I think I may have posted, once or twice, a few times maybe, about music being quite important to me. I don’t know why, but I definitely do know why not, and that’s because of CHOIR. Like a fool, in Year 5 at middle school, I thought ‘Choir? Meh, why not?’, passed the audition and signed up for three long years of twice weekly CHOIR. There was no escaping it. Once you were in, you were in. You weren’t allowed to leave. A couple of people cracked and begged Miss Jennings to let them gracefully withdraw. Not a chance. You volunteered for CHOIR. Now Miss Jennings owned your soul, and with it, your voice.
Part of the never ending torture were the annual visits to the Norfolk Music Festival at St Andrews Hall in the centre of Norwich (like an absolute eejit, I wasn’t just in the CHOIR, I was also in the orchestra, and strings group, so I had to attend at least three events over the course of a week). My memory may be playing slight tricks on me, but I remember each day that I spent there as lasting for at least 148 hours. Norfolk Music Festival was supposed to be a celebration of music on schools curriculums, a chance for us all to rejoice in the power and splendour of our shared music. In reality, it was a bitter, nasty, internecine, drawn out fight to the death, in which there could only be one winner. Oh yeah, sure, every school that took part was politely clapped. But all of us taking part knew what was really going on. Every school choir had to sing two songs – one chosen by the judges, one selected by the school. So this meant an entire fucking DAY of hearing the same song every ten minutes, and then singing it yourself. Quite.
Miss Jennings, our music teacher, was, frankly, in the wrong job. She should have been working alongside Jack Bauer in 24, because she was IRON that woman. In the weeks leading up to the Festival, she would drill us relentlessly, making us harmonise effectively, hit the top notes, trilling, lalalaing. To this day, one of my fellow detainees and I can still make each other cackle merely by intoning ‘LaIsTheNoteSingIt’ to each other. Now, it wasn’t much fun and effectively drained all the joy and beauty out of singing, but it meant that by the time came for us to perform, we were on top form (it also taught me how to breathe through my diaphragm properly, meaning that when I want to I can make my voice ferociously loud).
After all the performances, there were various levels of certificates awarded to each choir who participated, along with a few comments from the adjudicators:
Participated: FUCK OFF AND DIE.
Promising: What the hell did I ever do to you, that you made my ears bleed?
Commended: Yeah, we’d prefer it if you didn’t come back next year.
Highly Commended: You were ok.
Outstanding: You are YURRRRMAAAAAZING!!!!!
Of course, with Miss Jennings as Our Glorious Leader, we only ever got ‘Outstanding’. Nevertheless, as the day wore on, children around the hall would become more and more tense, feeling the bitter rivalry between us. The greenclad pupils of Avenue Middle School cheered silently when the soloist of Blackdale hit a duff note. We mocked St Thomas Moore for their crap song choice. We jeered at Magdalen Gates for not even attempting the descant in ‘The Birds’. Bignold didn’t even wear TIES, that’s how crap they were! And we swore lifelong hatred to every last one of the bitches of Old Catton who sneered at us when we were awarded our ‘Outstanding’ certificate, because all they’d got was a crappy ‘Promising’. HA! In your faces, North Norwich!
Miss Jennings tried her best to pretend she was grown up about us being the best, year in, year out, but for all her talk of ‘It’s a wonderful celebration of music, to inspire you to go on and love it with all your soul, to appreciate the voices of others, to really enjoy other people singing’ we all knew that really she was thinking ‘FUCK, YEAH, MY CHOIR IS THE BITCHTITS.’
I’d forgotten all about the Norfolk Music Festival (repressed the memory is probably the better phrase), until The Boy came home from Junior School with a letter telling me that he’d be part of the group performing at St Andrews Hall, a few weeks ago. He tried everything he could to get out of it: ‘Mum? Can I be ill that day?’, but in the end he went with minor fuss, and asked me if I could come along.
Shiiiiiiit. All kind of flashbacks flooded at me. Reading Virginia Andrews during the 13th performance of the same song. Being in Year 7 and flirting with Alex Foxton at the back of the North Aisle. Eating a packed lunch as noisily as possible during Colman Middle’s rendition of ‘Music of the Night’. Pretending to need to go to the loo because I was dying of BORED. But The Boy had asked me to go…
It was almost exactly as I remembered. The layout, the adjudicators, the placing of various schools around the hall, the magnificent organ (childish snigger). Thankfully, the schools now get to sing two songs of their own choosing, so at least I was spared the agony of hearing the same song again and again. The choirs were ok, mainly small, perhaps thirty kids in each. The Boy’s school were last, and I immediately noticed a difference. This wasn’t a choir. This was the entire year group. And more. Children as old as Year 6. Children from the Infant School. And they weren’t standing on the stage part, but on the steps behind it.
At this point, I should make a confession. The matter of which school The Boy went to in Norwich was a five second decision, taken when I was drugged off my tits on Mirtrazipine, Zopiclone and Valium. I phoned the council, said I needed a school place for my son, they said ‘School A? Or School B?’ I said B, job done. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realised that the both the infant and junior schools have a local deaf unit attached, and that hearing impaired children from all over Norfolk attend the schools. All the children learn British Sign Language as a matter of course, and it’s quite impressive how easily The Blondies can communicate in it.
Before The Boy’s school started their performance, there was a little announcement. ‘We are not a choir. We are Sign Up, the Year 4 of our school, and the deaf units from our infant and junior schools. We will be signing and signing our performance today. There are a number of us who are deaf, and we cannot hear our own voices very well, so we will hit a lot of wrong notes, and our singing might not be very good. But we sing because we love to.’
Oh god. They’re going to butcher ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’. But they didn’t. They weren’t great. But they were so happy, and signed so perfectly, with such synchronised movements, led by their music teacher who didn’t conduct them, but signed with them. And then, I made a complete tit out of myself.
I’d like you to imagine watching and hearing sixty children, all of them smiling beautifully, radiant with happiness and pride, some of them really profoundly deaf singing:
Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing.
Who can live without it?
I ask in all honesty, what would life be?
Without a song or a dance, what are we?
So I say thank you for the music,
For giving it to me.
My eyes were brimming with tears, my lip was wobbling, throat set to lumpy. It was so beautiful, so profound, and so moving. Afterwards, they got the longest round of applause of the day, and I had to physically restrain myself from not jumping to my feet, punching the air, and bellowing ‘FUCK YEAH! YOU GUYS JUST FUCKING NAILED IT, YOU FUCKING BRILLIANT BASTARDS!’. So it might have taken me 25 years, but now I finally get what the Norfolk Music Festival is about, and it isn’t gaining an ‘Outstanding’ certificate (The Boy's school only got a 'Highly Commended', but that's because the adjudicator was absolutely shitfaced drunk. I know this because of his 'little chat' at the end of the perfomances. I caught The Boy's eye several times during it, and we both got the giggles, massively).