A year of singing

churchchoirWe are incredibly fortunate in Shipton to have our fantastic church choir. It is currently 25-strong, but that has varied considerably through the 17+ years I have been in charge, as people move in and out of the area and children grow up and leave for university – I can think of just over 75 reasonably long-term members in that time (some very long-term: three who were in the choir when I arrived are still there now, and another six have served at least ten years). It is still always a joy when new members join, and last January saw the welcome arrival of two new singers.

Less good news followed in February. We had a ‘come-and-sing’ evensong planned (next one 16th Feb 2020 – contact the benefice office for more info!) which nearly had to be cancelled when a large timber fell from the roof. We carried on with a section of the church roped off, only to discover shortly afterwards that the roof was in a dangerous condition and the church must be closed until it could be made safe.

We very pleasantly spent the following weekend singing in Exeter Cathedral, but returned to find ourselves temporarily homeless. That meant moving several boxes of music and hymn books and 25 sets of surprisingly heavy robes between various churches and village halls, as we found somewhere to sing each week for the next few months. Having a large estate car was not one of the selection criteria for getting the job, but it certainly proved essential over this period.

As well as coping with more complicated logistics than usual, the choir was also trying to prepare for a second cathedral visit within six months, this time to Gloucester Cathedral. January 2010 was the first time we bravely ventured forth to a cathedral, singing a single service in Birmingham (largely successful, apart from an embarrassing incident with a tuning fork). The last ten years have seen another ten weekend trips, singing three services over two days – no mean feat for a village church choir.

Both February and June saw singers entering exams. Most of the choir members wear varying colours of ribbon, indicating different levels of the ‘Voice for life’ scheme. Certain levels can be awarded by me but others (for some reason considered much more valuable by choir members!) are awarded by external examiners. Quality of voice is not the primary issue: singers are judged on how they use their voice in singing a hymn, a psalm and choir pieces; they also have a chat with the examiners about aspects of church and choir life (e.g. the structure of services, the church building, the point of a church choir) and also get marked on that.

Pleasingly, all six candidates this year got the highest level of pass. Other choir members would prefer not to take any exams, which is absolutely fine.

bernardwiththebishopThe summer always sees the choir having a few weeks off. This is a mixed blessing. I greatly appreciate the Sunday morning lie-in, as I can arrive just in time for the 11am service, rather than having to get there in time for the usual choir practice beforehand. On the other hand, it is fair to say that the music is not the same standard in their absence, despite the congregation’s best efforts! With the current layout of Shipton church with the scaffolding in place, it is particularly lonely and quiet on the organ stool. Cathedral organ stools are similarly isolated, but at least they have a CCTV screen to keep an eye on what is going on during the service.

September brought the much-appreciated return of the choir, and the start of the manic season for music: Harvest, All Saints, Remembrance, Advent, Christmas and more had to be fitted in before the end of the year, along with the normal Sunday services – and the very pleasant arrival of another couple of new singers. Whilst it can feel like there is a certain weight of expectation on approaching one’s 18th carol service, it helps that the choir’s job in church is not primarily one of ‘performance’, but rather to lead the worship of others and, for some singers, as an act of worship by the choir.

The job has significantly changed over the last couple of decades: data protection, safeguarding training and email load spring to mind. In addition, each new vicar brings a new boss to the job – but I have been very lucky with my four so far! Other things remain the same: rarely having a Sunday off; the temperature in Shipton church (though we hope for new heating within the next few years…); being expected to have some idea how to fix organs across the benefice, and how to run a choir, just because I happened to have lessons in how to play the organ a few decades ago. There is also the pleasure of working with a great group of talented children and adults who just keep getting better and better as time goes on. Village parish churches just do not have choirs like this – except here!

Bernard West

February – March 2020