Last weeks rehearsal

Now that I live with two people that generate a lot of dirty clothes – a baby and a mechanic – I judge the business of my life by what I call the “laundry snapback”.  Yesterday, the day after the choir’s concert, I ran four loads through the washing machine, folded a load that has been patiently waiting on the clothes horse, ran another two loads through the dryer, hung a load on the clothes horse and hung another load out on the clothes line.

Life has been busy.

So I have a lot to catch you up on.  Firstly – we had our concert with the big band on Wednesday night and it was HUGE.  There were about 200 people there!  The band came up to town the week before – winding their way through the bush roads that suddenly spit you out at the football oval on the outskirts of town, blazing lights that never turn off.  The trip used to take upwards of 3 hours in the days before the road was sealed.  It’s only 60 kilometres, but it’s a windy 60.

The ladies of the choir were resplendent.  I’d asked them to come in their concert clothes so that I could have a look and make sure that everyone was on the right track, costume wise.  I’d made a photo board for them all to look at over the past month – Sammy Davis Jr, Sinatra, Judy Garland, Angie Dickinson and Diana Dors.  Some of the ladies had been in tears, such were their anxiety levels at having to look so fancy.  This is a town where all of their primary industries have died out.  It’s a depressed place.  Fancy for a lot of them means not wearing sneakers or boots.  So when I walked into the hall last week I was unprepared for what I saw – pearls, pearls, pearls, gloves to the wrist or elbow, hats with netted fascinators, fur coats, circle skirts, feather headdresses…where had they been hiding this stuff?!

“This skirt is floor length, which I know isn’t the right length so I just pulled it up over me boobs and put a top over the top of it and hey! Tea length!”  Jane presented herself to me, arms out, palms facing up.  She was SO PROUD.  So was Jill.  David had dressed her from head to toe, and she looked like Las Vegas had exploded all over every inch of her body.  She could barely string a sentence together, so excited she was.  Purple skirt, black top, silver elbow length gloves with a pearl bracelet on each wrist.  And a massive purple feather headdress.  It’s a good thing she sits in the back row.  That headdress was high.  “Is it too much?” she asked, bright red in the face.  “Jill, you’re perfect.  Don’t change a thing.”  She hyperventilated.  I turned to David and asked him to make another six headdresses.  They were amazing.

So the band arrived in all their town scruffiness – pierced noses on guys, big hipster beards – and set up directly facing the choir.  The sound was MASSIVE and the rehearsal couldn’t have run better.  I wish I had some funny stories for you, but I just don’t.  Greg had clearly been listening to a lot of Sinatra and had finally figured out how to sing on off beats.  Bill was still trying to remember to hold semibreves for four counts.  Vicky forgot her words but powered on regardless, mumbling along until the adrenalin rush of finally singing with the band had worn off enough for her to regain some composure.  I complimented Jean on her choice of biscuit in the break – a salty lemon cream – and she solemnly and sincerely accepted my compliment.  David told me that there’ll need to be a break before his solo as he had a full costume change planned.

A regular night with the choir, really.

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A Report From Last Night’s Rehearsal

We are two weeks out from our big concert for the year. This year I’ve decided to really push them – we’re doing a concert of jazz and swing standards, accompanied by a 9 piece jazz band. Next week is our only full rehearsal with the band before the concert the following week.

Jean and I listened to The Comedic Harmonists on the drive last night. She fed me salted peanuts and we talked about an upcoming visit she had been asked to make to the local primary school.

“They want me to come and answer questions about how this town has changed throughout the years. But I’ve only lived here 48 years!” I’ll never be completely at home in this place. If someone who’s been here that long still doesn’t consider themselves an insider, what hope is there for me? Not that I’m requiring hope. There’s a lot about this town that drives me mad and I’m not sure that being an insider here would be any sort of badge of honour. Jean was in a sweet reflective mood last night – it must have been The Comedic Harmonists bringing out the romantic in her. Today is her 48th wedding anniversary. Her husband Murray died two years ago. He sounds like he was a real sweetheart. Jean’s been watching videos of the two of them singing together at parties –

“On the baby’s knockle, on the baby’s knee
Where will the baby’s dimple be?
Baby’s cheek or baby’s chin
Seems to me it’ll be a sin
if it’s always covered by the safety-pin
Where will the dimple be?”

She marvels when I tell her that I don’t know these songs. I never do.

Earlier in the week Vicky came to rehearse her solo. She is beyond excited and I think is making another full circle skirt to wear on the night. She must have a lot of spare fabric that needs using up. She has been a hard nut to crack. She feels hard, defensive, sad. But this concert. This is her time. Her moment has arrived. We sing through her song and it’s fine. She’s clearly working very hard. “I’ve been just so excited since you mentioned this concert idea”, she said in her quavery voice. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to sing with a band. I think I should have been a singer. But you know, you get married, then there’s a house, then there’s kids, and dreams just….”

Her voice trailed off and her eyes filled. Busying herself with her bag she continued – “so after Harry went I thought now’s my time.” Her shoulders clenched and she turned around to look at me.

“I’m just so excited.”

Rehearsal went well last night. They are learning to breathe as a group, which is doing wonders for morale, not to mention ensemble. “Do you want the clicks in Bye Bye Blackbird?” asked Peter. I did. Peter is one of our very few music readers in the group, and so clicked where it was marked on the score – on beats 2 and 4. Bill couldn’t hold himself back and so joined in with a neat clap. It’s taken a while to teach some of the choristers how to groove, and Bill is one of them. He likes to clap on 1 and 3.

Clap-click-clap-click-clap-click-……

The piece suddenly felt like an old Clydesdale heading for home. I let it go. I have to choose my battles, and I felt that this one of would naturally work itself out once we were with the band.

Dee is back at choir after a few months way. Her Parkinson’s has gotten the better of her. The last time I saw her was when Lily, my daughter, was two weeks old. She came blustering in my front door, overflowing with joy and excitement, taking photos of me breastfeeding and then asking if it was ok to take photos, then saying it didn’t matter what my answer was, she thought the photos were lovely and it’s such a special and wonderful thing you’re doing, isn’t it? She charmed my best friend Jacqui with her love of EVERYTHING.

She’s on a walking frame now and her pallor is grey. She’s not the Dee I’ve known. We’ll have to organise a chair for her to sit in for the concert as well as a music stand for her music – she isn’t strong enough to hold it herself – but she’ll be there and that’s what counts. She made some absolutely epic mistakes last night – coming in a whole beat early, all by herself, an unintended solo. Whenever she does this she just laughs and smiles. She doesn’t care. She’s just happy to be there and singing. She is loved by everybody.

David has been seeing skirts for the ladies who don’t have any appropriate clothes at home to wear for the concert. He has appointed himself master of costumes for this concert. Good. I don’t have the brain space. He has taken on responsibility of costuming almost all the ladies. He has approximately 15 living dolls to play with. Everyone is thrilled by this arrangement.

Greg is coming to practise his solo this afternoon. He doesn’t know it yet but I’m going to ask him to MC the concert. He’s in his seventies and has a charming mix of confidence and awkwardness that I know the audience will love. He likes coming to my house for a practice. The house we’re living in was built by his grandparents. He and his mum lived in a humpy out the back. Darren, my husband, tore down the humpy when he bought this place. It had a dirt floor and small bunk beds five high, with hessian sacks for privacy. Greg’s eyes shine when he talks about living here.

Next week will be big – costume parades and big bands!

Have a great week, more News when next I see you. x

Last Year’s Concert

Jenny was concerned.

“It’s sleazy nightclub music! It’s sleazy nightclub music and I don’t like it. I like Bach and madrigals. Not this sleazy nightclub music.”

I wasn’t sure that “Gotta Lotta Livin To Do” from Bye Bye Birdie was going to give R. Kelly a run for his money any time soon, but that was beside the point. Jenny didn’t like it. I spent the rest of the break placating her before we got back into rehearsals.

Two things needed to be discussed. The name of the upcoming concert and costuming.

“The Reject Shop are selling these for two bucks!” exclaimed Kate, waving a sequinned cowboy hat around the room. We were doing a concert of music theatre tunes, including a selection from Oklahoma. Mr Dickens was wanting to perform the whole show in its entirety, recreating his triumphant 1954 performance at the local Town Hall but I had vetoed it, imagining Hal Leonard special ops abseiling their way through the church ceiling.

Vicky pursed her lips. “We will need time to change into our outfits for Oklahoma.” Right. I’d been under strict instructions to plan an hour long concert with appropriate solos slotted in so that the choir would be able to sit down and have a rest between numbers. A full costume change was news to me. I asked how much time was needed.

“At least ten minutes” pursed Vicky again. “I’ll need longer than that to tie me neck scarf, it’s a bloody nuisance” said Robbie. Jane agreed. I asked Jane what she was planning on wearing. “Well. I’ve decorated a cowboy hat, hemmed a scarf to wear around my neck, and I’ve made a full circle skirt. You know, the skirt that’s got all the fabric. In a full circle.”

“No”, I said. “No. I said you could wear some form of costume, but just hints or suggestions. We’re not stopping the whole concert for a costume change for just three songs. You can wear the skirt as long as you put elastic in the waist so you can just pull it on and off.” Jane glared at me and her mouth went white. I’d gotten used to the Jane glare and finally I didn’t find it frightening. It had taken six months.

We moved on to talking about naming the concert. Mr Dickens slowly got to his feet. At 85 he was the elder statesman of the choir. “Mr President,” he said to Bill, “I’m not sure about any of these names that Amanda has suggested.” Bill asked me to again say my title suggestions. Broadway Babies and Back To Broadway.

“Now, Mr President, I’m not sure that either of those suggestions are good enough.” I wasn’t sure if I rolled my eyes or not. I had hoped I’d done an imaginary eye roll, but I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. They were doing my head in.

“I suggest, Mr President, that we have a title that really shows the audience that we are in Australia. I think we should call the concert Broadway Down Under.” He waved his hbd through the air. There was a chorus of oooohs and aaaahs and general murmurings of approval at Mr Dickens’ suggestion. “Righto” said Bill. “Let’s have a vote. All in favour of Back To Broadway.” Zero hands. “All in favour of Broadway Babies.” Vicky and Dee shot their hands up, Dee giving me a hopeful smile. “All in favour of Broadway Down Under.” Twenty five hands shot up, an instant Mexican wave of approval. Mr Dickens grimaced with relief.

The poster was black and white, photocopied, A4 with a picture of a massive Australian flag and BACK TO BROADWAY written below it.

The concert went well. Greg waggled his eyebrows at me more than usual and Jane’s elasticised waist was a huge hit.

Afternoon tea highlight – Dee’s chocolate scones with homemade raspberry jam and double cream.

The Start

I stood in the middle of the room, speechless as she marched to the door. “Who’s with me?!” asked Mary, hell bent on mutiny, faced flushed with fear and adrenalin. We had just been learning the first page of Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Mary had decided that she’d had enough. I didn’t know what to do – the last time someone had walked out of a rehearsal I was taking they were 16 and from Ipswich. They certainly weren’t a country primary school teacher. I was fucked before I even started.

I shared a car with Jean and Jill, two elderly members of the choir. Jean had a beautifully gentle speaking voice, but Jill was authoritative and yelly. “BILL IS EXCITED TO MEET YOU BUT A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED THAT YOU’RE ALREADY MARRIED” she screamed from the backseat. Then she hollered at Jean who was sitting beside her in the backseat. “BUT HE SAID HE’S LOOKED AT PHOTOS OF HER ON THE INTERNET AND YOU KNOW…” her voice trailed off and out of the corner of my eye I could see her tracing an hourglass through the air with her hands, wiggling her eyebrows and jerking her head towards me. Oh God.

Two weeks earlier I’d answered my phone and spoken to Bill, a charming guy from the area who had seen an ad I’d put in the local newsletter, looking for piano students. The choir he sang in was desperately looking for a conductor, and was looking down the barrel of possibly having to finish up for good if they couldn’t find one. “For a lot of the choir members it’s their one outing in the week”, said Bill. He might as well have offered me an unloved, unkempt puppy dog. How could I say no? Well, quite easily, I suppose, but my guilt would of meant staging my own death and applying to some form of witness protection program. I said I’d come to meet them and work with them for one hour. It wasn’t like anything else was happening in town, and I’d even written papers during my Masters at VCA about the importance of community singing. It was time to put up or shut up. Oh God, oh God.

Mary sat back down in her chair, flushed and frustrated from her failed mutiny attempt. They moaned and groaned their way through two pages of the Faure. And by moan and groan I don’t mean that they were complaining, I mean that they were so terrified of making a mistake that they could barely open their mouths. After witnessing the yelliness of Jill, I could understand why they were so scared. It was over, and Bill asked the choir what they thought of me. While I was standing there. They hated my repertoire choices, they weren’t sure I cared enough, and I could tell some of them felt very threatened. Then Dee piped up from the back – “When can you start? How long can we have you for? When do you think you and your husband will have babies?” She was about 70 and was wearing a Life, Be In It t-shirt.

“I can start whenever you like” I responded. My stomach lurched and I felt sore in the back of my throat. OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD…

A few weeks later I was introduced to a lady at a local concert. When she was told I was the new conductor of the choir she paused before saying how pleased she was that the choir was continuing. She is a GP in the area, and many of the choir members were coming to her with anxiety issues, based around their dread of the imminent closure of the choir. I was stunned. I’ve always believed to my core that singing is an integral part of any community but I’d never really actually seen it in action before. It was just a hunch, a suspicion. And here were old ladies needing medical assistance to help them cope with the closure of a choir.

I’m going to try and diarise each of our rehearsals here in this blog. Those of you that are friends with me on Facebook may recognise some of the people from my status updates. They are a wonderful group of people, and worthy of more than passing status updates. They have become the highlight of my week. They are hard working, adventurous, opinionated, terrifying, and make an excellent afternoon tea. That’s really the reason why I said yes. The afternoon teas.