Making music with other people sparks a unique kind of synergy that can become addictive. I sing in the Jericho Choir, under the direction of Stephanie Tait who is a very good musician and commands the respect and attention of the singers. Steph arranges songs by Radiohead and teaches energetic African harmonies, starting with a bit of yogic breathing and stretching, then a bit of humming and scaling. There is a strong bass section, tenors, altos and of course the highest trillers.
I used to sing alto in our school choir which was led by Mrs Gem Ballantyne, but I think singing soprano is more fun and a bit more showy.
At the Convent of Jesus and Mary, New Delhi, Mrs Ballantyne took us through the Trinity College of Music grade exams and I think we passed choral grade 6 or 7 with distinction. The examiners were always men who did their India tour by P&O (HMS Strathclyde, Himalaya or Chusan) and then by rail from Bombay to Delhi , Calcutta, Madras before hopping over to Ceylon. We pianists were in paroxysms of terror at the prospect of performing in front of the fearsome ogre who sat behind a desk in the assembly hall wearing a linen suit (jacket slung over his chair) and mopping his pink face with a large handkerchief. Given the build-up you certainly needed nerves of steel to undergo that. I loved the piano but the ordeal of yearly exams scarred me for life.
Gem Ballantyne, our singing teacher, was a large lady. Her husband was a Police officer and her mother was the Matron, or Dame, at my brothers’ boarding school. Gem had two boys, Denzil and Eric and sometime in the late fifties they all emigrated to Australia. The idiom about a dramatic denouement not beginning until the fat lady sings might have been inspired by her. She had a permed bob, wore red high heels and followed the repertoire in the National Song Book– choral arrangements of English and Irish folk songs and even Schubert lieder- Early one Morning, The Oak and the Ash, To Music, Evening Breezes, Sweet and Low, The Drunken Sailor, Robin Adair, Clementine, Golden Slumbers, When Irish Eyes are Smiling, In Dublin’s Fair City, ‘Twas on a Monday Morning and many more. I simply loved singing and can’t understand why schoolchildren nowadays have been deprived of their cultural heritage. I suppose it was just-post colonial India, but we had practically the entire repertoire of nursery rhymes and English folk songs- plus Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in our heads. If only children were made to learn songs and poems (and times tables) by heart the world would be a better place.
One or two patriotic parents took umbrage and forbade their daughters from exercising culturally different vocal chords, among them my friend Chitra’s father (General B.M. Kaul who marched his infantry up to the Chinese border in their gym shoes and lost the India-China war of 1962). Chitra’s dad assigned her to long hours of practicing ragas and taans with a Bengali singing teacher called Masterji. My parents (copycats with a guilty conscience) hastily signed him up as well as a kind of ethnic enrichment to our philistine and westernized tastes. Masterji arrived in his model-T Ford every week and my brother and I made his life miserable. His heavy jowls were the subject of much mirth, so when he taught us Raag Bhairav the line “Gau vey chairavat” (Krishna taking his cows to pasture) had us in hysterics as we watched Masterji’s jaws moving from side to side, like a cow chewing the cud. But we did learn the rudiments of Hindustani classical music, for which I am thankful. One frightful night when my cousin was being married from our house, his father and the bride’s father drank too much and got into a fight. The bride’s father was ready to call the whole thing off, in the words of Ella F, but my parents stepped in. I remember being woken up at about three a.m. and along with my befuddled brother being told to sing. The big-bellied tanpura was thrust into my hands and I think we sang the one about Krishna and the cows, it being a morning raga. I suppose the idea was that the sight of an eleven and seven year old singing classical music would melt the hearts of the two murderous drunks, and it did.
“How swee-eet”…cooed the uncles and aunties. I think we were given choc ices the next day as a reward.
Oxford is spoiled for choice as far as choirs go. One friend sings in three of them and there are dozens of groups, quartets and orchestras tuning up every day. On rather extraordinary example is “Confluence”, an eclectic gathering of musicians from all over the globe who improvise together in St Luke’s church on the 3rd Saturday of the month.
Musicians and singers come and go and last Saturday I listened to an Iranian singer, her harpist brother, an Iranian keyboard player, a Pakistani singer, a Portugese guitarist and an Irish recorder player and flautist. Trish, the very accomplished saxophonist, told me that they were soon going to reach out to refugees and asylum seekers and include them in their monthly informal concerts.
Like gardening, singing is really the best kind of therapy and singing together in harmony usually creates instant communities of goodwill and sanity.