On Choral Courage

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Having recently shared David McEachern’s wise observation that you can’t necessarily choose to be confident, but you can choose to be courageous, I’d like to share a story of choral courage I witnessed about a year ago.

Those of you who know me in real life are aware that last January my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. She seemed happy and healthy when she spoke to my brother on the Sunday, to me on the Monday, and had lunch with her sister on the Tuesday. Then she failed to turn up to choir practice on Thursday. She never missed choir practice without warning.

This post is not about the details of her passing, though now you know about it you’ll probably want to know that the post-mortem revealed that it would have been quick, and that having help at hand would not have made any difference.

It is about the choir, though. It is a fairly typical church choir – around 15 strong, with a good deal of experience and dedication in the ranks, but not necessarily sophisticated choral craft. You could trust them to sing basically in tune and in time and with commitment, but they didn’t necessarily have the wherewithal to manage the challenges to blend presented by a miscellany of voices, particularly as those voices changed with age.

Mum had been a stalwart of the alto section since the 1980s, and, at 81 was not the youngest in the choir, but not the oldest either.

The choir were hit hard by Mum’s loss, musically and emotionally. They offered to sing an anthem at her funeral, and it is recalling this performance that has had me reflecting on courage in singing.

You know how hard it is to sing when you are upset. It’s not just what happens to your breath when you are near tears, it’s that music dissolves the barriers we build inside ourselves against emotion and brings the tears even closer. As the choir started their anthem, there were a few seconds when I thought they just weren’t going to manage it.

And then they corporately pulled themselves together and delivered one of the most blisteringly heartfelt performances I have ever witnessed. There was still some wobble in the tone, vowel mismatches between sections, unevenness in the arcs of the phrases, but there was also an astonishingly intense unity of expression. There was a clarity and ring that tells of souls laid bare singing their truths.

To be fair, I was something of a mess anyway that day. But the choir took me to a place of catharsis where I wept as I had not done before and have not done since. They gave so honestly of themselves, and I will ever be grateful.

And if I want to know what true courage sounds like, I have a model to hold in my heart. If they could do that for my mother, I can do that for those that need music to help them survive the emotional rollercoaster that is real life.

Such a beautiful story of amazing courage and bravery. You are right - there's something rather stirring about what the human spirit can achieve in heartbreaking moments of grief and sadness. Thank you for sharing this with your many friends and followers.

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