#6 Sing! Sing! Sing!
First published in Trad and Now magazine, October 2007
By Bill Quinn
When you front up to any given festival, you’ve generally got a fair idea of who’s on the bill. And yet, one of those grand moments of the settling-in period, after you’ve been tagged and show-bagged, is to scan the program for your favourites. Pen in hand, there are those tantalising moments of deflowering virgin program pages with flowing strokes of biro circles around the tried, the trusted and the ‘man, you just gotta see’ acts.
Conversely, there may be other acts or genres that you zip over, or choose to ignore, or even scratch a dismissive mark through. (The author will refrain from venturing examples here as his insurance definitely doesn’t cover such off the cuff observations.)
For this punter, anything that had ‘choir’ in the title was always a category to avoid like the fugue. However, one of the true joys of many, many discoveries over the last few years has been to admire the wonders of the massed one-to-four part harmonies of many voices.
Community choirs, singing groups, singing sessions, and the big daddy of them all (or many of them): the festival choir. There’s a sweet science behind the process of putting several to several hundred voices into beauteous harmony, but to the punter, it’s just a chance to let one’s jaw drop to the canvas, their eyes roll back in sheer aural ecstasy, and to feel the very hairs up the back of their necks stand out in perpendicular, involuntary admiration.
Festival choirs have become a mainstay of many festivals, and they’re well worth seeking out. In smaller festivals, it helps when they’re seeded by established choirs, but after that, it’s open to all comers, because many of the festival support staff, volunteers and even paying punters are closet warblers.
As a friend said many years ago, and it’s stuck to the point of my adopting the phrase, ‘Do I sing? Sure. I give daily concerts in the shower and in the car!’
Miguel Heatwole is a bit more accomplished then that with singing over many, many years in rock bands, in the wonderful singing trio Triantan, and from leading the Sydney Solidarity Choir, among others. But a welcome side project has been the festival choirs he’s amassed and conducted at festivals over recent years at the National, Woodford, Kangaroo Valley, and The Turning Wave (Gundagai).
At The Turning Wave festival in Gundagai in September, Miguel drew a group of approximately 20 singers, seeded by the Canberra Union Voices and including various others from around the region, including one Canberra Shiny Bum Singer and a few freelance ‘tonsils for hire’.
“What’s consistent about festival choirs,” Miguel said, “is the good will and good humour of the participants. They’re there to have good fun.”
“What works organisationally is the festival books one of the choirs which gives us people on the ground to help out. Without ‘confederates’ it’s hard to teach anything that’s not repetitive.”
And repetitive certainly works. Just one quirky sentence done in a three-part round can amuse and bemuse a crowd of local punters for as long as… well, until the joke’s over, really. (The actual nature of the sentence cannot be divulged lest you encounter it at the next of Mig’s choirs, but suffice to say that the words ‘urology department’ feature, and we’ll let your fertile minds gambol o’er the fields of possibilities for the denouement.)
For the choristers there was a range of experiences and motivations for joining in, heeding the calls to join in. ‘If you’ve got half a mind to join a choir, that’s probably more than enough!’ was the call from the spruiking stage.
The Turning Wave Festival Choir was presented with Mig’s standard ‘KISS’ operational approach: ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ But for all of that, in two brief practice sessions, they covered five pieces, including two inventive and brief takes on more traditional Australian pieces and the aforementioned ‘urology department’ ditty. They dished up the results in a well-received 15 minute performance on Sunday morning to a mix of festival-goers and interested locals and blow-ins in the park.
(The previous week at Kangaroo Valley, the choir had to tackle some of the above plus a complex yet very melodic song sung in Papua New Guinean, helped out by Mig’s Sydney-based Ecopella choir.)
How was the Gundagai crowd to play to? ‘They were good today,’ choir member Dallas said. ‘A few people got the jokes, and they were singing along as well, especially during the fast bits.’ The choir had gone through several rounds of Chris Clarke’s ‘Run Little Emu’ before applying the accelerator to see who could keep up.
Choir member Mary compared the Gundagai choir with others she’d sung with. ‘I sung with 150 others at the National Folk Festival. It felt like we were all beginners, but it was brilliant.’
Experience doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just a stroll in the park for the participant, as evidenced by Tim, the Shiny Bum Singer. ‘It’s good to have experienced people for different parts. I suffer from being quite large, which means that I’m always at the back and can’t hear the others.’
This is the trick for the new singers who aren’t quite confident with the idea of keeping in step with three other parts. It’s one thing to hit every note of a melody in the shower, but another to stay on track (be it melody or harmony) while others are going off in different directions. Karen, a Canberra Union Voice, advised in a pre-festival practice that the best course of action is to find someone in your group (soprano, alto, tenor or bass) who knows what they’re doing, and ‘tune in to ‘Radio Tony’!’ (insert name of competent singer of your choice).
A novice choir member had been practising by doing just that until Karen pointed out the best plan of attack was to stand in front of the nominated expert. ‘Singers typically sing out of their mouths, not out of their…. er, not from behind!’
Repetition helps to keep matters simple, and lots of repetition in practice also makes for a more polished performance when the time comes. Dallas agreed that more than one rehearsal on more than one day was a great help. ‘If you try to take it in all in one day, you’re zonked out. It helps to sleep on it. Today was just right with two days of rehearsal.’
One of the memories that this punter took away from The Turning Wave in Gundagai (a festival that seemed to be one wonderful two-and-a-half day singing session) was the programmed singing session led by Judy Pinder from Triantan. Originally to be held in the Uniting Church, it was moved at the last minute to the very amiable surrounds of the back room of The Criterion Hotel. (‘Great, we can drink!’)
Tune sessions are great, but there’s nothing like a singing session for that feeling of anyone can be included. What started with five people around a table quickly morphed into about forty people ranged in a wonky, meandering grouping that threatened to engulf the group of locals who were ranged behind us.
Ultimately, it did just that. While the locals were originally yahooing and caterwauling through the middle of the songs, two women initially broke off and started to engage with the singing group, helped on by one of the sessioners who actively turned, jumped on a chair, and led the locals in the ballads we were singing. They were later joined by their mates until all were participating.
It was a fantastic act of participation by both groups, in what initially resembled a battle for the same space: the local boozer versus a singing venue.
Locals Liz, Anne, Diane and Sue were more than happy to talk about their engagement with the singers. All Gundagai born and bred, they had known little about the festival and hadn’t been to the first one in 2006. They’d looked in at the markets and live acts in Carberry Park. They’d been down to the Gundagai Services Club and loved what they heard, but because they didn’t have festival wrist-bands, they had the curtains closed on them.
For the women, being able to watch a singing session up close and to participate was fantastic, and maybe an incentive to get into the ticketed events the next day.
‘We loved it that the singers included us in it. Even though we’re a bit tipsy!’
By the time the festival singers left The Criterion many hours later, the locals weren’t the only tipsy ones.
And as one novice festival chorister found, several pints of Guinness can provide all new sorts of experiences due to the effects on one’s vocal chords. ‘Actually, I’m going to leave the tenors to their own devices and join the basses today…’
You don’t need Idol or karaoke to sing, sing a song. Be sure to sniff out the festival choir next time you’re wrist-banded and have your program in hand.
Bill Quinn is one of the newer members of the Canberra Union Voices.