We were 200-strong and asked to sing Salaam (Peace will come upon us), written in both Hebrew and Arabic. Singers from 10 community choirs had been taking part in the annual Sunshine Coast Choral Festival, this year held at the Kawana Community Centre. All choirs had been sent the dots for the two songs we were to sing together, and everyone was assumed to have done much work on the finale, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Conductor Kim Kirkman (right), who also directed three choirs, said after our second run-through at morning rehearsal: “Some of you need the music! So either watch me, or read the music.”
The day began with a combined choir rehearsal, bending to the will of directors, some wanting us to “feel the music” (as in a song about Nelson Mandela and the aforementioned Salaam), while Kim Kirkman wanted precision, pitch and breath support for the high (and low) notes in the Hallelujah Chorus.
Doors opened at 1.30, the punters streamed in and pretty soon all 500 seats were taken. Each choir was introduced by celebrity MC Louise Kennedy, a much-experienced opera singer who briefly terrified judges in Australia’s Got Talent with her comedic take on the dark art of opera. The show got off to a terrific start with the Oriana junior choir, golden-voiced children of various ages who showed why the Oriana adult choir has become such a good group. As an audience stacked with singers, we yelled and hooted and applauded as loudly as possible for every group.
Just before interval, it was time for Louise Kennedy’s unique take on opera, turning the Queen of the Night Vengeance aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute into an hysterical, slapstick story about a menopausal chook. You had to be there.
The second half went by in a blur – our choir, Tapestry, was on last, so stage nerves were building. We had to quietly thread our way out of the auditorium while the choir before us was walking on stage. Then we gathered back stage for a pantomime warm-up, remembering all of our cues, what to do and not to do when the song is over. All the things we’ve been rehearsing every Tuesday for months. In the end it was all over in a heartbeat. We sang three short pieces – Mozart’s Ave Verum, Till There was You from The Music Man and that old ear worm of a tune, Java Jive. The audience clamoured, as they’d been doing all day. Our director made sure we all bowed at the right time and off we went, with just enough time to shed our gold brocade scarves, catch a breath then head back on stage for the massed choir performance.
That too went by in a blur, but I do remember the bliss on the face of Yvonne Coratorphin, who led Mosh Ben Ari’s song Salaam, as we all shared in that mysterious connection, perhaps thinking about the resurgent troubles in Iraq as the song reached its crescendo – Salaam (live performance by New World Rhythm).
Singing for joyful good health
While I’ve been appreciating music since Santa put a harmonica in my stocking when I was eight years old, I was well into my 50s before I joined a community choir. In the intervening years I eventually got over chronic stage fright and started performing, first in a jug band, then a bush band, then a band which played my own songs, then as a duo with my partner and as a solo singer/songwriter.
I thank Brian Martin for helping to transform the shy boy, who had to be quiet after school because father the baker was sleeping, into someone who is able to sing out loud. Brian Martin runs The Joy of Singing at Camp Creative, held in Bellingen in January (Brian and Imogen Wolf also run a winter camp there in July).
Brian’s approach is that everyone can sing and everyone should. After attending this class a few times, I have witnessed a few miraculous things. Many people seriously feel as if they want to sing, they should sing, but something has held them back, usually a bad experience at school, their aspirations crushed by unthinking, unfeeling idiots, sometimes known as mates or parents. Brian somehow manages to coax even the most fear-paralysed person, to voluntarily stand in the centre of the room surrounded by 39 other people who are all feeling the love. It is indeed a joy to hear this person finally sing out, alone, jumping over the fear barrier and joining the world of those who can’t get enough of the endorphins released by the joy of singing.
If only more blokes would join mixed choirs. A survey of 200 choirs by Communities Australia found that only 30% of mixed choir members are males. Tenors are hard to come by and many choir directors assign women to the tenor part. I’ve always been a tenor, but as a self-taught guitarist and singer-songwriter I’d have to say that stage nerves and a lack of practice and technique did not always produce a pretty sound. Now, after seven years of singing with a choir, I understand so much more about breathing, body awareness, communicating with an audience and blending my voice with others.
The teacher at our primary school who doubled as music mistress had a none-too subtle method of hand-picking a choir. Everyone in the class would stand in rows and start singing. She would then walk along the front of each row with her head inclined, listening, listening. People would be plucked from the group and made them go outside and run around the oval until the lesson was over. As I recall, there were many so plucked, their dreams of being another Elvis nipped in the bud. I was never thus plucked, although I did try singing tunelessly, in a bid to join my mates running around the oval. Teacher would whack me behind the knee with a long ruler and say, “Sing properly! I know you can.”
A natural musical ear is a gift, I know that now. You get it from your parents, grandparents, or some distant relative who used to be an opera singer or played the trombone in a jazz band. One ought not to waste such a gift. If you have such an ear, and a good sense of pitch and rhythm, you can be an asset to a community choir.
You will make new friends, learn a lot about music and about yourself. I prescribe singing as a way of improving your quality of life and mental health: take daily with a glass of water.