We are always looking for new members. Below is a tongue in cheek description of one Friday night’s practice. If you enjoy what you read you might like to join us on a Friday or Wednesday night at seven o’clock at the Methodist Church, Featherstone.
Articles in this section
1. I Blame Gary. D.Dunn
2.Singing is no laughing matter, or is it? D.Dunn
3. Choir Practice D.Dunn
4. Learning Songs! D.Dunn
5. A Musical Director’s View P.Rhodes
I Blame Gary
I blame Gary. He was asked to sing the solo part from ‘There is nothing like a Dame’, but Gary is a performer. He can’t just sing. He has to move and express himself. He is a genuine entertainer. So suddenly we had a problem. The formal singing associated with Male Voice Choirs seemed flat and inappropriate when compared to Gary’s flamboyant performance.
Paul Rhodes our Musical Director decided that members should spice things up a bit and asked us to respond to Gary as he was singing. As it turned out this was a very dangerous request. Various gestures and gyrations were made, some highly suggestive, borderline indecent. Everyone enjoyed the experience and people were falling around laughing but this was not the performance Paul was looking for.
We have all known for a long time that the choir doesn’t do ‘animated’. One button fastened on your blazer, pocket flaps out and arms by your side has always been the order of the day. We are often urged by Paul to smile during appropriate songs, but this rarely happens. Many members of the Choir frown at the idea of smiling and the others are so busy concentrating on half-learnt words that they forget to smile.
What we needed was a super-hero. ‘Choreographer Man’ to the rescue. Dick Dunn standing at the front of the Choir performed a few simple moves designed to liven up the piece. Everyone followed as best they could but to no avail. The movements were disjointed and wooden but at last we’d found a formula that would make Choir members smile.
Rather than giving up completely, at the next rehearsal Paul attempted his own version of ‘sing along a Gary’. Disaster struck as a state of confusion, followed by anarchy, ensued. Calls and mutterings were heard from the back. ‘We’re a Choir not a Glee Club’, ‘This isn’t what we signed up for’, and ‘Whose idea is this anyway?’ drifted across the room. Rebellion was in the air. Even those in favour were getting cold feet, feeling that although it was the right approach, there wasn’t enough time to perfect the idea. At this point, in order to maintain his sanity, Paul decided to abandon the experiment.
It was time for Choreography Man to step into the spotlight again. An email, proposing some small but precise movements was despatched, with the hopeful comment, ‘Surely they can’t go wrong with
something so simple’. Paul wasn’t entirely convinced but being a masochist decided that he’d try one more time.
I have to say that confusion reigned from the beginning. A misinterpretation of Dick’s message meant that at the vital moment all the second tenors turned left while Dick turned right. Dick’s cover was blown. Choreographer Man instantly became ‘two left feet man’. His days of contemporary dance were over and he went home a broken man to tear up his application for ‘Ballet Rambert.’
Paul, oblivious to Dick’s plight, soldiered on. Most members were getting into the spirit of things and, following Dick’s lead, arms were being moved and rhythmic movements were being demonstrated. It was almost as though people were enjoying themselves. Almost! ‘Paul, I thought you said that all we had to do was turn and sing but some people are moving their arms,’ came the outraged cries.
Now I find it extremely hard to keep still when singing and need to move with the music and interact with the audience. I was clearly leading choir members astray and since at that point they hadn’t ordered my strait-jacket, (In choir colours) Choreography Man was banned from the front row and given a final warning. Next time it would be an early bath.
When the night finally arrived for our first performance, ‘There is nothing like a Dame,’ went down a treat. Choir members, especially Gary, gave a consummate performance, which was greatly appreciated by the audience. This could be the start of the revolution. If we slip in a plié here and an arabesque there it won’t be long before we will have liberated the whole Choir. Music and movement will be second nature to Rowley, Ted will be wearing ballet tights and we’ll all have our hankies out during Bobby Shafto. Until then, well I blame Gary.
The above shambles was our best attempt at music and movement. Back to the drawing board!!!
Singing is no laughing matter, or is it?
The choir’s Musical Directors, Paul Rhodes and Geoff Trigg are dedicated to improving the singing of both individuals and sections of the choir. There are many ways to do this but one of the most important approaches both men adopt is humour. If you like, we are laughing our way to improvement. Criticism of our singing is often disguised as praise, particularly by Geoff. On one occasion, the first tenors were singing faster than his timing and were brought back to earth with Geoff’s comment, ‘I liked the enthusiasm. You even beat the piano!’
Learning new songs is always interesting, particularly at the beginning, when we are struggling to sight-read both words and music. Quite frankly, some of the notes produced, sound dreadful but Geoff always has a way of letting us know without being over critical.
‘A brave effort: wrong, but a brave effort.’
‘Pretty good but still rough.’
‘Well, it had the semblance of a shape.’
‘The timing wasn’t bad but the rest was a bit liquorice allsorts.’
‘Not perfect. Well actually, nowhere near perfect.’
‘That was a100% for effort!’ (Meaning the performance left a lot to be desired.)
And finally the most encouraging yet strangely damning, ‘Nearly’!
Sometimes Geoff can wax lyrical about our mediocrity.
One evening after an improved effort he informed us all, ‘Still very cloudy’, whatever that means.
On another occasion, after we had made some modest improvements he smiled and said, ‘That’s cleared out a few clinkers!’
We had been rehearsing Sleigh Ride for a number of weeks and seemingly getting nowhere when one Wednesday evening things finally clicked and we produced a reasonable performance. With a great sense of relief he said, ‘That was good, I think we can all go home now.’
Geoff can, when necessary, turn to ridicule to make his point.
After one particular tired performance he was heard to say, ‘That was so inspiring, I almost fell asleep.’
To be fair both Musical Directors can be complementary when we do sing well. The other night after a great performance of Gwahoddiad Geoff said, ‘that was so good, you’re worth taking on tour.’
Paul Rhodes can be quite direct when he needs to be. Faced by people talking when they should be preparing to sing, he can sternly demand, ‘There is no time for idle chattering. We have a lot to do.’ Often his words fall on deaf ears and I mean that in the literal sense!
Paul like Geoff has his comical moments. When some people are concentrating on their musical copies instead of his conducting he is sometimes heard to say.
‘Watch my hands because at no time will they leave my body.’
We laugh but the point is made.
At the early stage of learning a song, hitting the right note can be difficult and one evening the second tenors were being put through their paces, and failing miserably to sing in unison.
Paul smiled benevolently and suggested, ‘no harmonies please, just sing it as it is written.’
Sometimes when we have mastered the words and tunes we still are brought to task for other things. When singing with too much gusto, Paul refrained from saying we must sing more quietly, but instead made the comment, ‘your notion of Mf and mine are totally different.’ All those who understood what he meant took note but I’m not sure whether he wasn’t being too subtle for many of the choir.
When he is not happy with the efforts being made by sections of the choir he can be quite cutting, yet funny.
‘I think we have some members on the back row taking industrial action.’ No one on the back row laughed but the rest of us did.
In my opinion, one of Paul’s funnier remarks was, ‘some of you are struggling to learn the words for this song, which is understandable because we’ve only been learning it for seven months.’
Communications can sometimes get a little muddled since, given how many members are hard of hearing, people become confused even when they are listening! The outcome of such situations is that the musical director can be conducting one phrase whilst the accompanist is playing a different phrase and choir members are left looking bemused. Those who attempt to sing, quickly come to a stop and wait for Paul to clarify what has happened. He of course is never short of a quick retort.
‘It’s the second bar. If you’re unsure it’s between the first and third bars.’
Paul never shirks his responsibility to say it as it is.
‘I know this song is a march but you’re singing it like the Light Infantry.’
‘This is a lullaby. You are trying to sing a baby to sleep not scare the life out of it.’
‘This is Strangers in the night. Two young people meeting and falling in love. By the look on your faces you look as though you have just met Jack the Ripper not some lovely maiden.’
Paul has been known to mimic our singing to make a point, particularly about our diction.
‘The lord told Moses wo to do,’ he sang out loudly before reminding us, ‘the word is What gentlemen, it has a T on the end!’
Even our accompanists are not immune from Paul’s cryptic comments. On one occasion when Elaine was playing rather quickly he remarked, ‘It’s OK fellas, Elaine was just testing you, to see if you could keep up. As for me, my arm was aching by page four.’
Paul like any good motivator can make light of the difficulties we face. We were struggling with one particular song when he came out with, ‘It’s easy this, you’ll soon be singing it in your sleep.’ The general response was a despondent shaking of heads. No one was that gullible!
Of course, humour is a two way street and there are plenty of ‘wits’ in the choir.
When struggling with one song, Paul encouragingly said, ‘It’s a doddle.’ Pete in the front row of the baritones asked, ‘Are you trying to convince us or yourself?’ Paul responded with a smile, ‘I’m trying to instil confidence.’
Paul is constantly trying to improve our singing by a series of exercises. During one exercise Paul remarked, ‘Intonation is important. Your tongue should be touching your back teeth.’ Tony one of the 2nd tenors chirped up, ‘My back teeth are in my pocket.’
One day Paul was berating choir members about their lack of expression. ‘This is a love song. Your heart should be going bumpty-bump.’ Len a quiet and retiring type in the 1st tenors was heard to complain, ‘but I’m on tablets, in fact half the choir are on beta-blockers. Our hearts are not allowed to go bumpty-bump.’
Sometimes of course members like to have a moan about slow progress without giving the musical directors grief. In February whilst practising Dana-Dana a Hungarian dance: Cecil was overheard saying, ‘we could have this ready by Xmas.’ Stan replied, ‘Yes, but which one?’
I’ve always enjoined singing. Since I was young, I just opened my mouth and out came the sound. But what do I know. It was only when I got to sixty-three I was made to realise, not that I was doing it all wrong, but there was a better way to sing.
Paul came in one evening determined to improve our singing and gave us the following instructions. ‘Open your mouth as if you are yawning. Your tongue should be like a carpet in the bottom of your mouth and behind your front teeth. It’s like eating an apple. It opens the back of the mouth. Also as you sing higher notes imagine your larynx is like a lift going downwards and this will hold the sound.’
Well I gave it my best shot and seemed to be mastering the technique until Paul complained we were not smiling enough. At that point I went into information overload and if I hadn’t had my tonsils removed when I was young, I’m sure I’d have strangulated them. Have you ever tried smiling whilst trying to eat an imaginary apple, simultaneously making your lift go down? Of course, I’ve mastered it now and in theory my voice should sound better but I’m still not ready to sing a solo!
I have learnt in the four years I have been in the choir that the Musical Directors know best. After all, as well as making you laugh they can baffle you with musical terminology unknown to ordinary men. During a discussion about a particular song Geoff once said, ‘A rit is half a ral.’ There’s no arguing with that.
Our constitution states, ‘The choir is a social organisation, with the aim of promoting the love of music and the welfare of its members’, but we take our singing very seriously and many of us practice twice a week. Main practice is on Friday night and Paul, our Musical Director, runs this. On Wednesday evening Geoff, our Assistant Musical Director, works on new pieces and revises known songs to help people catch up or accelerate their learning. Wednesday is a more relaxed evening with only half the choir attending but it can get very intense when we’re ‘note bashing’. Friday night just before seven finds me coming through the main entrance to be confronted by the raffle ticket sellers. For a miserly pound I get the chance to win the all day breakfast. Eggs, bacon sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes and black pudding are waiting for one lucky person to take home for a fry up. In less than three years I’ve won it twice and I’m beginning to feel guilty. Some long-term members haven’t won it once!
I arrive in the practice room to find Roland swooping towards me with his sweets. For a gift of any small change found in your pocket you get to choose two of Roland’s sweets. All proceeds go to the choir fund and the sweets help keep the throat lubricated, at least for the first few songs. Liquorice torpedoes and wine gums remind me of my youth and that seems very appropriate since the rumour is that Roland bought them just after the Second World War!
Finally we settle down to practice. Paul calls us to order and we respond instantly. Well not quite. Given the average age of the choir, the abundance of hearing aids and everyone’s propensity to gossip, Paul has had to learn to be patient. We begin with oohs and arhs as we practice singing vowels and scales and follow instructions from Paul to ‘wrap our mouths round the sound and put our tongues behind our teeth.’ We’re all impatient to start singing proper songs but trust that Paul knows what he’s doing. He tells us that this is improving our performance and he’s the boss. I’ve come to enjoy these exercises and find that by the time I’m finished my teeth feel a lot cleaner!
Paul and Geoff bring very different styles to our practices. Geoff is a ‘carrot’ man whereas Paul knows how to use ‘carrot and stick’ to good effect. Both use lots of praise and humour in bringing out the best in us but Paul works us hard on diction, expression and intonation. Given that most of us live within spitting distance of Featherstone, getting us to be even a bit more refined in our singing is a hard task. Some might say impossible. As for getting us to smile while singing: well all I can say is a lesser man would have given up long ago.
Both Geoff and Paul use the same recipe for learning new songs. Members from each section take turns in listening to a phrase of the song played on the piano and then we repeat the phrase two or three times until the music is firmly fixed in our heads. When all sections have done this we sing together in various combinations: sometimes first and second tenors, sometimes bass and baritones etc. whilst the rest of us wait patiently for our turn. This well-tried system makes it simple to learn harmonies for the songs and even new members find this easy. Learning the words of course is a different matter and that has to be done at home. I have all sorts of weird and wonderful ways of doing that, as do, I’m sure, other members of the choir. It’s the learning of words that I’m certain keeps minds active and accounts for the rapier wit often heard in the choir. Ken in the first tenors often turns to me and says, ‘ The problem with this choir is we have too many comedians.’
The interval arrives and David our chairman stands up to give out the notices. Part of this ritual is announcing whose birthday it is that week and then the piano strikes up and we all sing happy birthday. When the notices are over we form an orderly queue for tea. (People have been known to be trampled!!) We are fortunate to have three ladies, Maureen, Eileen and Joyce, who week after week turn up and make the tea. Proceeds again go to the choir. Biscuits are available and some nights there is even a spread provided, courtesy of whoever is celebrating a birthday. This usually happens on evenings when I’ve had a big dinner but you have to tuck in don’t you? It would be impolite to refuse. The break is always interesting as we sit with the same people and conversation flows. Jokes are told, insults are hurled and we all laugh a lot. There is a great comarardary throughout the choir.
The bell rings and we all scuttle back to our places. Another three-quarters of an hour practice before we go home. Once we know a song reasonably well Paul attempts to refine our efforts. ‘Gentlemen, this is a happy song. You’re supposed to smile. You all look as though you are about to be tortured.’
‘Gentlemen, this is a love song. Try to instil some passion into your voices, if you can still remember what that is.’
‘Gentlemen, this man is singing about going out to conquer the world. You lot sound like you’re going to a wake. Put some life into it.’
Slowly we get the message and the song begins to take shape. We sing with feeling and expression. Softly when we need to and in full voice for the crescendos. The harmonies blend to produce one sound and we all know we are singing well. At these moments I expect that those listening cannot help be stirred by the music and sitting in the second tenor section I can feel elated to be part of all this. It’s no wonder members of male voice choirs live longer than other men. (Or is this just a rumour Paul and Geoff have circulated to ensure we keep turning up for practices.) D. Dunn
Singing in a choir is a great joy. At concerts when you know the words of a song and have practised the notes, all you have to do is keep your eyes on the conductor and follow his directions. Nothing to it really. So why aren’t too many people willing to sing on the front row? Knowing these men as I do, I’m sure it’s not because they are shy. I have come to the conclusion that some singers never feel completely confident that they will remember all the words of a song and, as we all know, on the front row there is nowhere to hide!
It does seem that as we get older, it becomes harder to remember things. I recall that as a teenager, I would listen to a pop song two or three times and could sing all the words, even in the style of the artist. It was no trouble for me to be Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison or Buddy Holly. Today, at the age of sixty-two, all that has changed. For someone who can’t remember why he’s gone upstairs, learning the words of a song is a nightmare. So how do I do it?
Reading the words time and time again doesn’t work for me. Nothing goes in. Singing the words time and time again also has limited success. I’ve tried mnemonics, you know, using some sort of association to remind me of the words. Trouble is, not only can’t I remember the words but I also forget what the association is. So I have twice as much to learn and am no better off! I’ve tried reading the words in time to hitting myself on the head, in the vague hope that it will ‘force’ the words in. This works quite well if you enjoy sado-masochism and migraines.
Of course, it’s not all down to my poor memory. Some of the songs we learn are written in archaic or romantic verse. We spend some of our time singing about rippling rills and shady dells and even a gitana whatever that is. The best bet in the second tenors is that it’s a cross between a piano and a guitar but what do we know. Some songs have a language structure that is well passed its sell by date! When was the last time you heard a man say to his children, ‘Come on it’s bedtime because slowly stealing o’er the plain, evening shadows longer grow?’ These words are very beautiful but it would be a lot easier for me to learn something like, ‘Night is coming.’ I don’t suppose songwriters give a second thought for this second tenor who is struggling to learn the words. Then of course there are the songs we sing in German and Russian but don’t get me started on that.
Another problem I have found, particularly with Christmas songs, is that many contain very similar phrases, so if I’m trying to master several songs at once, I start muddling the words to a point where I have invented a whole new song. As Morecambe and Wise so famously said, I’m singing all the right words but not necessarily in the right order.
So what’s the answer? One method is to resort to technology. It’s a little known fact that I have a small organ, which I play with in the bedroom. I bought it from Argos for a mere twenty pound and as an instrument of music it is a disaster. One key doesn’t work at all and playing three or more notes simultaneously creates the most dreadful discord. What it does allow me to do is to play the second tenor harmonies whilst singing the words into a dictaphone: another piece of out of date technology press-ganged into service. The outcome from all my efforts is a tinny, shrill version of what I’m trying to learn. It sounds like one of those recordings, made on a wax cylinder at the turn of the last century, that crackle and hiss. If that isn’t enough to put me off, there are bum notes and wrong words, as I attempt with disastrous results to play music and read lyrics at the same time.
I take this appalling noise with me wherever I go and, when alone, play it time and time again. This is the starting point for the real learning which I am about to embark on.
I start with one small phrase at a time and recite it until I know it or my wife threatens divorce. I then move to the next phrase and repeat the exercise. Often, after learning the second phrase, I go back to find I’ve forgotten the first but I then work on both together.
I can also be found on my exercise bike, which I keep on the landing outside my bedroom, peddling away like mad whilst reciting words. The exercise bike is pretty boring so I’m killing two birds with one stone. My worry in my early choir days was that I would not be able to sing unless peddling on my bike and I thought that if others followed my example we might have to become The Featherstone Male Voice Harriers! I also adopted the practice of repeating words out loud while sitting in cafes and walking around shops but had to give up after the men in white coats started following me.
After three years in the choir I feel I have mastered most of the songs I need to at the moment but am aware that there are hundreds more in the choir’s repertoire. I work a little at a time on each new song and turn up to both Wednesday and Friday night practices. The long serving members of the choir tell me I’m making good progress and will be well on top of things by 2040! They may have to dig me up for that concert! To be fair, I always feel very satisfied when I finally master a song and can sing confidently without music copy. It is then that I realise I’m just a grumpy old man and learning words keeps me alive, by giving me something to do and something to complain about.
NB gitana is a female gypsy.
A Musical Director’s View
An unprejudiced, reasoned riposte to the vituperative remarks of a certain Dick Dunn.
Part one A Conductor’s Tale
The singing season begins with the members shuffling, limping and tottering across the car park seeking the sanctuary of the chapel. On entering the building, with the entrenched reluctance of misers they ferret in their bottomless pockets seeking a pound coin which they fling at the ticket strewn table almost decapitating our heroic sellers, who this year have been supplied with safety helmets and protective body armour. They then moodily grab their tickets.
In this relaxed lighthearted mood they proceed to the practice room. Their presence is immediately noticed as the cloud of formaldehyde and olbas oil spreads across the room, choking all but the three able bodied members of the second tenor section.
Soon the hall is throbbing to a deafening prattle as mind blowing festive events are related. Sadly the friendly ambience is shattered when the M.D. hesitantly begs their attention. Upturned glaring faces greet this first attempt at order, which is ignored as they continue their earth saving gossip. “Gentlemen, and I use the term loosely, we have a lot to do.” This is my attempt at humour, which is wasted on most of them, because they haven’t yet inserted their hearing aids,
Phase one of the practice, finding a seat, is heralded by the thunder of scraping chairs.
Phase two; phlegm or Ackton Hall coal dust is dredged from the nether regions of their rib cages.
Phase three, is a continuation of their urgent conversation, vying with friends to discover who has suffered the most miserable Christmas. This year a bottom bass worthily won the fiercely contested competition. His sad saga included winter vomiting and food poisoning (on Christmas day), followed by two hours of family fisticuffs. A little later in this season of goodwill and merrymaking he contracted a virulent case of swine flu and was hospitalised. His tale of woe finally ended when squatters moved into his beloved caravan. No Primrose Valley this year then!!!
Phase four, ten minutes after the scheduled start, the final chair is dragged into place, although some members are still standing, deciding whether or not to remove their coat.
Phase five, decision made, coat is left on in order to create a disturbance later.
Phase six, friendly greeting from MD. “Happy New Year everyone, good to see you all back and raring to go.” A grim silence follows. Are their hearing aids turned on? A Little Louder, “HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE.” “We’re not deaf, gerron wi’it, thas wasted enough time already.” An argument could ensue but the M.D. has more tact and is also a coward.
Phase seven, gentle warm up. Colin plays C major arpeggio. The choir stand and should gently voice it to “AH”. The first attempt is accompanied by a tornado of hacking coughs; massed retching greets the second effort; and fainting fits compel the few left standing to slump to their seat during the third struggle. By the fourth trial an occasional involuntary musical sound can be discerned amid the grunts and growls. “Ee it’s good to be back, I wor ready for that. What’s next’un?”
Phase eight, “We’ll do the next exercise sitting down, that will at least give you a chance to catch your teeth.” I’m always thinking about the welfare of the choir.
By phase fifteen both sides accept the practice night battle has begun in earnest with neither prepared to cede a note, and happily some semblance of choral ensemble has been achieved, though the facial contortions of the tops again reveals they are still strangling the upper range, sounding like the mating call of a pot bellied Vietnamese warthog.
And to show that I’m impartial
The cacophony produced by the Basses (both sections) in their lung-bursting rendition of “Comrades” is most impressive, especially if you have read descriptions of the punishments inflicted during the Spanish inquisition. The wails of those unfortunates do not compare with the pitiable groans emanating from our bottom sections.
The choir having finally produced a recognisable noise, I introduce the word “diction”. A cloth eared member enquires, ” Dick Dunn, what’s he done?” Smile, Paul, smile I tell myself.
I rest my case your honour.
During the course of the evening I exact my revenge. This is my pleasurable, nay delightful, deceitful, enjoyable, payback time. I demand a jugular bursting, red faced, eye popping and sweat extracting treble forte. (fff) This simple request produces another of the simple joys of practice, which is to see the sweat collect, glistening on the shiny domes of the hairless, and then watch the stream ripple across the wrinkles of their foreheads and cascade down into their eyes. Extreme discomfort and blindness, although temporary, leaves a deep, deep sense of satisfaction.
To be continued