The ‘Sign’ of a Good Community Choir…

…is surely where everyone is included: young and old, male and female, those who read music and those who don’t. In a community choir all should feel welcome. But how about those who live in a world without sound?

I can’t imagine what it must be like not to be able to hear music, to live in silence. I learned British Sign Language (BSL) not long after I left university and moved to Leicester. Leicester has a large and very sociable community of deaf people, and as many of them became my patients it made it much easier to communicate if I could speak their language.

BSL is a complex and very beautiful language with its own grammar, idioms and even accents! Two of my regular patients befriended me and took me to a deaf comedy club and also to see a deaf choir. The choir was a very mixed one, comprising of deaf, partially deaf and hearing, male and female, white, Asian, and black members. They used signs, singing and percussion, and most sang without shoes so they could feel the beat better through the stage. All were clearly enjoying the experience of group ‘singing’. In addition the synchronised signing was wonderful to watch. They even had different signing sections in some songs, rather like a more conventional choir has harmonising sop, alto, tenor and bass lines.

Today my deaf friend sent me this link to an article about a mixed deaf and hearing children’s choir. It’s very festive and I thought you might enjoy it.

Merry Christmas!

The Kaos Choir



Trust the Baton

I’ve been reading Imperfect Harmony, by Stacy Horn. It weaves her own experiences of choral singing with the history of choral music. It’s a good read and the perfect stocking-filler for any choir-singing family or friends.

With the Saturday concert looming this excerpt jumped out at me. Sally and Chris always implore us to look out of our music and ‘Watch me!’

Excerpt taken from Imperfect Harmony, by Stacy Horn

“…Something was wrong.

We couldn’t pinpoint where the problem was, exactly, but somewhere within the choir the timing was just enough off-kilter that all the vocal parts had started to veer away from each other. If we could have, we would simply have stopped singing and started over, but a churchful of people were watching. Instead, the choir began to react, each section confident for a split second that their tempo was the correct one, which made matters worse.

The clear, brilliant sound we had been making was starting to sound ever so slightly muddy. It took only another second for whatever confidence remained to melt away. Now the orchestra was picking up on the wall of wrongness behind them, and their timing was perceptibly beginning to slide. Or maybe we heard it that way because we were off. That’s when our voices started to clash. Two seconds later and we were in free fall, just moments away from complete catastrophe. Don’t look horrified, don’t look horrified, keep a straight face.

It’s like the whole room was spinning,” Brent Whitman recalled. “You’re really not sure which way is up, or straight, or whatever.” All season long John had been imploring us, “Get your faces out of the music and look at me!” Our faces were out of our music now. Fear leapt from the heart of one chorister to the next, like thoughts jumping between synaptic connections in a brain. All 145 members of the choir were looking to John, every pair of eyes crying Fix This.

John Maclay, our conductor, didn’t look the least bit alarmed; his expression had all the focus and intensity of a music-traffic controller. He was going to land this baby. “Don’t worry,” he once said, when asked how he was going to give us a cut-off. “I’ll use signal flags.” Right now what we needed was his pulse, the simple up and down movement of his baton, which as of that moment we were following to the absolute rhythmical second. Trust the baton. In one gloriously unified moment of attention, everything snapped back into place. The bright, sparkling clarity of rhythmic perfection returned and the wave of panic that had briefly arisen throughout the choir just as quickly subsided. I’m sure the audience never even noticed. John was pointing to his baton. Okay, now he looked a little mad.

Over the next ninety minutes, a masterpiece came to life without a single word spoken. After the concert, an audience member came up to me and asked, “Do you really need a conductor up there? I mean, you all know the music, don’t you? What do you need him for?” 

Yes we need Sally and Chris. They are our heartbeat and we need to watch them. Trust the baton.


The Twelve Days of Christmas

One of the carols which we’re not singing this year sadly, but which is always popular is The Twelve Days of Christmas. The song is an old one but the version we are familiar with is set to the tune of a traditional folk melody, arranged in the early 1900s by Frederic Austin.

Victorian children used it as a memory forfeit game, and the words have been altered over the years. At school my music teacher was from Northumberland, and insisted we sang about four ‘colly’ birds. She explained colly was old regional slang for ‘black’. Frederic Austin’s version states that there are four ‘calling’ birds, possibly because ‘colly’ meant very little outside of a narrow geographical region.

While most people agree on the order of gifts up to eight maids a milking, things can go a bit awry after that, so some people sing about twelve lords and eleven ladies, while others favour twelve drummers and eleven pipers or any number of other permutations of gifts over the last four days.

As you may know if you’ve read previous posts, I have the privilege of meeting many interesting people during the course of my work. One of my patients is a retired professor of Divinity. He attended last week and we got chatting about carols and how the church had ‘adopted’ certain pagan or folk songs throughout its history; The Twelve Days was one of those he cited, but he told me an interesting story I had never heard about the carol.

According to some versions of Catholic history The Twelve Days was used as a catechism song for children in the time when it was illegal to practice or teach the Catholicism. Hidden meanings were attributed to the gifts to help children remember the lessons of their faith. So the ‘true love’ mentioned in the song referred to God, while each gift was assigned spiritual significance as follows:

Partridge in a pear tree – Jesus Christ

Two turtle doves – Old & New Testaments

Three French Hens – Faith, hope, charity

Four Calling birds – The four gospels

Five Golden Rings – The Pentateuch or five Books of Moses

Six geese a laying – Six days of creation

Seven Swans a swimming – Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit

Eight maids a-milking – Eight beatitudes

Nine Ladies Dancing – Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit

Ten Lords a-leaping – 10 Commandments

Eleven pipers piping – The 11 faithful disciples

Twelve drummers drumming – 12 articles of the Apostles Creed

Who knew?

And so to finish this week’s post, a friend sent me a link to this version of The Twelve Days of Christmas which is both clever and very amusing. I hope you enjoy it.

The Twelve Days of Christmas…sort of!


Regular readers might recall that this isn’t the only carol with a hidden meaning. I wrote about O’ Come All Ye Faithful last year:

The Carol and the King