A Dickensian Christmas

Charlotte had been working and planning this event for at least a month. She had sent flurries of emails, designed a poster, coordinated with the Ustinov Intercultural Forum and the GCR. It was going to be a Dickensian Christmas. There would be mulled wine, mince pies, readings of Charles Dickens A Christmas CarolA Visit From Saint Nicholas had been translated into 14 languages and would be read, and then there was the choir.

I first heard about the choir at Ustinov the summer before I came to Durham and when I was asked to take it over, I was a bit reticent. I had spent four years teaching primary school music which included children’s choirs, but there was a world of difference between conducting nine year olds and conducting adults. I wasn’t sure I would be up to the challenge. I knew I would need a talented accompanist as my piano skills have always been a bit suspect. After an exhaustive (and exhausting) search, I discovered I had been sitting next to one in lectures for four weeks. Alex had been one of the first people I had talked to in the program besides Sophie, but it wasn’t until he mentioned playing piano on Facebook that I realised there was a fellow musician in my midst. With him on board, all that was left was to choose some pieces, schedule rehearsals, and hopefully gather enough interested singers.

We would have only four rehearsals before our first performance on 2 December, so I knew I couldn’t choose overly complex pieces. It has always been difficult choosing music for the first semester. When I was teaching, I would have to choose blindly, not knowing how many children would sign up for choir and not knowing the level at which they could perform. I felt a similar uncertainty here. Would there be enough time to tackle something written by Handel? Will most of the singers have had choral experience? And the question that all choir directors ask: would there be enough tenors? In the end, I chose five Christmas carols which I thought would be somewhat familiar and were short enough to master in a month. Rehearsals were scheduled and a Facebook message went out into the ether. I wondered if anyone would come.

I arrived at the music room early to set up. Alex arrived shortly after me and we waited. I had had many responses from the Facebook message, but I still wondered if anyone would show. To my utter relief, singers began trickling in. Music was handed out and introductions were made. Soon the room was filled with altos, basses, sopranos, and (wohoo) tenors. I began to relax as soon as Alex hit the first chord for warm ups and the rest of the rehearsal reminded me of those days at undergrad when my friends and I would get together for jam sessions, albeit classical jam sessions, in the practice rooms.

Over the next few weeks, we worked out parts, quibbled over the proper pronunciation of “Bethlehem,” and laughed over my complete inability to say “Gloucestershire.” As the performance drew nearer and nearer I came to look forward to the weekly rehearsals. I always got nervous for them, but it was an hour and half that I wasn’t thinking about sustainability in museums, collection management, or trying to find a work placement. It was an hour and half that I could be a musician again.

The night of the performance arrived and I donned my typical Christmas conducting outfit, dark green silk top and black trousers. The last time I had worn it had been to conduct my last Christmas concert with my fourth grade chorus back home now two years ago. It fit well, though the trousers were looser from all the walking I had been doing in Durham.

The whole night was a success. From the first three carols, to the readings, to the translations (which was one of the most amazing parts), and when we closed the evening with Good King Wenceslas something in the choir clicked. It has happened before to me when I’ve been directing. All of a sudden everything lines up the way it is supposed to in a way that never happened in rehearsal. It’s like the choir levels up mid performance. I don’t know if it is the adrenaline of performing that does it, but it’s not something you can necessarily hear. You feel it. I felt it that night. I hope to feel it again at the next performance.

Christmas is all around really. And feeling Christmassy isn’t really about the shopping, decorating, or baking. I think my fondest Christmas memories always revolve around performing and watching classic films with my family. The rest is all trimmings, but the substance is what is true and what is important.  

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