‘Oly ‘Oly ‘Oly: a tribute to growing up in the church choir

It’s Christmas 2011. In Redland Green Park, the slightly more evangelicaland all-round quirky Redland Church is accompanying We Three Kings with a drum kit and electric guitar. Most of the families are loving this fusion and bopping up and down with their kids on their shoulders. Throughout the crowd, there are inbreaths of disbelief at the syncopated “star of wonder star of night”. And yet, somewhere further away from this Christian mosh pit, Doris and Fred* are having none. Doris and Fred don’t believe in any of this modern stuff, as they tell us in disgust. Doris and Fred think that 6/8 or semiquavers are daring enough for church music, but beyond this their boundary is impenetrable. They about turn as the funked-up version of Hark the Herald starts. The crowd barely notices.

*(names changed!)

One week on, it’s the big day. The day that the parish magazine, the Tandem, has lovingly printed at the centre of the Advent ecumenical bulletins. It’s the St Albans’ 9 lessons and carols service. The big one. There has already been a bit of a stir this year: instead of starting with Once in Royal, our (relatively) young and enthusiastic director of music has proposed Matins followed by Adoro te Devote. My choir bestie Jenny is put out by this: every other chorister who tries at the singing has had the solo. I had it the year before actually. Either Jenny has been relegated to the league of the lip-syncing but pure looking kids only going to choir for the childcare, or Ben* has decided that a change is better than her getting a chance. Really, Ben just wants to shake up the repertoire and make his own mark on the choir. This doesn’t register with many of us, though, and there is an underlying tension within the robed and surplused ranks.

Doris is spiky when dealing with the childcare choristers who have forgotten to wear black shoes. “Don’t you know it’s black at the bottom of the robe and white at the top?” she scowls at the vicar’s kid. Apart from the early shakeup in the setlist, the other anthems are fairly route one: Adam lay ybounden (classic), the Hallelujah chorus (risky with the ageing bass parts but a banger anyway), Hark the Herald, and other nondescript tunes which raised no eyebrows and made little impact on those singing or hearing them.

This description perhaps sounds dry and laughably solemn, yet I smile when I write and think about these (all true!) events that I witnessed through younger eyes. Although growing up through a Church choir is an experience that is becoming less normal, it is one which I cherish and feel fortunate to have had. I joined St Albans Junior Choir at the age of 2, with my brother. When I was 7, I finally realised my young ambition of getting a choir robe, and (do you believe it?!) getting ‘whited’, i.e. getting to wear a surplus over my robe. Sometimes, as I reached double digits, I would be lucky enough (or choir attendance would be low enough) that I got to wear a “deputy” medal at the Eucharist, which, as a rule of thumb, had a congregation of no more than 3. Never head chorister, but that would come once the older children left the choir.

The front row children were an interesting bunch. Me, Lilian and Jenny all, bizarrely, had the middle name “Margaret”, all named after our grans. We would grow in confidence over the weeks while looking forward to the foam bananas and other sweets at the choir practice break.

Less about us: the back rowers were the best people. We had chatty altos, who would eat sweets during sermons and begin the eucharist anthem trying desperately to crunch down their ricolas. Fred carried the cross into the Church with fortitude and sang his solos in a similar way: quietly determined and mostly accurate.

Sometimes services would go pear-shaped, though. Fred’s trainspotting tenor associate would often get a mental block if the anthem was too complicated or modern, meaning Ben’s attempt to spice up the repertoire would fall flat.

The one anthem which bound us together was Schubert’s “Holy, Holy, Holy”, or, as the provincial accents among the choir would sing, “‘Oly, ‘Oly, ‘Oly”. It didn’t matter if it was flat, as it often was. Each part would wallow in its clashes, which were interesting enough to be enjoyable but safe and not too modern in harmonic terms, so that every singer felt comforted by the music. Some would say it was a tired classic, but, for many back rowers who had also grown up in the choir, it was the fitting average of appropriateness and tunefulness. I used to get bored singing the soprano part. I would get exasperated when a certain soprano would always whisper “flat!” at the end of the anthem, a little too loudly.

Now, though, it seems to me a fitting anthem of a childhood in church choir. Out of societal and musical vogue, perhaps, but nonetheless, charming. Even though I remain agnostic, the value of going to Church, learning when to be quiet and use my mental resources, is one which I feel is a great shame to lose in society. Sometimes life isn’t about the jazzy rhythms and enjoying yourself to the maximum when singing, or when being a child. It’s about finding the beauty in the ‘boring’, and appreciating the people who value it. ‘Oly ‘Oly ‘Oly taught me to understand my elders. That’s not to say that I don’t have disagreements with them: I like different foods, and have more socially acceptable opinions on the role of women in the Church, for example. Nonetheless, in being forced to sing and interact with a wider range of ages, I love people who, in many ways, are removed from me in everyday life. Throughout our solemn and pitchy renditions of ‘Oly ‘Oly ‘Oly, I have picked up life lessons as thrilling as that We Three Kings remix that Doris hated so much. As the three Margarets leave for pastures new, we leave enriched with niche but vital experience.

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