Yesterday, in an attempt to relive the more innocent and more credulous times of my youth and to do something somewhat different, I went to a carolling practice at my university – something I have never ever been involved in before. I am not Christian and am now rather atheistic, but I was raised as a good Hindu boy and my beloved, late grandfather, being somewhat idealistic and old-fashioned had taught me to accept all religions as my own. This had meant that I wasn’t to be exempted from religious assemblies at school and would stand there, like everyone else, belting out all the hymns. Thinking back on it, I even acted in a number of nativity plays, much to the pride of my mother – no leading roles mind you. I recall one where I was a beggar boy, with my face painted black with dirt and grime (possibly not very politically correct nowadays, but back then I was the only Asian kid at school).
But, to return to yesterday, ah, the soothing postmodern pleasure of religious music. Huysmans, in his provocative novel The Damned was also entranced by a similar joy – the highly organised and sedate pealing of Medieval bells.
I arrived in a vast underground cavern which as the reverend was to tell us, was acoustically perfect and much unlike the church we were eventually to perform in. The space was filled with a very large, very pretty group of women and, as I recall, I was the only man there besides the music director and the good reverend himself, who had organized the whole thing. Everyone turned to stare at my unkempt beard and, as I made my way to the most attractive creature imaginable, the good reverend stepped forward with a repressive force. ‘Men in the middle’ he boomed, in carefully clipped stentorian tones. I heard a few of the women titter.
I sat down in perfect silence and the music director asked me whether I was a tenor or a bass. I didn’t know. I had never been to one of these things before. He looked at me somewhat disappointedly and told me that I’d figure it out. I looked awkwardly at the floorboards. By this time, a few more guys had turned up, so, happily, I wasn’t so entirely alone (although they seemed to be rather much older). Some girls also came and sat next to me and introduced themselves to me in the soprano section. The rehearsal then promptly began.
The music director bade us stand up. We did so. He began to play the piano and asked us to hum along the accompaniment. I ran out of breath half-way through. Not that many people could keep up either. It seemed that our lungs were rather dilapidated. The music director bade us have another go with some advice about breathing. About two girls managed it. I ran out breath half-way through again. It seemed I had to practice my breathing.
The next thing was to ‘aah-aah-aah’ along to the notes. I couldn’t quite keep up with everybody and was now sweating profusely. I was sure the girls sitting next to me were smirking at the feebleness of my efforts. I wiped my brow with a handkerchief. I had to rethink my strategy. I decided to just mouth the words for a little while until I got the hang of things. It wasn’t really cheating, as I was sure everybody here must have done this kind of thing a million times before.
My rethought strategy certainly paid off. After the warming up exercises, we had to consult the song sheet – something I’d never seen before (back in my days, music was a rather underfunded, poorly taught and suspect subject at school). I couldn’t make head or tail of it. There seemed to be no order – after singing the first few verses, the pages would just leap two or three at a time, up and down the song sheet. I began to mimic the guy standing next to me, as, rather unfortunately, it appeared that I had the loudest voice in the choir and the music director could hear all of the mistakes I made and was picking up on them.
A few more songs and about an hour later, I managed to get through the rehearsal – I cannot, regrettably, say entirely smoothly. Despite my clumsiness, I felt rather good and had picked up confidence as I went through. Singing, I always find, is very relaxing. Very expressive of the self. And it was a beautiful experience to hear the sopranos and altos in a concerted performance of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ as their voices all melted into one. I was definitely keen to go again – the beautiful coordination and togetherness of religion (without the dangerous supplement of the belief) was intoxicating and made me feel good. I said good-bye to the nice soprano girls sitting beside me and shoving my little booklet of song-sheets in my bag, made a promise to myself to download the carols from the internet and then practice them that way. I was keen to impress the ladies next week.
London Student’s advice for any would-be-carol-singers? As the saying goes ‘even the devil can cite scripture for his purposes’. In other words, when it comes to carolling, there’s always a way to cheat it out.