Well, me and 3,840 other people!
I’d heard about the huge choirs of amateur singers that sometimes gather at the Albert Hall to sing together, but had never got further than thinking vaguely that it might be nice to join in. It took another member of my local choir to start the ball rolling and whip up some enthusiasm, and eventually tickets were bought for “Messiah From Scratch” in November. It was unfortunate that all four members of our little group then did the same thing – put the tickets aside without checking to find out exactly what was involved – so it was just a few weeks before the date of the concert before we realised that when the organisers called it “From Scratch”, they really meant it. We were to turn up at 6.15pm in order to be ready for the concert to start at 7pm, without even a few minutes in which to warm up, let alone actually practise the music!
At this stage, we had no way of knowing how many people would be singing with us, and therefore how exposed our own singing abilities and knowledge of the music would be. If we’d known then that nearly 4,000 people would be there to sing, we probably wouldn’t have worried so much, but even so, The Messiah isn’t especially easy music to sing and none of us had sung it all the way through for years, if at all. Our first task obviously was to get hold of copies of the musical score, and even this wasn’t simple as the organisers specified the exact version to be used. Here, though, we were very lucky as our local library still had just enough copies left for us to borrow even though Christmas was approaching fast. Recordings of the work then had to be found/bought/borrowed, and our unfortunate families had to suffer the dreadful, dirge-like sound of amateur singers droning their own rather approximate version of Handel’s great work along to a professional recording. All four of our group are contraltos, which means we sing the lower of the two female parts, mainly to provide harmony, so we never get the good tunes. I have to confess that in our household, even the cat found pressing reasons to go out once I and/or my daughter started rehearsing!
By the week before the date of the concert, we were all beginning to wonder why we’d volunteered for this event. Some friends and colleagues were incredulous. “You mean you have to pay in order to sing at the Albert Hall? You don’t get paid to do it?” And no, we don’t get paid, and we do have to pay (£20 for this performance) because this was a charity event, and the proceeds were going to the British Heart Foundation.
An added complication was the dress code. As ever, men got off lightly as they were only required to wear a dark suit, but ladies were requested to look elegant, with sopranos wearing blue, and the contraltos red. None of us had anything red which could remotely be described as “elegant” so several hours had to be spent in going around the shops in the search for red tops to be worn with black skirts or trousers, but eventually we managed to cobble together some respectable outfits, and by 4 pm on the day of the concert we were all dressed up and heading for the station for the trip to South Kensington.
We were in luck; the trains and tubes ran perfectly, and within an hour and a half we were outside the Royal Albert Hall, where people were gathering and chatting enthusiastically. After demolishing the sandwiches which we’d brought with us and paying a quick visit to the Ladies, we made our way to the seats which we’d been allocated, right up in the Circle. Already nervous and a little bit prone to vertigo, I found the steepness of the rake and the height above the main auditorium alarming and for a few minutes was wondering if I’d have to remain sitting for the whole of the performance, but I became acclimatized to it surprisingly soon and began to relax and take in the scene. We’d taken our seats quite early, so were able to watch the other singers gradually arriving and taking up their positions all around the Hall. Lots of people were greeting friends, while others were arriving on their own, clearly content just to be there and to sing. The majority of singers were probably in the middle-aged to mature bracket, but there was a substantial number of young people too. There was also considerable variation in dress. While a lot of women had opted for the safe combination of black bottoms with a red top of some kind, others had made only a minimal gesture towards the dress code with perhaps just a red flower or brooch pinned onto a black T shirt. A few had decided to take the light-hearted approach and were apparently wearing fancy dress, with one rather substantially built young woman happily wearing what looked like the costume of the Red Fairy, complete with frills and red sequins.
By the time we’d arrived at the Royal Albert Hall, it had felt as though we’d travelled quite a long way on a dark winter evening but when Don Monro, the man who had dreamt up The Really Big Chorus in 1974, stood up to speak, he welcomed singers from around the world! Singing alongside us would be singers from Australia, Canada, South Africa and many parts of Europe, so popular have these events become.
His short speech over, the soloists and the conductor, Brian Kay, took their places, and the orchestra struck up the overture. At this point, I noticed a really interesting phenomenon. Up until then all the people I’d been watching, far away on the other side of the hall, had been sitting relaxed in their seats, sometimes bending down to adjust their belongings, sometimes chatting to other singers beside them. But the moment that familiar music started it was if an electric current had passed through them all, or as if an order had been barked out. In an instant, everyone was sitting bolt upright, heads erect, their entire bodies looking alert and ready to sing.
After a beautifully sung aria from the young tenor (“Comfort Ye, My People”) the conductor signalled to singers on the ground floor of the auditorium to stand. It was really at this point that we became aware of how different it would be to sing in such a huge hall with so many other singers. We could see the conductor, but from our position high up in the Circle, he was just a tiny figure far below, and when we lifted our music to sing, he became invisible behind it! Instead of relying on him for cues as to when to come in, when to slow down, and all the other more subtle variations in the performance, we’d be dependent on hearing other voices singing our part in other areas of the auditorium, the singers who were much closer to the conductor and could therefore follow his directions.
I think it’s fair to say that the first few choruses were a little bit ragged, while the singers gradually got used to the acoustics. At one point, I could see the conductor frantically signalling to the huge mass of sopranos to sing more quickly, but, however distinguished and able he may be, it’s a brave man who takes on a thousand sopranos alone, and very wisely he deferred to their group judgement and allowed the choir to find its own pace. Before very long, our little group had relaxed in the knowledge that any musical mistake we might make would be lost in the huge volume of sound being produced by so many singers.
One of the delights of singing with these big choirs at the RAH is being able to watch and listen to the soloists. For this performance, the soloists were all very young singers in training for professional careers, and to me at least their extreme youth added poignancy to the music.
Our position in the Circle meant that we were well placed to make a dash in the interval to the bar, so by the time the second half began and our gin/vodka’s were taking effect, we were feeling quite comfortable and ready to tackle the remaining choruses with enthusiasm. By now, the choir was (almost) singing as one, so that by the time we reached the famous Hallelujah Chorus, I think we produced a very creditable performance. Knowing that our audience would all have been eagerly anticipating this most famous of all choruses probably tipped the tension rates up a notch, and I think we all gave it all we’d got. It certainly got a rapturous reception from the audience! Many people think that the Hallelujah chorus is the final part of the Messiah but in fact there are more arias to follow, before the last chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” leading into the final section known as the Amen chorus. This is a far more sombre and spiritual chorus, and I felt that the huge choir sang it with a surprising amount of sensitivity and feeling, perhaps aided by the knowledge that this marked the end of the occasion.
Discussion of the evening had to be postponed until we’d accomplished the journey back to the railway station, but, once on the homeward-bound train, we shared our thoughts. My daughter and I agreed that we hadn’t experienced the huge rush of emotion felt by a lot of singers, which was a surprise and a bit of a disappointment, but I suspect that this was due to our position in the Hall. Because we were so high up, the sound of the rest of the choir was coming to us almost as if we were listening to a recording, whereas I think that if we’d been seated downstairs in the main auditorium we’d have been far more aware of being part of a huge group of singers. We agreed that it was only towards the end of the concert that we’d really relaxed and enjoyed ourselves, so we’re all keen to have another go before too long. It was clear from the joy and sense of achievement on some of the faces around us that taking part in this event means a huge amount to many people and I suspect that like them, we’re already hooked and will be booking our places for the next big chorus. This time though we won’t get so stressed about our musical abilities (or lack of them) as all we need to do is relax and prepare to enjoy ourselves and let the music and the other singers scoop us up and carry us along with them.
Contributing Author: Janet Hamer
For more information about how The Really Big Chorus began, and how to get tickets, the website to go to is www.trbc.co.uk
Am I the only woman to be deterred from all the benefits conferred by swimming by the sheer horrors awaiting me in the changing rooms?
When my six year old daughter managed to dry and dress herself more quickly than I did, I realised I was a slow-starter in certain organisational skills. And she even managed to dry between her toes! I’ve never found the time to do that. More than twenty years later -and she’s still watching me with a pitying eye as I struggle to get myself in a state fit to be seen in public after a visit to our local pool.
The problems begin even before the swim. I’ve now got the hang of my new swimming costume after two false starts when I first managed to put it on back to front, and then sideways. (I still don’t quite know how I managed that, but it was certainly an interesting look and worth consideration for next year’s London Fashion Week) So, there I am, costume on, towel tossed over shoulder, hat, goggles and earplugs clutched in one hand, leaving the other to carry everything else to the locker. Coat, scarf, boots, socks, jeans ….well, you can work out the rest, plus a large bag for carrying my swimming kit, and my handbag with money, keys, etc are all to be carried in one hand and fitted into this small space at ground level. Taking tiny steps on the slippery tiled floor, I progress at a snail’s pace but sadly without the snail’s self-contained house, leaving a trail of garments on the floor and watched with bemusement by a couple of sylphlike teenagers.
At last at the lockers, I try to think it all through logically. I open the door, stand sideways on so as to prop it open with my leg, but then realise I can’t bend in that position in order to put things into the locker as I’m facing in the wrong direction. By this stage most of what I’m still carrying is falling from my grasp, so I twist round and with a great heave hurl the rest into the locker, remembering too late that my glasses are among them. Now to retrieve the items I’ve dropped – but I daren’t leave my handbag behind while I do that, and my handbag is underneath all the stuff I’ve just crammed into the locker. I bend down to fish it out, and discover that the twisting and hurling has set off my back problem. Clutching my bag, I retrace my steps even more slowly now that my back is hurting, collect my belongings, return to the locker and stow everything away more neatly, slamming the door closed before everything falls out. Then I remember that I need a pound coin to lock the door, and the pound is in my handbag and my handbag has just been packed away at the bottom of the locker. Starting now to feel just a bit impatient, I tear everything out onto the floor, and extract the pound coin before piling everything back in, noting as I do so that most of my clothes are now wet due to the puddles of water on the floor which unfortunately I hadn’t noticed before.
Locker locked, all I now have to do is put on my swimming hat and that’s when I realise that I’ve thrown my hat and goggles into the locker along with everything else. Gritting my teeth I open the locker, yank out the missing items, and shut it again, before pausing for a moment to fasten onto my wrist the plastic wrist-strap holding the locker key. I say “for a moment” when what I actually mean is “for at least five minutes” as these things were never intended to be fastened with just one hand as they’re entirely rigid and therefore can’t be wrapped closely around the wrist without some pressure being applied. I brace my wrist against my knee, against the wall, and finally against the slatted seats – which involves kneeling sideways on the floor beside them, watched this time with concern by several small children.
My actual swim takes about ten minutes, since by now I am feeling exhausted. Sure that I’m being observed with scorn by all the regulars as they speed up and down the lanes, I creep away from the water and head for the showers. I hang my towel on the hook helpfully positioned on the back of the door, turn on the water and discover that I’ve brought with me the tube of body lotion rather than the matching shower gel. Never mind, I can at least rinse off the chlorine with plentiful hot water, which is fine until I realise that the hook can’t have been intended for towels as mine is now thoroughly soaked. Avoiding pitying glances as I shuffle back to my locker wrapped in a dripping towel, I open the door but am not quick enough to prevent the contents hurling themselves onto the floor again. Bit by bit I pick them up and clutch them to my soaking bosom before beginning the return journey to the cubicle.
Here, in a space which seems somehow to have shrunk in the past fifteen minutes, I fumble among my possessions for the body lotion and talc as there’s no point in trying to dry myself with a wet towel. Retrieving the lotion with triumph, I start to apply it to my limbs before stopping to puzzle over the apparent bubbles forming. Then I remember that this must be the shower gel that I’m carefully spreading over myself. I have a go with the towel to get rid of it, then shake on some talc in an attempt to soak up the water. Big mistake as now I have a sort of thick paste on my legs. At this point I might perhaps be moaning a little as I retrieve my pants and struggle to get them over my encrusted thighs. Worse is to come with jeans, a close fit at the best of times.
Eventually the horror comes to an end, and I sidle through the changing rooms to the exit. On all sides are women wrapped in clean dry towels, their hair swaddled in yet more clean towels, or fully dressed in dry clothes, carefully renewing their makeup and blow-drying their hair at the mirrors. I catch sight of myself as I scuttle past, hair wet and plastered to my skull, skin red and blotchy from the chlorine, eyes even redder as I never did find my goggles again, clothes looking as if they’d just been dragged from the dirty washing basket before being left out in a storm.
How does everyone else do it all so easily? And why can’t I?
Contributing author: Janet Hamer
This is the story of Althea Hayton, a counsellor from St Albans who, after many years of soul-searching, had come to the conclusion that she had shared the womb for part of the time with a twin. She discovered me over the internet, because she knew that talking therapies could not access the areas of her life that were pre-verbal, pre-birth. And indeed my approach, myth-a-drama, enabled her to not only to heal this issue, but as a result of that experience, she found her life work.
This is her story.
“It started with the insight that I may have once been a twin, and that was why so many tiny details about my life that had always puzzled me, were always on my mind. I was very concerned with the life of the unborn child, thought a lot about death and dying and was never happier than when I was with one other person engaged in deep intense conversation at an empathetic level.”
She took part in a nine month programme I offered, the Ritual Theatre Group, and as a result was able to re-experience being small, being angry and very powerful in that anger. About half way through the programme, and after much planning, she created a special ritual to release her lost twin.
She claims that “there has never been a more intensely emotional, cathartic and cleansing experience in my whole life than that day”.
Unable to function normally for some days as she planned the ritual, she planned every detail. Every day for two weeks before the day, she wore a chiffon turquoise scarf that she loved and had bought for herself – for her, turquoise is the colour of dreams. She also took up a wide beige Indian cotton and made that ready, with some white card labels with ideas – ‘strength’, ‘dreams’ and ‘creativity’ written on them – to hang about the necks of the other group members.
A special ritual about the lost twin
She thought for a long time about music, then picked her favourite piece part of Bach’s Double Violin concerto. With a blindfold from a plane trip, a shallow meat tin and some matches, she was ready. The ritual, although involving other group members slightly, was a very personal thing. She sat inside a womb shape on the floor made with cloth, barefoot and blindfolded with the two scarves. One of the group members was nominated by the group to touch her gently from time to time – in the darkness of the womb, she was there with the tiny companion known only by touch.
The music played until, suddenly, the group made a terrible noise with percussion instruments – the catastrophe that took her brother away. She reached out, taking control, touching them one by one to make them quiet, in order to heal a sense of helplessness that had haunted her all her life. In the silence, the violin concerto played on. She stepped out of the womb and took off the blindfold, putting labels on group members to represent the gifts that her little companion had left. That didn’t work very well – she had to do this alone.
So to the strains of the music, she danced with the two scarves. As the music faded to silence, she came to the meat tin on the floor that contained a painting she had done of Kali, representing her negative anger, vengefulness and destructive power. She tore the picture into pieces but kissed every piece, forgiving and accepting all the negative qualities. Then placing the pieces back in the tin and covering them with the scarf, she carried it outside and set fire to it.
Later, she tipped the ash in the dustbin – they no longer had any power over her. Later, at home and still stunned by the experience, she knew that a final act of letting go was required. In a cleansing ritual, she gathered up the piles of papers she had accumulated over the previous twenty years about the unborn child, putting then into a black sack for recycling. Now, finally after more than fifty years, she has found peace.
She says: Since that amazing day, which has allowed me to put actions and images to a vague sense of something that had haunted me all my life, I have not looked back. I entered into a totally new phase of my life with ever rising energy and increasing focus. Within two years I had walked enough of my healing path to a point where I was ready for action. What happened was way beyond my expectations! I decided to write about womb twin survivors in 2002 and have since then created two anthologies of articles and stories about womb twin survivors and a major work detailing my eight year Womb Twin research project.
In 2007 I set up a non-profit organisation to help womb twin survivors and I now give seminars and workshops for womb twin survivors in various countries. Without that wonderful opportunity to express in the Ritual Theatre Group the grief and despair that had been within me all my life and say a loving farewell to my twin brother, many hundreds of womb twin survivors would not have been helped in the way they have. I didn’t know I had it in me, but myth-a-drama helped me to set it free.
Althea’s story will be featured in the book I am currently editing Ritual Theatre: Theatre of Healing to be published by Jessica Kingsley later this year in which I describe how I have helped hundreds of people like Althea heal issues that nothing else would work for. Most of my clients feel blocked, that some part of them is locked away. Myth-a-drama is based on drama therapy and brings together the healing power of drama and myth. It works for many reasons and enables participants to work directly with the unconscious patterns deeply buried within then. But most importantly it is enormous fun, and the fun aspect is why it is so accessible, liberating and enjoyable.
Guest Contributor: Claire Schrader
For details of Althea’s new book “WOMB TWIN SURVIVORS: the lost twin in the Dream of the Womb” published in March 2011 go to http://www.altheahayton.com/wren/womb-twin-surviv.html
I took the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Norway to Norway with me on a recent trip to Oslo, having established that no guide seemed to be published for the city alone. I suppose that given the population of the whole country is just under 5,000,000, and of the capital just over 600,000 (and, interesting bit of trivia here, if you tipped the thin strip of land that is Norway on end it would reach Sicily), it’s not really surprising. That said, there is an amazing amount to see in Oslo, and almost every minute of our four-day trip there was packed.
The DK guide, as customary with all their travel publications, is a feast for the eyes. The sheer quality of the paper and dazzling colour photographs do great justice to the sights of the town and all information was almost 100% accurate, no mean achievement when changes in charges and opening times are almost inevitable. The series has an interesting feature which picks out what it considers the most interesting attractions which it describes in greater detail; subjectively, I agree with their choices, notably the Vigelandsparken, Oslo’s largest park packed with 212 sculptures of people, young, middle-aged and old, named after the sculptor Gustav Vigeland. It’s a unique experience and not to be missed on a trip to Oslo.
The city is also home to a plethora of museums, six of which are on the peninsula of Bygdoy. This is most easily reached by a frequent boat service. The Norwegian Folk Museum is an open-air affair to which historic buildings have been transported from the whole country; (Stockholm has the same idea at Skansen). Nearby is the Viking Museum with three genuine Viking ships on display. Go one stop further on the boat and you’ll come to the Kon Tiki museum, named after the raft on which Thor Heyerdahl proved that by building sailing craft with the simplest of materials, indigenous peoples from Peru could have sailed to Easter Island. Next door is the Fram museum, with the actual boat that explored the Arctic and Antarctic at the beginning of the 20th century, and in which the Norwegian Amundsen pipped Scott to the post by reaching the South Pole first. Back to Oslo Central for even more museums and galleries, notably the National Gallery which has a wonderful international collection as well as fine examples of Norwegian painters and the Munch museum which showcases the work of perhaps the most famous one. My interest in theatre led me to the Henrik Ibsen museum which houses an interesting exhibition of the playwright’s work but more importantly, offers tours round the apartment where he spent the last years of his life.
My only quibble with the Guide was that it failed to mention the Oslo Pass. This can be bought for 24, 48 or 72 hours and covers all transport and museum entrance fees for the period as well as discounts in certain restaurants and bars. The 72 hour pass cost around £50, but I carefully noted and added up what individual tickets would cost; thanks to our fervent desire to soak up as much culture as possible, the total spend came to over £100! And while we did more than just scratch Oslo’s cultural surface, there was masses that we didn’t have time to visit!
And perhaps my only quibble with Oslo itself is the cost. It has a deserved reputation of being the most expensive city in Europe and eating out (and certainly drinking out as well as in) is eye-wateringly dear. That said, the people are very friendly and welcoming and despite the cost it’s a city I’d dearly like to visit again. I said so to the nice bus driver as he unloaded our cases at the airport for our trip home. He seemed genuinely pleased that we had enjoyed his city and hoped that we would indeed come back ‘when we could afford it’!
The DK Guide to Norway is published by Dorling Kindersley and available from DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Norway
Jeannette Nelson, Contributing author