South of the River – Tower of song

Compass-SouthComment logo 2I started singing in a choir two years ago. I only went along to report on it for South Leeds Life, but had my arm twisted to join in and I’ve been back every Friday lunchtime since. The community choir is an offshoot of the amazing Opera North ‘In Harmony’ project at Windmill Primary School where every child is learning a string instrument and singing.

I’ve learned a few things over that time which I would like to share with you. Firstly, everyone can sing. I don’t mean everyone can sing like Pavarotti, but everyone can sing and in a choir where you blend many voices, you don’t need to be a great solo voice.

Singing is like any physical exercise, the more you do it, the better you get. And conversely you lose fitness, or the ability to sing, when you don’t train. So I am definitely singing better now than I was when I started and hadn’t sung for twenty years or more.

There’s a vicious circle that you have to break. You don’t sing, so you can’t sing very well, so you don’t have confidence to sing, so you don’t sing. You have to take a bit of a leap of faith that you will be able to sing. Then you can improve, enjoy it and build your confidence.

You know more songs than you think you do. Mostly we build up songs line by line with our teacher singing and us repeating the line. But every now and then she will give us a song and say “You know this one so we’ll just sing it through”. I always have a moment of panic at this point and I nearly always find that I do know the song or most of it.

This term she threw in Oh What A Beautiful Morning. I was immediately transported back to holidays in my Grandparent’s caravan. My Granddad was a bit deaf and having worked shifts in the pits all his life always got up very early. He would bring you a cup of tea in bed and bellow “Are you awake yet?” And then if the weather was fine he would sing the chorus from Oh What A Beautiful Morning.

I found I knew the verses too, although he never sang them to me. I thought I didn’t like musical theatre, but I’ve learned that’s a stupid thing to say. Some is good and some is not so good, but you can’t reject a whole musical genre. The best songs take on a life of their own and the ‘standards’ seep into your consciousness without you knowing.

Going back to the exercise analogy, singing is a physical activity. As well as helping with posture and breathing, your body remembers songs through ‘muscle memory’. Your muscles ‘remember’ the sequence of moves they make.

I was a bit sceptical about this idea until the week we learned a brand new song. I came back the next week a bit worried. I couldn’t remember a single line of what we’ve learned, not the words, not the tune. We started with a run through to see what we remembered. I prepared to mumble and mime my way through, but found that as the tune started the whole thing came back into my head and I could sing it.

It turns out singing is good brain exercise too. Not just memorising the words, but using different parts of the brain simultaneously. Particularly singing and listening to others at the same time. We play some left brain, right brain games. One that I’m not very good at is a counting song. Whilst we sing we have to clap our hands if the number is a multiple of three, or stamp our feet if the number is a multiple of four or stand up if it is a multiple of five. Fifteen to sixteen usually gets me tangled.

The result of all this is that I leave choir with my brain gently buzzing. Add to that the exercise, the pleasure of making music and the social interaction with other members and what’s not to like?

My advice is to find a choir, go along and give it a try. The In Harmony community choir is term time only, so it will be starting again in September on Friday lunchtimes – if you’re free and near Belle Isle, come and join us!

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.