Whilst in Oxford, I thought it might be fun to sing in a choir.
Obviously there’s a grand tradition here. I knew, though, that I, not being a member of the University or a particularly accomplished singer, would not find myself singing evensong every night in an ancient college chapel (nor would I really want that responsibility), but I also knew that choral singing is alive and well in England and there’d be a jolly community or parish group I could join (and perhaps meet someone going on sabbatical next term and in need of a housesitter).
I wait for the bus home outside St. Giles Church and noticed a posting on the sign board for gentlemen to join St. Giles choir. Later online research revealed that St. Giles is the only church in Oxford which maintains the tradition of an all-male choir. Pourquoi pas?
I emailed the choir director and inferred from his jolly and swift reply, that this was an informal group, not requiring auditions or voice balancing. Perfect.
Some trace the all-male-choir tradition back to the highly-interpretable statement by St. Paul which has perhaps had a more significant impact on modern life than any other: “that women should be silent.”
It is probably more a consequence of medieval families giving extra children to single-sex monasteries and nunneries.
Regardless, the tradition stuck and the sound’s distinctive, and St. Giles is making an attempt to keep it alive.
When I walked through the 12th century doors of St. Giles Friday night a few minutes before 8 for rehearsal, I had no real expectations but was surprised to find in the medieval nave two lone men. One tenor, the other an alto, I learned. I’m a bass, so I guess that works.
A dozen or so boys who had started their evening of choral training at 6.30 swarmed into the stalls after a snack and the four gentlemen of the choir (another alto who agreed to sing bass this evening had joined us) took our places.
I’m in the habit of being more of a section follower than a section leader. I like to be swept along and learn from my neighbors. I’ll pull my weight, but I of course don’t weigh much.
Being responsible not just for knowing your part, but having the only vocal chords contributing those harmonic vibrations is a completely different thing entirely.
I’ll admit it’s not exactly what I had in mind when I thought it might be fun to sing in a choir in Oxford. Now that I’m in it, though, having to work hard and develop new skills and try and make mistakes whilst living an ancient tradition is exactly what singing in an Oxonian choir is supposed to be, I think.