Spurred on by a desire to optimise life and maintain good brain and general health, I joined a local choir early this year, the Gospel Groove at Willunga. We first heard them singing at a concert last Christmas and, apart from getting goosebumps at their glorious sound, i was taken by the diversity of the large group of choristers and even more by the enthusiasm with which they embraced the music. When one of the choristers urged me to ‘Come along next year’, I readily accepted.
I hadn’t sung much since childhood where I was part of my local school and Sunday School choirs. My parents and I often harmonised on long car trips and I loved that too. But a few years of smoking in my twenties took the edge off my voice and I lost confidence in singing, even as a guest at church weddings, something I once relished.
Joining the Gospel Groove has been a wonderful experience. There’s something about people who sing; they are warm and friendly and from the first night, people welcomed me with big smiles and checked in afterwards to make sure I enjoyed it. The choir leader is a fantastic warm and generous person who, apart from his massive skill at teaching us complicated harmonies and enabling us to sound fabulous is a very short space of time, is also lighthearted and great fun to spend a couple of hours with each week. He doesn’t seem to mind if we don’t always stay in tune - he’s much more concerned that we enjoy ourselves, and we do, without fail.
Learning new things as we grow older is an important part of keeping our brains healthy and able to change. (I was disappointed to learn that doing samurai sudokus every day doesn’t cut it; it only improves my ability to do samurai sudokus). Singing in a choir allows us to learn new lyrics, new tunes and often co-ordinate those with movements such as rhythmic steps and clapping, with look easy and are surprisingly difficult to synchronise. Above all, connecting and sharing this experience with others of all ages is great for our brains as well as our hearts and souls.
Recently, my resident fellow chorister and I took our newfound singing voices to another level. We joined a group of fifty or more people mainly from all over Australia and New Zealand and formed ‘The Ephemeral Choir’ for a week of singing in the Blue Mountains. Led by three extraordinary choir leaders, Tony Backhouse, Anders Nyberg and Sue Johnson, we simply had the time of our lives.
The grand old Carrington Hotel in the heart of Katoomba was our home for the week. We took over the ballroom for daily singing sessions, starting the minute we arrived before lunch on the first Sunday. After an impromptu warmup with Sue, which had me in tears in the first ten minutes because we sounded so beautiful, we separated into our different sections: sopranos, altos, tenors and basses and began learning new songs. Each day our brains had a gigantic workout as we practiced these and learnt more and worked also on remembering our fellow singers’ names. Slowly new friendships blossomed as our confidence and our voices began to soar together. Joy had kicked in.
One evening, we were entertained by members of the Melbourne Georgian Choir who came for the express purpose of singing for us and, the next morning, teaching us to sing in their special polyphonic style. We learned some of the history of Georgian music from prominent ethnomusicologists, Dr Joseph Jordanian and Dr Nino Tsitsishvili and, to our surprise, made a reasonable fist of singing one of their songs.
The whole tour was organised by a charismatic and creative genius, Raymond Hawkins who herded us good-naturedly in and out of the ballroom each day, on and off buses to scenic places in the Blue Mountains where we gathered together and sang at lookouts, at hotels to thank the staff for their food and service and, a highlight, at the Cathedral cave at Jenolan Caves. Raymond specialises in surprises and arranged one night for us to have our own screening of Anders’ Oscar nominated Swedish film “As it is in Heaven” in the tiny cinema at Mount Victoria. On our final night we sang our hearts out for an audience of local choirs at the garden of the Norman Lindsay Gallery.
While our double-decker bus was heading to the Carrington Hotel for our trip back to Sydney, we gathered in the ballroom to listen to a magical recording of our voices in the cathedral cave. Finally, we linked arms in a large circle to sing a favourite ‘All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you’. To call it memorable is an understatement.
I have learned some surprising things this year from singing in choirs. First, it's not about your voice. So many people tell me they can't sing and it doesn't matter, unless you're auditioning for a closed choir. It is all about connecting; connecting with others to make astoundingly beautiful music together, connecting with and trusting in the skills of the choir leaders as well as the wisdom of the choir (when you can't remember a single word let alone the first note of the song you're about to sing). Most importantly, I've learnt about connecting with oneself and with the joy that has been there all along just waiting to be unleashed.
There's a line in one of the songs we learnt in the Ephemeral Choir "Don't postpone joy, start singing now, right now, right now". Be warned though - once you let that genie out of the bottle, it's had to contain it. So we're not even trying. Fellow chorister Moira Were and I are bringing Melbourne's wonderful Sue Johnson to Adelaide for a singing workshop on Sunday 8 December, to spread the joy. Come along!
For tickets and details: https://events.humanitix.com.au/come-to-the-music-singing-workshop-with-sue-johnson