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.

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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.