Not too long ago, my Sidmouth Choral Society met again for the first time in nearly two years. The last time we had seen each other, sung together, laughed together was hours before we learned that our next rehearsals were cancelled and our much anticipated performance of The Armed Man surrendered. The loss was intangible and it would only grow from there.
So, when we met again in that place, that rehearsal space, with those people, there was uncertainty; unfamiliarity; a feeling of homelessness - paritcularly as the hall had been refurbished whilst we had been away. It looked amazing, it looked new, but it furthered that feeling that it was an alien place. It was to be an easygoing process for those few weeks - a feeling that voices needed to be eased gently back in after a period without significant use and without an end goal of a concert to look forward to. Where, then, would the comfort and familiarity be found, if not between the socially distanced seats of masked singers? If not in the rehearsal space, no longer familiar?
The answer, like most, lay within the music. We went back to the last occasion of greatest change, that familiar ending of the old and the ringing in of the new that we all experience at some point in our lives, be it in relationships or in our workplace - retirement of the previous beloved Musical Director and the subsequent appointment of myself. We took out the piece that I had auditioned with and, having warmed up using the same icebreaking exercises that I had used at that first rehearsal, began to sing what had become our signature piece - John Rutter's New Year. The opening chords from the piano sparked immediate memory for all of us, catapulting us back into that first rehearsal together, trembling with anticipated excitement of the endless new possibilities now born. The tremble was mirrored in the voices on that opening unison phrase, "Turn your eyes to the light...feel the warmth, the hope of new beginnings" - a humbling poignant message if ever there was one and a necessary one.
Trembling together, it was not difficult to be moved almost to tears by the emotional release of the singers, myself equally emotional. When the best rapport is achieved with an ensemble, both singers/players and conductor will be mirror images of each other - facially, soundlessly, endlessly. This in turn informs how effectively we rehearse, attuning the ensemble into our micro gestures and enabling us as conductors to show what we wish to achieve - wordlessly.
As we trembled further, the message became, "turn your ears to the sound" - and from what the singers saw, it became what they heard. They had found their voices in a whole new way, the unfamiliar becoming familiar, finding comfort from discomfort and beginning to listen and blend together in a whole new exciting way and transformed from our pre-lockdown sound.
To close our tremble, we were to, "turn [our] heart[s] to the love" and in that one pivotal shining moment, Sidmouth Choral Society came back to life, discovering itself anew and turning to face a beautiful bright new future: "new life, and love, and light, and hope, this good new year."
New Year © Collegium Music Publications 2007
Words and music by John Rutter (b. 1945)
Fast forward to March 2022. We find ourselves trembling for a whole different reason, in global anxiety as the Europe stands on the brink of conflict (GCT, 2022). It's not unusual for music to help us cope with what's occurring in the world (Yinger, 2018) and - with some bias - I recommend my programme of Choral Singing as a Therapeutic Intervention (Emmett, 2022 & 2015), which amplifies the benefits of singing as a coping mechanism exponentially in a group setting. Composers frequently write in response to that which is around them, as in the case of Karl Jenkins. In the liner notes for the CD recording, he reveals that he wrote The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace in response to the crisis unfolding in Kosovo and would go on to dedicate this work to them (Jenkins, 2000). Incidentally, this CD would be released on September 10th, 2001...a day before tragedy struck the US. I myself rely on being able to conduct works that reflect my own personal trepidation on the place that is the Earth and the people that threaten its wellbeing.
I mentioned at the beginning that I was expecting to be about to conduct The Armed Man when we were hit with the first lockdown, a work that I had yearned to conduct since I first became aware of it in 2009. The memories of a girlfriend, who at that time introduced me to the work, forging what is now a very distant emotional connection, but still gravitates a strong memory of performing in the Royal Albert Hall nonetheless. Leonard Bernstein referred to conducting any ensemble as “a love affair...the most potent love affair you can have in your life” (Matheopoulos, 1982), the deepest and most intimate of connections. To me, the love that I have for music is the love that my singers and musicians have for music and it is that love that we share, the most powerful of connections, using music to bind us together. One only has to look at the worldwide performances of The Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition to see the immense unifying impact of music upon us, despite the work's Russian-ness at its core (Hewett, 2022).
At Sidmouth Choral Society, in that place with those people, there is a shared bond. This term, we're celebrating 150 years of Ralph Vaughan Williams, that master of folk music, which is immensely important to our town here. One of our major works is his Dona Nobis Pacem, a work that was divisive to our members at first, who were longing for a return to the comfort and familiarity. Yet, the trembling of oncoming war suddenly showed just how relevant the work is. Written in 1936, as the spectre of World War II was becoming stark, it opens with the choir and soprano soloist crying out, "Dona...dona...dona nobis pacem!" - "give...give...give peace unto us!" By the end of the piece, RVW has most definitely brought us resolution on a beautfiul wide C Major chord, but it's a turbulent journey to get there.
So, as we did before, we closed our eyes. I invited my singers to consider the worry, the uncertainty, the anxiety, the refugee, the soldier, the parent, the child. Together once more, we trembled. And we channelled this into the opening movement. And my gosh, did we tremble.
On Saturday 30th April, from 7pm in Sidmouth Parish Church, we intend to connect with hundreds more, who might tremble with us.
Emmett, C. (2015). Choral Singing as a Therapeutic Intervention. BA Thesis: University of Plymouth
Emmett, C. (2022). Choral Singing as a Therapeutic Intervention. MA Thesis: University of Highlands and Islands
GCT. (2022). Conflict in Ukraine. Council on Foreign Relations https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-ukraine [accessed 13 March 2022]
Hewett, I. (2022). Mussorgsky’s The Great Gate of Kiev is no hymn to the people of Ukraine. The Telegraph. 25 Feb 2022
Jenkins, K. (2000). The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace. London: Venture Records [CD]
Matheopoulos, H. (1982). Maestro: Encounters with Conductors Today.
Rutter, J. (2007). New Year Carol. Collegium Music Publications [CD]
Yinger, O. S. (2018). Music therapy: research and evidence-based practice. St Louis, Missouri: Elsevier