
He’d have made such a lovely granddad. They’d have made lovely grandparents together. But on her own, she wasn’t much good. And young Harry was teething, which meant he was far from being his usual sunny self.
Add to that the fact that she’d never actually looked after him on her own before. Rob’s mother, Jenny, was a much more hands on grandma than her and Maggie was quite happy to stand back and let her get on with it. But Jenny was away visiting her other son that week. So it looked as if, as far as Lindsay was concerned, it was Maggie or nothing.
Lindsay and Rob hadn’t been gone ten minutes when, to Maggie’s dismay, she heard the first fretful wailings coming through the baby monitor. She left it for a few moments, hoping he’d go back to sleep. No chance.
By the time she got to his room, his cries had all the volume and passion of the Hallelujah Chorus in full throttle. His little face was scarlet, his cheeks glistened with tears.
She picked him up, jiggled him around a bit the way she’d seen Lindsay do, offered him a bottle, changed his nappy, even tried to interest him in his toys. But it was no good. Nothing she said or did had any effect. The screaming got louder and shriller, and he was pushing at her with his little fists.
“Oh John, where are you when I need you?” she thought desperately. “If you were here, you’d know what to do. But then, if you were, he wouldn’t be in this state in the first place.”
She felt like crying along with Harry – and it would have been a toss up whose wails would have been the loudest.
Then, a long forgotten memory tip-toed into her head. She cradled the unhappy baby in her arms, took a deep calming breath and, very softly, very gently, began to sing.
And amazingly, Harry stopped crying, looked up at her and smiled.
So she took another deep breath and sang some more. And she didn’t stop singing until Harry gave a little sigh and finally went back to sleep.
Puff the Magic Dragon wasn’t exactly Bach. But it was a start.