It was during rehearsals on a November evening 33 years ago when Mr Walker, my choirmaster came to sit with me to share some wisdom. I still remember our chat like it was yesterday…
…For weeks and weeks before this I had been trundling along after school to my local church St Mary’s Whitchurch in Cardiff. On two evenings of the week (Tuesday’s and Friday’s) the full choir would be there for practice. On these other evenings it would be just me and our choirmaster and organist, Malcolm Walker. On these evenings we would rehearse a solo I was due to sing after Christmas, Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer
Those who know the music (Wings of a Dove) will appreciate that it is long (about 13 or 14 minutes), that it is musically challenging – starts off shifting from G minor to G major with an echo of each scale brought in and intertwined throughout the whole piece. And that it has a solo part for a Chorister that soars out of the music into a realm of its own.
On that particular November evening (I was 13) I felt I already knew the music inside out and back to front. I was Head Chorister at that time with a variety of medals from the RSCM to prove the fact! I was tired after a day at school and probably wanted to be out with my mates. All a bit fed up I
gently suggested hollered out to Mr Walker “I think we have done enough practise now!”
I can remember hearing Mr W leave the organ loft and walk down the church to the lectern where I was singing from. I remember looking upwards into an empty church rather than look back to see him approach. The stained glass on the western wall had lost its light in the late evening. It looked ugly now – dimly seen in the dark. I knew I must have said something wrong.
He asked me to sit down. His began talking to me in questions…”why do you think we are rehearsing this so much? Who do you think you are singing to? Why do you think I have picked you to sing the solo? My answers were half-baked!
…“Sometimes in life”, he went on to say, “we should really aim for our very best. Whether it’s for God or the congregation, or the choir behind you…or even yourself, it just doesn’t matter…it’s the striving to do something better that matters.”
He went on to explain that singing was all about the “mix” of words and music. And to sing the words well you have to understand them…in the case of Hear my Prayer (taken from Psalm 55) you have the voice of King David – in his time one of the most powerful men on earth – feeling that all he wants to do is fly off into the wilderness, build himself some shelter, and stay there forever. We hear the voice of a broken man!
Musicians and artists reading this will know that feeling of “getting inside” a piece and that feeling you can get of being transported away in time and space. Well by March the next year (after continual rehearsal and reflection on the mix of words and the music) I walked to the lectern and after the brief organ introduction started to sing. My eyes were once again focused on the west-window. I did not look up or down. I just stared on the twisted cold grey lead of the window…I had at last understood what Mendelssohn had done. He had put the words of a man screaming and crying to his God and set it to music. Difficult music! Sometime overtly discordant and awkward music…and in the next few bars beautiful music and on top of all this he added the voice of a child to simply fly way above and beyond it all!
When the choir had gone silent, and the solo bit ebbed away to its quiet conclusion I stood motionless and remember thinking over a crescendo of applause that the real “bravos” should really be addressed at Mendelssohn and the stained glass artist and the choirmaster and the stonemasons for creating a church with a wonderful acoustic…and how one boy who momentarily found himself in a spotlight, was just one piece in an enormous jigsaw. It was a humbling experience.
Now as a grown-up and a dad I look back to those moments with an acute awareness that while I still strive to make things as good as I can for me and the girls, I do not have a Mendelssohn template to follow and a mentor guiding me through. My “mix” now is children and parenting and OnlyDads and work and relationships and friendships and if I am to get these right and worthy of those around me then I must continue to try to improve.
We all have days of doubt and worry. Today I need to know that my choirmaster was right and that as long as we are striving and searching towards something better – then that is what really matters.