Having discovered my inner novelist in Tropical North Queensland in August, I’ve rediscovered another voice this year - my singing voice.
Spurred on by a desire to optimise life and maintain good brain and general health, I joined a local choir early this year, the Gospel Groove at Willunga. We first heard them singing at a concert last Christmas and were spell-bound by their glorious sound. I was also taken by the diversity of the large group of choristers and even more by the enthusiasm with which they embraced the music. When one of the choristers invited me to join in, I eagerly accepted.
I hadn’t sung much since childhood where I was part of my local school and Sunday School choirs. My parents and I often harmonised on long car trips and I loved that. But a few years of smoking in my twenties took the edge off my voice and I lost confidence in singing, even favourite hymns at weddings, something I once relished.
So with some trepidation, I joined the Gospel Groove in February. It has been a wonderful experience. There’s something about people who sing; they are warm and friendly and from the first night, I was welcomed with big smiles and genuine interest as to whether I was enjoying myself. A couple of weeks later my husband joined me, having not really sung since he was a choir-boy in Bristol - an added bonus, having something we enjoy doing together. Our choir leader is clever, warm and generous. His contagious love of singing combined with his skill enables us to learn complicated harmonies which sound wondrous in a very short space of time and he’s lighthearted and fun to spend a couple of hours with each week. He doesn’t seem to mind if we don’t always stay in tune - he’s more interested in us enjoying ourselves and we do, without fail.
Learning new things as we grow older is an important part of keeping our brains healthy. (I was disappointed to learn that doing samurai sudokus every day doesn’t cut it; it only improves my ability to do samurai sudokus). Singing in a choir challenges us to learn new lyrics, new tunes and often co-ordinate those with movements such as rhythmic steps and clapping, which look easy and are surprisingly difficult to synchronise. Above all, connecting and sharing this experience with others is great for our brains as well as our hearts and souls.
Last week my resident fellow chorister and I took our newfound singing voices to another level. We joined a group of fifty or more people from all over the world to form ‘The Ephemeral Choir’ for a week of immersive singing in the Blue Mountains. Led by three world-renowned choir leaders, Tony Backhouse, Anders Nyberg and Sue Johnson, we simply had the time of our lives.
The grand old Carrington Hotel in the heart of Katoomba was our home for the week. We took over the ballroom for daily singing sessions, starting the minute we arrived before lunch on the first Sunday. After an impromptu warmup with Sue, which had me in tears in the first ten minutes when we sounded so beautiful, we separated into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses and began learning new songs. Each day our brains had a gigantic workout as we practiced and learnt more songs and worked on remembering our fellow singers’ names. Slowly new friendships blossomed as our confidence and our voices began to soar together. Pure joy!
One evening, we were entertained by members of the Melbourne Georgian Choir who came for the express purpose of singing for us and, the next morning, teaching us to sing in their distinctive polyphonic style. We learned some of the history of Georgian music from prominent ethnomusicologists, Dr Joseph Jordanian and Dr Nino Tsitsishvili and, to our surprise, made a reasonable fist of singing one of their songs.
The whole tour was organised by a charismatic and creative genius, Raymond Hawkins of Soundtracks Travel, who herded us good-naturedly in and out of the ballroom each day, on and off buses to scenic places in the Blue Mountains where we gathered and sang on mountain tops, at lookouts, at hotels to thank the staff for their food and service and, a highlight, at the Cathedral cave at Jenolan Caves. Raymond loves surprises and arranged one night for us to have our own screening of Anders’ Oscar nominated Swedish film “As it is in Heaven” in the tiny cinema at Mount Victoria. On our final night we sang our hearts out for an audience of local choirs in the garden of the Norman Lindsay Gallery.
On our final morning, we gathered in the ballroom one last time to listen to a magical recording of our voices in the cathedral cave. Finally, we linked arms in a large circle to sing ‘All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you’. Unforgettable.
I have learned some surprising things this year from singing in choirs. First, it’s not about your voice. It’s all about connecting - connecting with others to make astoundingly beautiful music together, connecting with and trusting in the skills of choir leaders as well as in the wisdom of the choir (when you can’t remember a single word let alone the first note of the song you’re about to sing). Most importantly, I’ve learnt about connecting with oneself and with the joy that has been there all along just waiting to be unleashed.
There’s a line in one of the songs we learnt in the Ephemeral Choir “Don’t postpone joy, start singing now, right now, right now.” Be warned though - once you let that genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to contain it. So we’re not even trying. Fellow local chorister Moira Were and I are bringing the wonderful Sue Johnson to Adelaide for a singing workshop on Sunday 8th December, to spread the joy.
Come along! Tickets and details: https://events.humanitix.com.au/come-to-the-music-singing-workshop-with-sue-johnson