By Heart!

Occasionally on a Tuesday the question of whether we should commit certain songs to memory comes up. Some members think we should and others are less keen.

I can remember ‘rote memorisation’ of times tables and irregular French verbs at school and the phrase ‘rote memorisation’ sounds as appealing as ‘root canal surgery’.

But what about the phrase ‘learn by heart’. ‘By heart’ surely adds an element of love to the act. I bet we all know quite a lot of things ‘by heart’: poems, passages from a childhood book, favourite quotes from a film. We commit them to memory because we love them. We’ve recited, read or watched them so many times that the act of memorisation happened naturally.

And committing things to memory is actually good for us. It’s exercise for the brain for one thing. But there’s another reason too. When we commit things to memory we gain new insights. When we think about our favourite poem, book or film we know we saw much more on a second or third reading or viewing than we ever did on the first. We begin to see meaning, spot analogies and references that passed us by the first time and these enhance our enjoyment of the piece.

So it is with music. The harder we work to commit a piece to memory, the more meaning we either see in it or impose upon it and the more it begins to mean to us. This in turn helps us ‘perform’ the song better, which is surely no bad thing.

Perhaps it might be worth trying to learn one or two songs ‘by heart’. It’s food for thought at least.

One Voice

This week Brenda – one of the altos – has written a piece for the blog.

One voice – That’s what Sally says our choir should do. “Sing with one voice,” and I know that is what we all aspire to do. Our choir is made up of over 40 voices: voices with many different facets, belonging to 40 different individuals.

I would like to know a little more about the people I sing with. Do they experience the ‘lift’ that singing gives me? Do they go home every Tuesday with a ‘buzz’ and a spring in their step?

I enjoy singing and learning by listening and repeating, just as I did in music lessons at school all those years ago. I have eclectic tastes in music and I’m open to all challenges (even the Mary Poppins medley) that Sally gives us.

But there is more to my voice and me than this. The facets of my voice are coloured by my love of the creative and practical arts, the natural world, animals, reading, walking in our countryside, gardens, playing my ukulele, people, friends, laughter and my cats – Merle and Dora.

I see faces at choir each week and say ‘Hello’ but it is only the faces I recognise. I would like to know a little more about the ‘voices’. By knowing a little more about each other and understanding each other better, perhaps the ‘one voice’ Sally gets us to strive for would be easier to achieve.


Reliving Something New!

Sam is currently the youngest member of Raunds Community Choir and he has kindly contributed this week’s blog post.

As many of you will know, some of our choir members have recently taken part in a charity choir concert (a la Gareth Malone) in which 6 choirs were formed from scratch in order to compete against each other, after a few month’s practice. The aim was not just to win but to raise as much money for Cransley Hospice as possible.

A fantastic total of £5200+ was raised for Cransley; a very respectable sum of money indeed.

“A Different Direction” – the choir lead by Chris and helped out by Mike and myself (Sam) from Raunds Community Choir – was comprised of just 14 people.

I sang for a good few years, back when I was at senior school. I was the only bass in a choir of nine people. Having now sung with Raunds Community Choir for what must be getting on for four years; returning to such a small group of singers was truly bizarre.

Learning to sing again with vastly reduced numbers was a bit of a learning curve (hence the oxymoron in the title). Perhaps the best way of putting it would be that this is the choral equivalent of writing with your ‘other’ hand – you know what your handwriting should look like, however holding a pen in the wrong hand and trying to scribble out the most basic of letters is quite a task! (I urge you to try this if you haven’t!)

When singing in the Raunds Community Choir, one gets used to the people one stands near. From my place in the choir I’m quite used to hearing Richard, Heather, Lucy, my mum and sometimes the tenors, too (often difficult as I’m stood behind them). When I walked into Chris’s house for the first time, being met with a group of people I’d not met before, not sung with before – introducing myself; let alone singing; was rather hard! Once the initial nerves and mild social anxiety had passed, things began to settle into place.

As the few weeks before the concert passed, the choir members began to feel more at ease with each other, with Chris, and the idea that shortly we’d all be singing in front of 300+ people for the first time. Ever. Okay, perhaps the phrase “at ease with” and the latter didn’t gel all that well…

With Raunds Choir, only one or two people get truly nervous before a performance – perhaps this is something to do with “safety in numbers”. Our choir is roughly 40-strong – this means that when we get up on stage and start to sing, it is as though each of our voices melts into one. This is not so much the case with “A Different Direction”, so the vulnerability added  a level of sheer terror and also thrill to the entire experience; particularly when tuning, timing, and not looking utterly petrified clicked into place. As you all know – the hard work paid off and “A Different Direction” was awarded Judges’ Choice.

So having had the chance to sing in both a large and a small choir; which do I prefer? Both. Equally.

Both choirs are incredibly good fun. You become part of a family, almost. The main difference being that the family is more close-knit with “A Different Direction”; but that the onus is put upon each member more than in RaundsCommunity Choir. Each has its own ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ and its own quirks that make it special.

So, should the opportunity arise for you to sing in a different choir – whether it be bigger, smaller, religious, showy, etc. grab that opportunity by the horns and go for it! Trust me, you’ll not regret it!

“A Different Direction” had another meeting yesterday. The choir is going to continue and will hopefully perform again around Christmas time.

To close, I would like to not only thank you for reading this; but also to thank Chris for asking Mike and I to take part in something so different, and so special. The choir would not be the same were it not for Chris’s enthusiasm, determination and hard work.


A Lesson Learned!

“I HATE this piece of music. It’s the WORST piece EVER! It’s IMPOSSIBLE! AND I hate the tune!”

So my eldest son announces on a regular basis, while brandishing his violin and wearing an agonised expression.

I smile knowingly and say, “But in two weeks time when you’ve mastered it you’ll tell me it’s the best piece ever and you love it.”

He denies this emphatically, saying this time he really means it. Yet two weeks later he’s wreathed in smiles and proclaiming his love for whichever score he previously wanted to burn!

I know exactly how this scenario will play out each time because I have the benefit of experience plus a professional interest in psychology!

So it is with some sense of embarrassment that I admit I fell into the exact same trap with a tricky choral piece the ladies of the choir are learning for Christmas. I didn’t know the tune, which is difficult and not an obvious melody, plus the timing is not easy: the tune and the counter melody have different time signatures. I felt that combination of heart-sink and frustration which my son must feel when presented with a similar challenge. I may have scowled a bit when Sally suggested we practised it, and even felt a tiny bit of vindication when a couple of murmurs suggested others harboured similar feelings.

But then Brenda spoke up to say how beautiful she thought the piece was, ever since she’d had to sing it at school, and how it brought tears to her eyes when she heard it.

That made me think. Maybe my perception was wrong. I was approaching the music with anxiety and frustration and maybe, just maybe, I was behaving like my eleven-year-old violinist! (Oh the shame!)

I was once required to read a paper by the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about ‘optimal experience’ (science-speak for feel-good – a blissful combination of happiness, fulfillment and contentment) being linked to how engaged we are in an activity. I had to go looking for the paragraph which I only half remembered.

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen… Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery...”

It was a brilliant observation which is why it’s stayed with me: mastery of any subject is not passive. Last night when I decided to focus on the notes and timing and how the tune related to the counter melody, treating it as an ‘exercise in musical improvement’, I actively chose to engage and make the effort. And guess what? By the end of the session, although we’re far from finished, I felt a little of that sense of mastery and could hear how beautiful it will eventually sound, and I even fell a little bit in love with the piece. My young string player would probably smirk at that admission!


And the Award Goes to…

Gareth Malone holds a special place in my heart. It was because of his very first TV program, where he created a community choir in South Oxhey, that I finally plucked up the courage to join a community choir. I’ve subsequently enjoyed all the choir-based challenges he’s gone on to complete, the latest ones being forming work-place choirs which compete against each other in a sing-off.

Well our very own assistant choir director Chris took up a similar challenge recently. Cransley Hospice hosted a  work-place choir competition fund-raiser. It involved six music teachers each forming a work-place choir from scratch over a three-month period. The only stipulation was that the choirs must be completely new.

Chris was allocated the Cransley Nurses choir. They called themselves Different Direction and they worked on two pieces, ‘Life’s a Happy Song’ and ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face.’

It has been tough scheduling rehearsals and they were short on men (as so many choirs are) so they recruited Sam and Mike from our own choir to help out.

Last night I had the privilege of attending the competition. The standard was incredibly high. All the teachers had pulled together terrific choirs and each had its own unique style, from smooth swing ballads to full-on rock songs. It was a full-house sell-out and if you weren’t there you missed out on a fantastic evening of entertainment.

The judging was really tough. I assumed they’d go easy on the choirs because it was for charity, but the judges were professionals and feedback was quite robust in places…dare I say even a bit harsh at times!

So it’s all credit to Chris that they found nothing negative to say about his choir at all. It was all glowing and…



Medals and everything!

HUGE congratulations to the choir and to Chris.

And around £5000 was raised for the hospice which is the best news of all.Cransley Choir