Singing for Europe

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On Saturday I headed down to London to participate with 100,000 or so other people in the Unite for Europe march, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. As you may have seen from my blog past last month I had got involved in a group intending to spend the march singing, and had done some arrangements for the occasion.

What I wasn’t entirely expecting to happen was that I ended up leading this scratch choir for the whole of the day. It’s fine, I’m always happy to help people harmonise, but it was an interesting case study in how, in a fluid situation, people get assigned roles very quickly.

When Jonathan and I found our way to our assigned meeting place, there were probably no more than 10 people gathered from our group. (It was kind of hard to tell as there was a horde of Liberal Democrats passing through the same place - some of whom stopped to sing with us en route.) But there were clearly enough of us to have a crack at one of the songs, and it just happened to be me who gathered together the various thoughts floating about (let’s start with Ode to Joy, let’s do a verse of unison and then go into parts, let’s try out the online karaoke app that delivers lyrics to people’s phones), gave a key note and start note, and coordinated the start with Alan who was controlling the app.

That’s all it takes, folks. Turn up with a pitch-pipe, start one song, and you become choir director for a day. Because once you’ve done it once, people look to you to do it again. And then you get seen leading the singers, and get interviewed by a Canadian television crew (in French! but also English, which I managed marginally better), which only secures your label as holder of authority. Oh, and if you happen to be wearing a pink hat, people can find you in the crowd, and are all the more likely to imprint like baby ducklings.

There are certain things that are different leading singers in this scenario than your typical choral conducting situation. Firstly, you don’t know exactly how many people you are leading, or where exactly they are around you, until you start a song. So you coordinate those immediately around you (the ones leaning in looking for direction – you can tell very clearly from people’s eyes when they are used to following a conductor and are looking to you to fulfil their coordination needs) and then listen out for what else you can hear.

Second, there is very little to do by way of controlling the music. Starting it off, and keeping it together is about it. But, as the group starts to grow beyond a small group who can all connect with each other, keeping it together does become a significant role. Astonishing how fit for purpose traditional beat patterns are in these circumstances, though it also helps when somebody turns up with a tambourine. (And a good sense of rhythm – a tambourine in the wrong hands would have made life very difficult.)

But then again, you don’t need to do much expressive shaping. This is a choir with a clear sense of purpose, singing music agreed ahead of time as appropriate to that purpose. Just give ‘em a good set of lyrics (and, dare I say it, vocal lines that fit well with the shape of those lyrics), and they will just go ahead and be expressive. You will have heard many better performances in most aspects of choral craft than we produced, but we rocked it in the dimension of conviction. Oh, and tonal integrity of course. Nothing like conviction to keep your key centres stable.

Once a march like this gets going, it is incredibly difficult to keep a scratch choir together. There may be techniques such as matching T-shirts that would help –wearing colours associated with the European Union was certainly no use for identifying each other as the throngs thronged onwards. So from a singing body of several dozens at least towards the end of our hour-long wait to get started, we were down to fewer than 20 by the time we walked down Whitehall. But we still had four parts covered by the end, and covered by those singers who had self-selected to stick together throughout.

I also learned all kinds of interesting things about what kind of musical and lyrical content works best in this situation. The Ode to Joy was a winner, and of course was composed in the style of music intended for mass participation at open-air events (though then Beethoven orchestrated the hell out of it, thus needing a new arrangement to bring it back closer to those origins for a marching tune). ‘We Shall Overcome’ is great because it has lots of verses (so people who don’t know it at the start get a chance to pick it up), but they are simple, so you don’t have to have your head buried in your song-sheets to get through it. It turns out that everyone knows the start and end of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, but there are some bodies buried in the middle, and a short-cut to the end that some people take while others are trying to sing the whole thing.

I’m planning to add the arrangements for the march into my catalogue, still on a help-yourself-for-free basis, but if you’d like to use them you might consider making a donation to one of the causes I support.

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