#33-A Choir is Not a Democracy


I joined the Anglican church for social reasons. I had moved to a new neighbourhood. When you join a church you get instant community, an immediate village of possible friends and associates and an event to go to once a week with some pretty decent music and sociability in the coffee and cakes hour after the service.

I am of a volunteering nature. My relatives hope I will not not to join groups. They know I’m going to end up volunteering and, if I’m not very careful, running whatever it is that I’ve joined. This is not the case with the church, of course, because it has its own hierarchical structure and within the church there is nothing more hierarchical, top down and undemocratic as a choir. Having joined the church, I volunteered to join the choir, which is a bit like volunteering for the Marines. There’s a drill and you learn it. The Choirmaster is the benevolent dictator who word is law.

I had been living in a rented house where a damp basement harboured ferocious mold spores which gave me a bad case of allergic asthma. Lots of practice with the choir would pretty much cure me of that.

My mother had been a church organist at an Anglican church in Chatham, Ontario, so I pretty well knew the Order of Service. I knew most of the hymns and had a general idea how the psalms were sung. When we sat down in the choir rehearsal room at St. Paul’s Runnymede in Toronto I learned that there was a lot I didn’t know. First of all, I don’t read music. My early adventures in folk music taught me that it was better to play by ear and the moment, rather than from notes on a page. Although I could pick up the notes of a tune on the piano and learn it, I could not sight read like other members of the choir could. Although I have a fairly deep voice, I’m not really an alto. You had to learn individual harmonies if you were an alto. Since I’m not a sight reader, that didn’t work for me. I am a sort of a high baritone. So I ended up in the choir stall across from the ladies with the one or two male members of the choir, singing the baritone parts. Singing baritone parts was easier for me. I needed to sing the actual tune.

So, there I was in with the baritones. Next to me was a plump British professor of early English literature, who was very good at Anglican choir singing. I relied on him and, little did I know it, but he relied on me because I could be trusted to Keep time, which is important and Follow the tune, that’s important too.

We once had a visiting Minister with us during the Summer months. He fancied he was a musician and liked to sing with the choir. My friend, the Professor, hated standing next to him. and said “He’s all over the place. You can’t follow him. You never know where he’s going to go. He thinks he’s artistic.”

Artistic doesn’t cut it. There’s a way of singing the hymns and that’s the way you sing them.

In choir rehearsal we were put through a drill. We would learn a fancy number for each Service and rehearse that, then rehearse the hymns, the psalms and the sung parts of the Service “Lord Have Mercy Upon Us” and all that.

Sitting in the choir at church and singing and I got to observe the congregation. If you’re sitting in the congregations you can’t observe the other church members except for those either side of you or just in front. From the choir I could see most of them. There they were. Most were much more devout than myself. I was a a sort of casual pagan with Anglican roots. In all honesty I tried to tell the church members this but it was basically a case of
“Can you help with the church bazaar?” “I’m a pagan, you know” “Well, that’s fine but can you help with the bazaar?”

It was likewise with the choir. If you were a warm body, opened your mouth and you sang as required all was exceeding well. They liked me in the choir because they could hear me. I kept good time. I was in tune and I was a loud singer, once I got my voice back. Singing in the choir gave me my voice and my lungs back again after my bout with asthma – for which I will be eternally grateful. Having moved out of the house which gave me allergic asthma, I was now back in business and singing like the proverbial canary, if canaries were baritones ??

At every Service the organist/choirmaster does a special number at the very end of the service which could be Bach or one of those elaborate church numbers. I used to listen to our organist/choirmaster. He was a very knowledgeable traditional musician. He really knew his stuff and played the organ well but, to my ears, he couldn’t keep time worth a damn. There was a sort of time lag. The organ is a ponderous instrument and this may have been a large part of it. Playing a church organ must be like dancing with a hippo. Other people didn’t seem to notice this time lag so I guess it was o.k. and the choir kept good time when they were singing.

We had a special kind of Show and Tell at the Christmas Service. In the more casual or folk type masses at Christmas children were involved and people with individual skills could get up and demonstrate them. I have a devilish streak. I had a green carry bag just large enough to conceal my tambourine. Now the tambourine is more suited to the Salvation Army on a street corner and is not usually heard in an Anglican/Episcopalian service. I had told the powers that be I was going to perform a folk song. When it came to my turn I went up to the lectern, reached in my bag and pulled out my tambourine. The expression on the staid old choirmaster’s face showed that he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but there I was. I sang the ‘Cherry Tree Carol’ Appalachian style.

As Joseph was a-walking he heard and angel sing
To Mary born at midnight is Christ the heavenly king

At Easter, similarly, but without the tambourine, I got up and did an a Capella number which people told me afterwards had raised the hair on the backs of their necks.

They crucified my Lord, and he never said a mumberling word.
Not a word, not a word, not a word …

There was a slave rebellion in the American South and those members who were caught were tortured and hung but none of them confessed the names of the others involved in the rebellion and the folksong was a hidden reference to this.

Eventually I became slightly bored with the church. I used to read Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazines during the sermon. No-one seemed to notice or care. I guess they thought I was studying the hymnbook up there in the choir loft. Eventually, I moved to another part of the city and drifted away from the church but I valued that comradeship, the musical insights, and getting my voice back The whole experience was a really good thing for me at that time and in that place.

Wavy Line

© Sonia Brock 2005

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