On my recent trip to the UK to visit close family friends whom I hadn’t seen since before Covid, I visited some choirs in Cornwall. As I mentioned a few posts ago, in trying to understand my own personal puzzle, I’ve been looking into my family history - not with any great assiduity, but enough to get a better sense of where I came from. And it turns out that quite a bit of me came from Cornwall. So although I went with the intention of gathering some more choir ideas and perspectives, I also wanted to explore this newly-discovered part of my (very ordinary) heritage.
As I traipsed through the damp graveyards, rain trickling down my neck (yes, it was midsummer), trying to trace family surnames on impossibly-overgrown and eroded headstones, I experienced a profound sense of connection. Not to any specific individual - I did find some family names, but no actual ancestors. But to the sense of place, the feeling of shared history. Perhaps I stood where they had once stood. Some of these were buildings and villages that had been familiar to my forebears. One or more of the churches I visited had been the scene of family baptisms in previous centuries.
Visiting the different choirs was a bit like that too. Cornwall has a rich tradition of choirs - mostly separate men’s and women’s choirs apparently. Our New Zealand choral tradition is inherited from this and many other places in Europe, and we’ve all developed in different directions in the couple of centuries since my ancestors started to make their way to this side of the world. So there were similarities and differences, and I learned so much. Some of it has already found its way into small tweaks in our All Together Now practice, and some more of it will unfold here and also in my ongoing research.
I have lots of questions about why our community choral singing has developed here the way that it has, and why it feels less part of the community in general than it appears to in the UK and elsewhere. But the love of singing and the huge value placed on community - the people - these things are golden threads that are easy to trace through our singing gatherings here and everywhere else I’ve been. People who sang in these choirs welcomed me as an instant friend, and were curious about the members of my choirs, and how we did things in New Zealand. Leaders of these groups were astonishingly generous with their time, and with sharing their experiences and their knowledge, and with allowing me into their rehearsals.
Something about the human connection and the extraordinary joy of singing together makes us all feel more similar than different. Just as with our choirs, the choirs I visited were about people coming together, transcending the mundane and creating something of beauty, musically and as a community. About creating a space where every individual could contribute to the harmony, yet find their own voice within it.
Some of the new ideas and relationships we find in choir might not be an obvious fit - they might need a bit of turning over and around to find their exact place in our big choir wasgij, but they all contribute to the unexpected picture that emerges.
And the most recent new piece of our particular puzzle is also the reason that this post is so long overdue - our lovely new website. If you’re reading this on the old website, please take a few minutes to look at our new All Together Now website here.
This is what I’ve been busy with since returning from my trip, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the contribution of someone who has been supporting us behind the scenes, and whom we will probably never meet face to face. Mark Virtue, of Virtual Creations Website Development, created the empty framework on which our new website is built, and has guided me every step of the way with the patience of a saint. He’s a singer too - as passionate about choirs as we are - so he was able to help us make something which truly reflects and serves our choirs. Another of those golden threads!
It’s taken me a while to decide whether to publish this post because it’s so very personal. It is about choirs, and about All Together Now in particular, but it’s also more about my own experience in that context than I would usually write. But I learned something about being vulnerable, and in a way it’s a follow-through to be vulnerable here as well. If this isn’t your cup of tea, please feel free to leave out this post! There’ll be another along very soon…
Three weeks ago, I wrote here about why we perform. Mostly because it’s a gift of love, I said (partly to ourselves, as well). A couple of Sundays ago, we gave our first concert as All Together Now en masse.
It was all carefully planned - I thought I had every detail covered. And the choirs and other choir leaders had worked so hard to prepare everyone and get each group ready to just the right point for this particular moment of performance. But the one thing I could never have predicted was the death of a dear friend on the morning of the concert. A family member, really - an ex-partner with whom I’d spent several years while my children were growing up, and who had remained close to us all.
His passing wasn’t entirely unexpected. I had let all of our singers know that I wasn’t available in the few days before the concert because I was away spending time with someone who was sick. And I knew when I left to travel back to Auckland on Saturday night that I was saying goodbye.
I have to admit I had some moments of wondering why these things had to coincide. All that commitment and all that work from everyone, and I was arriving tired and sad. In general, I don’t subscribe to the view that everything happens for a reason. I think many things just happen as they happen, and we do our best to deal with them gracefully. I wanted to respect the work that everyone had put in, and I have a strong view that part of my role as a leader is to put aside whatever is going on in my life, and not make it about me. So I wondered whether to tell the choir.
But it’s hard to hold something that big, and I was a bit vague and mucking up the schedule, and I could hear some of my communications sounding a little sharper than I intended. So I briefly put the choir in the picture.
The wave of love and support that came towards me in that moment was something that I’ll hold amongst my most precious ever choir memories. There was a sense that we were all in this together, and we were going to weave all the joys and sorrows that we all carried into something beautiful. And people told me afterwards that they just wanted to sing their best for us. Some of it was hard but it moved us, and it moved our audience, and it connected us to the music and to each other.
I’m aware of the tricky territory that this could be, and it could sound as though I’m suggesting that sadness and loss help us to create art. I’d like to think we could find all of those connections without having to go through trauma. But I think the thing is that we all do go through trauma, and we can’t always control how and when it happens. And we carry all of our experience with us - the sadness and the loss as well as the fun and the joy. And part of why we sing is to express that full range of emotion and experience.
Woven into that concert was not only teamwork, generosity, self-discipline, and hard work, but also grace, aroha, beauty, sadness, joy…a whole lot of stuff about what it is to be human and part of a community of humans working towards something worthwhile. The very best of what it is to be part of a choir.
That’s all I have to say about it. Other than that I’m so grateful for all of it.
Performing adds a bit of stress - for everyone. We know that some choir members feel a range of things, from a bit of pressure because of needing to brush up the notes, through to real anxiety about standing up and singing in public, even as part of a group.
It’s stressful for those of us out the front too. Have we paced the learning well enough so that the choir peaks at just the right time - confident but not stale? Have we picked the right music to make a coherent, enjoyable concert? Have we built enough resilience into the choir over the weeks that even with the extra stress of public performance, they’ll still make a good sound and remember enough of what they’ve learned? Have we focused on the right things? Will it be fun for them? Will it be fun for the audience? Will there even be an audience?
So why do it? There are a few choirs who don’t ever perform - they just meet and rehearse, and when they know some songs…well, they just learn some other songs.
What could be wrong with that? Nothing at all, probably. We always say that each rehearsal should feel a bit like a yoga lesson; even if an evening on the sofa was initially a more inviting prospect, the feeling at the end should be “I’m so glad I made the effort, I feel better at the end than I did at the beginning.”
So what does performing our work offer? And why should anyone come and listen?
Second question first: Because it sounds great (most of the time)and it’s fun to listen to! If you’re in the middle of the choir, and you’re only too aware of the crunchy bits, you might not realise just how great the whole thing sounds. But it’s what we work so hard to do. All that banging on about vowel shapes and resonance and using your singing voices rather than your speaking voices - these are the “details” that lift the sound of the choir into something lovely to listen to. And our audiences really do enjoy our music, and are genuinely moved and uplifted.
We haven’t been able to perform to an audience for so long, we’ve forgotten how much joy it brings. People might come along out of politeness or family obligation but whatever their reason is for being in the room, our job is to give them a gift. And that gift is our best attention and our best singing in that moment.
In fact, our love - of singing and of them personally or of humanity. (I know that last thing’s become stretched pretty thin over the past 3 years, but let’s remind ourselves how it goes.)
Of course, sometimes there are mishaps, and that’s live performance. In those moments, it’s up to the Choir Leaders to manage the moment, and we do. The choir’s job is to prepare as well as you can (given all your life circumstances etc etc), and then come to the performance with that attitude of contributing to team effort, and trusting each other and us.
And in those exact things lies the answer to the first question about what performance offers to us, the choir:
It calls out our best work. We find that little bit of extra self-discipline that performance requires that takes us beyond just singing together in a rehearsal. It challenges us to put in that little bit of extra work to be the best we can be. It inspires us to work together and rely on each other. And then sometimes we surprise ourselves - we are better than we thought! Not just individually but as a collective.
And then it calls us to give away the joy and the love we experience, both in our music and in our community. And then the joy and the love come back to us….
The preparation and anticipation can often feel a little hard…but, as someone who really knew about performance, said: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Ah.”
Real gardeners, look away please! This jungle - with its basil forest leaning into the celery patch, three varieties of lettuce, all running to seed, slug holes in the cabbage leaves, codling moth in the Granny Smiths, and lemon trees complete with borer and verrucosis…and everything planted too close and growing together, including numerous weeds and a few rogue narcissi bulbs which I thought I had lifted when I turned this part of the garden into a vege patch - this is my garden. If Michael Green had written Coarse Gardening (pretty sure he stuck to rugby, acting, sailing and golf) this would have a perfect illustration. No steady weekly or monthly programme of work happens here. I tend to garden in bursts of enthusiasm, when I can fit it in between all the other stuff. Or when the guilt gets to me. Or when I get inspired.
The inspiration this week was Felix (4) telling me as we walked through the garden on our way to school, “I love your garden, Oddie! It has the whole world in it.” He was talking about what he thought was lots of food (I did gently ask him what he meant) - the lettuces, cherry tomatoes, mint, berries, oranges and other things he and his little sister find and feast on here. And maybe all the other tiny miracles that happen out there in the half-neglected mess. He and I planted potatoes a while ago, and then some pumpkins from the compost heap grew over the top. The potatoes disappeared but now we have some beautiful big pumpkins. And now that the pumpkin vine has died away, the potato plants have reappeared. I have no idea if there are going to be potatoes under the plants, but I guess we’ll see.
Anyway, he’s small and the garden looks big; he doesn’t yet know many varieties of fruit and vegetables, and this garden must seem like it has lots of the ones he does know…. and that was what inspired me to get out there today and plant some more. I kind of wanted to meet his expectations a little better, even though I know it makes no real difference to him. I don’t want him to catch up to me quite yet. Next year I’ll be able to introduce him to tamarillos.
But I was also thinking about balance in my life. Years ago, I read the memoir As It Was and World Without End written by Helen Thomas. She was the wife of the Welsh poet Edward Thomas, who was killed in the Battle of Arras in France in 1917. They were intense and passionate people, and their relationship was loving but turbulent. When things felt uncertain, she would resort to cleaning everything. She found that if her body was occupied in a useful task, her mind would settle. It was a strategy I adopted myself in earlier times when my life was harder than it is now and my mental health sometimes felt precarious. When my thoughts were racing and I was uncertain what was coming next, I would try to put things in order - sometimes the house but more often the garden.
The big advantage of applying this strategy to the garden is that some of the changes between bursts of activity are positive. If I clean the house, it gets dirty again. Entropy rules - especially when children are in and out of it, as has always been the case with this house. If I work in the garden, weeds do come back, but the things I plant and tend, even a little, grow and produce flowers and food. It’s always amazing. Sometimes things come back without me doing anything, as with a particular cherry tomato plant which always pops up spontaneously every year in the flower garden. Little moments of grace.
But what does this have to do with choir and singing? A while ago, a choir member sent me a link to an article about “Opposite Worlds” - things busy people do to balance their lives.( https://www.linkedin.com/posts/activity-7023754275688259584-2BYa?utm_source=share&utm_medium=member_ios). I guess you could say it’s just having a hobby, except that it needs to meet the very specific requirement of taking us away from the mode of working and thinking that we are usually in when doing our job.
Lots of choir members have singing in the choir as their Opposite World, even if they haven’t heard that particular term for it. Our choirs include all kinds of people with very skilled, responsible, difficult jobs. Singing, especially group singing, must be one of the best possible ways to come and be bossed around and shaped into a team doing something completely outside the day-to-day. Two hours of not being responsible for others.
But of course, that’s an Opposite World that’s not really available to me. With choir as my day job, although I love it passionately (there’s nothing quite like hearing the gorgeousness come together when the choir really nails something we’ve worked and worked on together), even just listening to music can feel like part of my work. How fortunate that I have the Whole World, in all its messy glory, just outside my door!
Maybe this was the reaction when the producers ran the theme song past the Monkees for the first time…”Hey hey, we’re the Monkees, and people say we monkey around. But we’re too busy singing to put anybody down.” Nice. Or maybe they’re pretending to be choir members when the choir leader introduces a song with god in it somewhere.
Who was your favourite? I liked Davy because I was a short kid too and I knew I’d be one of the few girls who wouldn’t be taller than him, so it would be ok if we ever met and liked each other. But I knew Micky was cooler. And Mike wasn’t as cool but ok. And Peter.... And they had 2 songs with the word “Believer” in the title but I didn’t know what either of them was about, partly because I couldn’t quite hear the lyrics.
This was well before (like, the previous century before) you could look up lyrics online, and my sister and I used to sit up in bed at night, listening to the radio and trying to write down the words. One of my favourites was Ma Shoe Da Pong by Sandy Shaw (clue: the title was actually in French), which I thought had something to do with a footwear freshness emergency. It must’ve been bad: “I don’t ever wanna go home any more”, I recall her singing. It must’ve been terrible.
“Daydream Believer”, I thought it was something like: “Do I daydream believe I’m under home? Come in, queen!” I never could quite make it out, possibly because “homecoming queen” wasn’t familiar vocabulary, and possibly because of Davy’s cute accent. Watching it on Youtube now, it still sounds garbled, but at least I can look up the lyrics and see that it’s a song about suburban ennui. And I can also see that Micky isn’t really the cool one, just the cynical one sending the whole thing up. I completely missed that when I was a kid.
And, also in my innocence, I thought that “I’m a Believer”, the Neil Diamond song made refamous (I don’t care that it’s not a word - it is now) by Shrek, was a song about someone knowing for sure that they’re in love. Complete with a fairytale ending. When I read the lyrics now, I’m not so sure.
But that’s the mixed bag of love and belief anyway, isn’t it? Especially now it’s mixed up with intervening years of experience so that I know that’s it’s a mixed bag, with the love and the disappointment and the hope and the aching sadness and the quiet joy and the acceptance and the loss and the gains all mixed in together. No trajectory of anticipation and longing followed by fulfilment and gentle decline. Neither in life, nor love, nor belief - not in my experience anyway, and I imagine not in yours either.
And that’s partly why we continue to sing some songs with a bit of god in them in choir. It’s partly because they form a huge part of the western choral tradition and it would just be odd to leave them all out. But partly it’s because songs which have come from spiritual traditions of various kinds tend to carry some sense of that gritty, mixed-bag nature of human experience. They might express ideas which don’t quite fit with everything I think, but if you look below the culturally-specific words (eg “Jesus” in a gospel song) there’s mostly a sense that things are hard but also wonderful, and a longing for life to be better. Or a call to be part of that trend. I’ve said before that I believe that most of us in the room in a choir rehearsal are people who hope for things to be better.
Now, I know that it is a problem for some people when we sing songs from various religious traditions, for all sorts of reasons. People get hurt by religion, mainly by the wielding of religious dogma in an attempt to control others. I understand that these words are loaded with history and geography, and also that we need to treat all cultures with respect. I’ve talked about this before, too.
But I’m not for throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We’re not a religious choir, but we are working with the art form which probably more than any other has been used to express human spirituality. We don’t want to overload our repertoire with these songs but some of the richest music for group singing sits within the Christian religion. And sometimes, especially at Christmas, it can feel like it does get a bit much. Those of you who have sung with us for a while will know that our Christmas repertoire has often included songs from other religions which call for peace, which I believe is the central message of Christmas anyway.
My view is that we can take songs which express religious or spiritual ideas and transpose them into our own individual framework, and this is generally what I suggest singers do. If we’re singing a gospel song, and we don’t believe in Jesus, in our minds we can substitute various options: the divine, the universe, the human spirit, the spirit of music… whatever aligns with our own views. And if we don’t believe in anything beyond material existence, then these songs are simply cultural artefacts. (And, by the way, because they are that as well as anything else, I won’t usually change original words - so we do sing “god” and not “love”, for instance, if that was how the song was written. )
In the end, many of us come to singing and music with a sense that there is something transcendent happening, especially when we make music together. Does it mean there is anything actually transcendent, beyond what we create as human beings? I don’t really know. I was brought up to think so and I couldn’t manage to hang onto that quite as tightly as I would have liked. Experience takes us all differently, and it took me that way. But I can’t completely shake it, either - experience led me there, too.
So when I was asked recently by a choir member what I personally believe, my answer was...something. It depends on which day you ask me.
Obviously Leunig doesn’t sing in a choir or he’d know that there are 8 types of ordinary happiness. But doubtless he wasn’t trying for an exhaustive list. And this isn’t going to be a discussion about happiness. That’s a huge subject with all kinds of rabbit holes down which we could descend. This is about ordinariness and maybe a little bit about the accidental contentment there might be in being ordinary.
As part of the online te reo Māori course I’ve been doing this year (through the Open Polytechnic of NZ - I can’t recommend it highly enough), I’ve been doing my kōrero tuakiri - that’s what you do if you’re a through-and-through pākehā, with no ancestral maunga, awa, marae or waka. I started the process feeling utterly bereft and adrift in the world. I didn’t feel as though I came from anywhere in particular, and in lots of ways I didn’t. I felt envious of other students who could construct their pepeha and locate themselves somewhere in Aotearoa and beyond to the waka that brought their people here.
We travelled around a lot when we were kids, and my siblings and I always thought that that was why we didn’t feel particularly at home anywhere. So having to construct a kōrero tuakiri amplified that sense of disconnection at first. But as I worked through it, I started to have a sense of connection to “place” that I haven’t ever really had before. It turns out that like most pākehā New Zealanders, my forbears were scattered throughout the UK and Ireland (Cornwall, Isle of Wight, Ireland and Scotland turned out to be the places I discovered the strongest connections with). The various branches had been wherever they were for generations, knowing exactly who they were. Until the second half of the 19th Century, when they got onto various ridiculously small boats and made their dangerous journeys.
And once they got here - as my sister put it - there was just a big free-for-all. Imagine the mash-up of accents there must’ve been in those early years. My lot came from all over the UK and Ireland, so they would’ve spoken with all kinds of regional accents. But nothing posh, as far as I can tell.
Nobody was an earl or a duke, nobody was famous, and nobody was particularly educated or accomplished. They were dairy maids, tin miners, coal miners, turnip growers, farmers, grocers, a smattering of ministers of religion of various denominations, and a few soldiers. It looks like my lineage - apart from one or two real ratbags - is absolutely ordinary; mostly people whose lives were hard enough to drive them to take such risks and accept such losses.
I noticed that I felt a bit put out about the lack of illustrious personages - I see stories of other people who research their families and manage to trace themselves back to prince or lord somebody-or-other. Not us. I don’t know why it feels as though it matters, and it has made me think hard about what it is that makes us grasp for specialness. But it occurred to me a long time ago that if we’re all special, then none of us is. Or, as fictional LA detective Harry Bosch says, either everybody matters or nobody matters.
An article by Tainui Stevens talks (https://e-tangata.co.nz/reo/asking-the-right-questions/) about 3 essential identity questions:
Nō hea koe? Where are you from?
Nā wai koe? Who are you of?
Mā wai koe? For whom do you exist?
A kind of contentment has gradually emerged for me from thinking deeply about those questions, a sense of settling into my tiny place in my small branch of the human family. These are not questions about accomplishment or specialness, and they don’t exclude striving, learning and working. We all come and go, and we all belong.
Some people think that singing in the choir is for people who aren’t good enough to be soloists. To borrow from Shaw, “Those who can, sing; those who can’t, join the choir”... Maybe there’s a tiny grain of truth in this, but only tiny. Lots of great soloists sing in choirs. And it’s not that people who could sing solos worth listening to should do that instead of singing in the choir. And it’s also not that people who sing in choirs are a bit rubbish.
Singing in a choir is a completely different thing from singing a solo, not a downgraded version of the same thing. Of course, singing with others is a different social experience. There’s so much joy in making music with other people - the social aspect is important and its effect on people is well-documented (For example, this interesting article about how singers’ heartbeats synchronise https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23230411 ).
But the music, the sound itself, changes. For one thing, a single voice can sing only a melody or tune - just one line of music. Think of that as the horizontal plane. Whereas a group of voices can sing harmony - different notes that fit together, all sounding at the same time. Think of that as a vertical plane moving through time, so there’s an extra dimension. It’s true that accompanying instruments can supply the harmony for a solo voice, and that’s beautiful too. But there’s something really glorious about just voices providing all that the music needs.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand about group singing, though: voices change when they sing with other voices. And this happens on two levels: for one thing, the voices themselves blend such that the sound is a kind of alchemical mixture of the component sounds. So in a section (I’m talking about sopranos, basses and so on) you might have a group of singers and not a single one of them would really stand out as a soloist, but the sound they make together is outstanding because of the way the voices blend and what they create together.
It doesn’t require one single “good” voice for a group of voices to sound great. Sometimes one voice will provide a point of focus for the others, but it isn’t necessarily so. And every single voice in the mix is important and affects the overall sound, however subtly. It’s one of the reasons I love working with choirs so much. People who are afraid of making a sound, who might think they’re not “good” singers, slowly realise that their voice is part of something that sounds truly amazing. This is a real thing - not something I made up to help less confident singers feel better, but a function of acoustics. The characteristics of different voices mixed together can take off edges, and round out and warm the tone. This works best if everybody is singing the same shaped vowels, and if the individual singers are singing with good resonance - this is part of the reason we bang on so much about vowel shapes!
But the second thing, equally important, is that individual voices change when people sing together. Have you noticed that when you’re practising by yourself at home, you’re not always quite as happy with your voice as you are when singing in the middle of the choir? I’ve experienced it myself when rehearsing choral music alone at home. And we noticed it a lot during covid, when people were in zoom sessions and could only hear themselves in isolation for much of the time. Lots of you said it just wasn’t the same as singing in the choir, and you were right.
As people hear their own voice in the context of other voices, they make tiny changes that might add up to more resonance, better tuning and rounder tone - those things aren’t all external, they’re happening inside the individual voices as well. This is partly about confidence and relaxation, but it’s also partly about the interaction between what we hear and how our voices work. It feels good to sing, and we hear a lovely sound, we do more of what is working, so maybe we sing with better technique than we otherwise would. And acoustics are at work here too. You might have had the experience of feeling like your voice is floating on the sound when you sing next to one person, but next to another person it might feel like wading through mud. It’s not that necessarily that the voices are particularly right or particularly wrong, but the acoustic properties of the two voices can feedback to the singers, enhancing what’s there already. Two voices which naturally make a lovely blended sound can lead to the singers relaxing and singing even better. But sometimes the two voices are fighting each other, making it hard for each to sing and sometimes even to stay in tune.
Voice-matching, a system for placing singers next to singers who help them sing with freedom and ease, is a useful tool for making sure that singers have the best possible experience at choir, so our choir leaders will be experimenting with it a little more this year.
And in the meantime, you can know that - provided you’re singing next to a voice which works well with yours - you’re absolutely right to suspect that perhaps you sing better when you’re at choir. It’s not just because we’re on your case about your technique - it’s the group singing effect!
In the past few blog posts, I’ve been talking about the process of choosing music for the choirs. Behind everything I’ve said, including all the stuff about working on our singing and learning and practising our singing skills, it still all comes down to this: it’s got to be fun. That’s why we’re so careful to balance the way we work in each rehearsal - some fun and some work and then maybe some more fun. We do have a view that singing well (that means with healthy technique that doesn’t hurt your voice but also sounds really good) makes people feel more confident. And if people feel more confident about their singing, they’re more likely to have fun. But the process of becoming confident has to be fun too.
Mixing up the repertoire choices is an important part of that, and we certainly do mix them up: folk songs from various British and European countries, classical choral pieces, very occasionally a modern choral piece, musical theatre (although very little of this because actually it doesn’t often translate well to choir singing), African and other world music, gospel, spirituals, waiata Māori, Pasifika songs, pop or rock arrangements, hymns, Sacred Harp, Taizé, sea shanties, jazz standards…
We’ve probably done something from every genre on that list at some time, and probably some more that I’ve forgotten. I must admit we’ve never done Danny Boy, but never say never. Some of you will be saying “no, don’t do that!” And some of you will be saying “Oooh, that would be lovely!” And some will just go with the flow either way. (If we ever do, sadly it won’t be with muppets.)
Because there’s no escaping the fact that we all have different musical taste and music tends to be something people have very strong views about. So we truly have no hope of pleasing all of the people all of the time! So what do you do if there’s something you really dislike…or can’t see the point of…or find too difficult (or too easy)…or just feel a bit meh about?
Here’s what: you take one for the team. You say nothing and you just give it your best effort. Well, that’s not fun, I know. But here’s why to do it:
You can be absolutely certain the song is there because it has something to offer the choir - some point of singing technique, or something to do with the way the choir produces sound together, or whatever, that we want to work on. and we think this song will provide a good vehicle for that.
Maybe it’s a really simple song that you nailed within 5 minutes. This is your moment to nurture and lead the singers around you who aren’t quite there yet. And to do what Steven suggested in rehearsal this week - take it to the next level and try to sing it more accurately or more beautifully - challenge yourself. Or maybe it’s a really complex one and you don’t know how you’re ever going to get to grips with it. It’s there for those who are a bit further on in their journey and need a challenge to keep them excited, and part of their job will be to lead and inspire you. So hang in there and see if you can follow along with them; that’s also part of being on the team.
But most of all, where it’s just a matter of taste, even if you don’t love a song, be a great team singer and let others enjoy it in happy oblivion, because they’ll be doing the same for you on some other song, some other time. And consider the possibility that the person next to you might be having a “moment” - suddenly finding meaning in the music, or the words, or hearing their voice in a new way and understanding that they can sing after all. Or they might just like this one, just because they do. If you complain about the song, maybe they’ll feel a bit foolish.
So you don’t have to love every song but we certainly hope you enjoy most of them and we work hard to make sure that happens. Over the years, we’ve found that sometimes the songs the choir complained about the most at the beginning are the ones they end up loving the most. We don’t always get it right, but trust us - we do (mostly) know what we’re doing.
And if you come up against something you really don’t like, my suggestion is that you enter into the experience of each song and see if it has something to offer you. And if you can’t find a way in, email me to ask - I can usually explain. Because every song really has been chosen with care. For fun!
Tūtira mai, ngā iwi, tātou, tātou e! Stand together people, all of us. If you grew up in New Zealand, you probably learned it at primary school. Maybe you watched Ruby Tui lead the crowd at the end of the Women’s Rugby World Cup Final last November. Or you might even remember the Rugby Union’s attempts to get everyone singing it for the 2017 World Cup. It’s an iconic kiwi song about being united - one people, standing together.
I’ve been writing here about the process of choosing music for All Together Now, and singing waiata Māori is a really important part of our ethos, so I want to say some things about that. It’s a difficult conversation in many ways, but I think it’s an important one, so I’m going to have a go anyway. And at the outset I should say that I am a very long way from knowing all that there is to know about this - I’m learning. So that’s the spirit in which I want to bring this particular conversation to you.
Like lots of other Pākehā New Zealanders, I grew up with Māori songs and games (remember the stick games to E Pāpā? And making poi out of tissue paper?). I thought these songs were “folk songs” and that they and these cultural treasures belonged to everyone, in the same way that A-Roving or Flow Gently Sweet Afton are English folk songs that belong to everyone, their composers lost in the mists of time. The idea that these might not be the same sort of thing at all is something that has dawned slowly on me, as it has on many others.
When you think of iconic New Zealand songs, you might think of Pokarekare Ana, or Te Aroha. Or Tūtira Mai. These are songs which get performed as “traditional” songs. It’s true that they’re everywhere, along with a number of other well-known waiata. But almost all of these songs have been composed by someone, at some specific time and for some specific purpose. And they are still part of the cultural heritage of that whānau. Some of these songs - Te Aroha for example - have been offered to the wider community as a gift. But I did not always understand that this applies to only a few of them.
So can we sing these songs at all? And if we do, what’s our purpose? And what are we responsible to do, if we sing them? These are questions which have come up for me, and for the other Choir Leaders, more and more in the past couple of years. Before I slowly came to understand that there are some issues here, I arranged and taught some of these familiar songs to my choirs with the intention that we were supporting te reo Māori by doing so, and that by doing our utmost to teach correct pronunciation and respect for the reo, we were contributing. And there is a sense in which we have done that - I know that many of our members have been grateful that they could sing along on the marae or anywhere else where it enabled them to participate respectfully. But it has also become clear to me that I’ve made mistakes, and as we know and understand more, we can do better.
I admit that there are different opinions about whether we should sing waiata at all, and a deeper conversation about whether Pākehā like me should be arranging and teaching them. I do think that we Pākehā don’t always understand what we’re working with, and sometimes our familiarity with the songs we grew up singing leads us to forget what a privilege it is to have them as part of our culture in Aotearoa New Zealand. But there is also the view that these things are indeed part of our culture - Māori and Pākehā New Zealanders. And that we Pākehā can play an important role in preserving the reo and ensuring that it is spoken and sung as well and as widely as possible. So…at the moment, with the guidance of people I respect, we will continue to learn and sing these beautiful songs, because the original reasons still stand. But I’m much more careful now about making sure I know where a song has come from and, if possible, asking permission from the right people. And about giving more context for a song, where I can find it. Hopefully that’s enriching for everyone, as well as honouring someone’s work and culture.
When I was looking for some “new” waiata for this year, in the sense that we haven’t sung them before as a choir, I dredged up an arrangement of Tūtira Mai that Steven and I did back in 2017 and sent it to him to ask his opinion. He reminded me that at Choral Connect in 2021, we had heard from Ngatai Huata that this iconic song, written by her father in the 1950s, is almost always sung incorrectly - wrong tune, and with an error in the lyrics. It is sung this way because it was picked up by the Ministry of Education in the 1960s and published in school song books, without checking accuracy and without permission.
Before you get excited (or worried) - we’re not doing Bohemian Rhapsody this year. Not because choosing it as a choir song flies in the face of what I said in the last blog about positive messaging…but because it’s really really hard. I’ve done an a cappella (unaccompanied) version with a choir - some of you might even have sung in it. It took us about 3 years to learn it and even then there were bits that we glossed over and trusted the audience’s memory of the original to fill in the gaps. Don’t get me wrong - we did a pretty good job of it and it was (mostly) fun. And maybe we’ll do it again sometime.
But along with making sure that for the most part the songs we sing have positive (or at least neutral) messages, there are other things we look for when we’re putting together the repertoire for the year. It’s actually quite a complex process to do with working out how to make each choir sound great, learn the most and have the most fun, all at once. Given that each choir is a mixture of abilities and musical backgrounds, this is pretty tricky, but I work with each Choir Leader to see if we can pinpoint a range of things from really quick and easy to learn through to songs that might take all year and require real teamwork from the choir. This is a continuous process, really, as each choir develops and changes, but it’s more intense at the beginning of each year. It’s important that every choir feels a sense of accomplishment but also an appropriate sense of challenge and stretch.
And on top of that we have the list of songs which we want all the choirs to learn, so that everyone can sing together if we have a joint concert, or for Jamborees, or any other time when we have more than one of the choirs in the room. These also cover a range of difficulty, because we know that it’s easier to sing even the hard songs if there are lots of people in the section - and there’s a good chance that there’ll be enough confident singers to support those who are still getting there. So suddenly those basses who bravely persevere in 2s and 3s in their own choirs are in a big group of guys singing the same notes, and it’s so much easier!
So the whole thing always circles back to teamwork: for the least experienced singers who are may still be trying to work out how to stand and how to breathe, being in a team means that you can tackle some of the harder songs at whatever level you can manage, knowing that you’re not expected to do it by yourself. And for those who find some songs “too” easy, you have a chance to show leadership and encourage other singers. Maybe that’s a role some of you never imagined yourself taking with group singing. But I’m sure that even our most confident singers will find something to challenge them in the repertoire itself.
And there’s always the task of singing with more tone, vibrancy, accuracy, musicality…we’re all always working on these skills. That’s why we keep on singing some songs even when you think you know them well. Maybe it’s a song which helps everyone listen to each other, and “tunes” the choir before tackling something that needs more advanced technique. You know that moment when something just clicks in the sound and everyone knows it’s beautiful? There’s a kind of rightness, even if you don’t exactly know what it is. Sometimes we use rounds this way. Or maybe it’s something which gives us an opportunity to practise certain technical points - beautiful vowels, or singing through the passaggio (the bumpy change-of-gear place most of us can feel in the middle of our voices), or blending as a group…there are so many skills in singing, and also in singing together.
In a former life, I was a Suzuki piano teacher, and one of the foundations of Suzuki instrumental teaching is that students never stop playing the first pieces they learned. We call it “review”, and it makes up part of every practice session, every lesson, and every Suzuki student concert. The reason for this endless repetition of known repertoire is that it’s just too hard to learn new notes and new skills at the same time.
I’m going to write that again: it’s just too hard to learn new notes and new skills at the same time. If you think about the times we’re doing something new in choir and you’re struggling with remembering whether the notes go up or down, what the rhythms are, and how to pronounce the words, you probably realise that you haven’t got much attention left over for making sure you’re singing in the middle of the note, that your support is fully switched on and you’re producing a vibrant, connected tone. And you’re probably not listening to other singers in your own section, let alone the other sections! Yes, those things become more automatic the longer you sing, but the best way to hone singing and choral skills is to work on songs we don’t have to think too hard about remembering. And then we can hear the difference when we really sing in tune with each other, and when the whole choir achieves a vibrant tone, and when we produce dynamic contrasts (louds and softs)…and maybe we can even think about delivering whatever the song is communicating.
So that’s why we still include some quick-to-learn songs, and also why some songs crop up again just when you thought you’d nailed them. And maybe even when you’ve performed them. I know there are lots of choirs who sing a concert then move straight on to new repertoire. We don’t do that, and now you know why! Of course we need to keep things fresh and we need to keep everyone challenged, but we also need to keep singing familiar songs so we can improve the choir’s skills. In Suzuki piano, we talk about playing a Book 1 piece in a Book 5 or 6 way, and that is partly why we have the different levels of students playing together - so that the newer students can be inspired and invited into greater musicality and beauty of tone and expression by playing along with the more advanced students. To some extent, we’re doing the same with our choir music. There are plenty of new songs this year but if you’ve been in the choir for a few years, see if you can identify the skills in your level of singing when we work on songs for those who are just beginning. (By the way, in September we chalked up 10 years of singing with some of you!).
Anyway, before I dug so deeply into the issue of new/repeat and easy/hard music, I intended to talk a little bit about musical taste as well. Some of you might be feeling very glad we’re not going to do Bohemian Rhapsody - it’s been done to death, and usually badly, right? And it doesn’t mean anything and is a bit musically incoherent. And anyway Queen is over-rated. And out of date. But also….it’s such a great song and it’s so much fun and everyone knows it and wants to sing it on karaoke night. And if we work hard at it we can really wow the audience because they all know it too and will be wishing they could sing along. And Freddie Mercury was a genius and his work never gets old. So some of you might be feeling sorry it’s not on the list for this year. My point is that some things - like BR - are definitely more polarising than others, but musical taste in even our smaller choirs is extremely diverse. How do we navigate that? Next time…
One of the best things about my job is that I have to spend a lot of time listening to beautiful music. And at this time of year I have to do it even more than usual, because this is when I’m working out what new things we might sing in the year ahead. As always, the other choir leaders and I share our ideas about things we’ve heard that we think could work, and sometimes it means I follow a thread which takes me through several different arrangements of the same song.
Steven sent me a clip of a community choir singing May It Be, then I found another and another, and finally this exquisite Voces8 arrangement. It’s worth a listen, just for the sheer magic that these guys weave.
Feel free to listen without anxiety about how hard this version is - we won’t be doing exactly this (I’ll talk about why not a bit more, maybe next time), but we will be singing this song this year. Because although it’s been around for a while, when I listened to it again this week, I realised it’s perfect for us right now. The music itself is beautiful but (in its original form) uncomplicated.
But the words contain something we need to be telling each other at this moment, and singing it to ourselves as much as to each other. I’ve always thought that the words we sing matter as much as the music. Singing brings together the two sides of the brain - simplistically, the thinking and the feeling, or the language and the music, or the knowing and the creating. Have you ever noticed how you remember song lyrics more easily than you remember poetry? And even poetry with its rhythms and shapes is easier to remember than prose… Which is one of the reasons I prefer to sing songs which have poetically-written lyrics.
But most of all, I believe that when we sing words, they go deep into the psyche, and become part of our thinking and feeling. Of course it’s fine for us just to sing something for fun sometimes! I don’t believe that every single song we work on in choir has to be deep and meaningful. It’s ok for some things just to be neutral and their value be in other things. But I do try not to work with texts that I think have a negative message. There are plenty of songs which point us in the direction of hope, encouragement and generosity of spirit, and I’d rather we had those messages playing in our heads and in our communities.
Here’s the “blessing” contained in May It Be (again, I use that word in whatever sense you’d like it to be - secular or sacred or anywhere in between).
May it be an evening star shines down upon you.
May it be when darkness falls your heart will be true.
You walk a lonely road, how far you are from home.
May it be the shadow’s call will fly away.
May it be your journey on to light the day.
When the night is overcome, you may rise to find the sun.
Mornie utúlië (darkness has come)
Believe and you will find your way.
Mornie alantië (darkness has fallen)
A promise lives within you now.
Just above the arrow, you can see the female frog with her head just above water (like most of us at this time of year) and directly below but slightly to the left, the male frog with his throat blown right up as he sings his morning song to her. A pair of the beautifully-named Green and Golden Bell Frogs; tiny inhabitants of Waiatarua Park, which I didn’t know existed until my latest self-improvement idea. I can’t remember why now, but I think it was something to do with googling how to improve sleep, and there were numerous links to Dr Michael Moseley’s shortlist of things to do to improve your health. Here’s the recent Radio NZ chat: https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2018868560/dr-michael-mosley-just-one-thing
Now I’m a big fan of changing one small thing at a time rather than a big list of New Year’s resolutions. So I read through several of these lists, and saw that going out for a walk first thing in the morning is the best thing you can do to get the right quality of light into your eyes to stop melatonin production (that’s the hormone that makes you sleepy). It seems that as we get older it’s even more important, as our eyes don’t absorb the light so easily.
So the next day, we shifted the usual dog walk to first thing. No morning cup of tea, no reading the paper in bed; straight into the walking gear and out to the park. And that’s how we discovered the musical frogs. I’ve been walking in that park for about 25 years now, since before it was tidied up and the cows removed and the wetlands reinstated. And I’ve never heard the frogs before. To be fair, the frogs probably weren’t there back when it was the anomalous cow paddocks in the middle of Remuera. It took us a while to work out what the noise was, and then a few days later we were lucky enough to spot the little pair in the photo above, quite close to the path.
The frogs give us an extra incentive to jump out of bed even if we haven’t slept that well - if we arrive in the park even at 7.15am it’s touch and go whether we’ll hear them. If we get there at 6.30am, we have singing all the way around the park - multiple locations of frog chorus. Something about their ridiculously loud song, coming from such tiny creatures, and always the same pattern, delights us and brightens our early morning walk. We laugh, right at the beginning of the day, and feel a little bit pleased with ourselves that we’re out so early, and we start the day a little lighter.
The frogs are Australian, by the way. They probably spotted the grove of gum trees and thought they were home.
But what have little frogs in the park got to do with standing on one leg? Only that the stork pose, both with eyes open and eyes shut, is supposed to be life-extendingly good for you! Sounds easy, eh? The eyes-shut version is surprisingly difficult but does improve with practice. And very easy to add into the daily routine.
As for the cold showers and chocolate, I did say I advocate one small change at a time, but in this weather a blast of cold at the end of a shower feels wonderful. I’m not sure how I’ll feel about that sometime around May, but I’m going to give the chocolate a really good try.
Happy New Year everyone!
I love this little cartoon from the Australian cartoonist and writer, Michael Leunig. The precociously smiling baby; the donkey wrapping itself lovingly around Joseph; the beautifully soft sheep, so interested either in the baby or the hay that he’s lying on…but most of all the magpie where the magi should be. I’m not going to pretend I know what he meant by it…
I’ve enjoyed Christmas so much more since we started singing in public places to remind people that they’d meant to donate to the Auckland City Mission but had forgotten. Plus a little live music, just for the joy of it. I always get to this point of the year feeling immensely grateful, not least for the beautiful souls who sing with us, both the ones who make it to “Christmas Busking” and the ones who don’t. Every one of our people is someone who wants things to be better.
It’s been a tough year - I don’t think anyone will begrudge me that small cliche. Our first year of being All Together Now started with us not being able to sing together for a whole term. Then working out how to reshape and keep the choirs ticking over through all the trials of masks and rolling sickness. But here we are at the end of it, sounding wonderful and still friends.
There’s new territory ahead - after the balancing act of this year, there’s new music and some new ideas. Because we do need to change so we can grow, but always with love. Leunig again:
God* help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change our world.
To know the need for it. To deal with the pain of it.
To feel the joy of it.
To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.
The art of gentle revolution.
*Leunig’s explanation of his use of the word “God” fits nicely with my views: “A simple robust word used lightly and loosely or as devoutly and deeply as we might feel – a bridge, and a way to break free from this material world for a moment or two, a day or two... or for what's left of a lifetime.”
From https://www.leunig.com.au/ with thanks.
So that’s my look over my shoulder, with gratitude. Merry Christmas everyone! And on we go, All Together Now!