When we were asked in our Ethnomusicology course to write a field report on a musical event, location or ensemble, I considered the various musical outlets in my own life. I was part of several university music ensembles – playing flute in the university Concert Band and accompanying the Rock Gospel Choir on piano – and I was also a member of the Singing Group at St Mary’s church, Aberdeen. I eventually chose to research St Mary’s Singing Group because the university music ensembles are all really academic. They’re filled with students who can read music and play a variety of instruments. I wanted to explore music created by people who might not have had quite such rigorous musical training.
However, not long after I’d decided to use the Singing Group as the subject of my Ethnomusicology report, the Singing Group Leader, Mike Hay, announced at one of the rehearsals that the Singing Group was too small, members weren’t turning up for rehearsals and if this didn’t improve, this Singing Group would have to be disbanded!
This was not a complete shock. There had been prior talk of having to stop the Singing Group temporarily but it wasn’t until now that actions were actually being taken to pull back.
First the rehearsals stopped. The Singing Group continued to sing at the Sunday service, but only the Anthem. The Introit had been cut. And, eventually, the group stopped singing completely.
I had first encountered the Singing Group when I attended a Christmas Carol Service that my best friend, a member of the group, invited me to. They sang various Christmas Carols – some I knew, most I didn’t and all I enjoyed – and shortly after that, I was a member of the group myself. But, despite my having been a member of the group for two years, it wasn’t until I came to write this report that I realised I didn’t really know very much about the Singing Group at all.
When I asked the Singing Group Leader, Mike Hay, how the group had got started, he told me it all began in 2004. Mike had arranged for a small group of volunteers to get together to sing some Christmas carols and, finding that they enjoyed singing together, it had been decided that they would keep going, and the group grew from there.
Mike was very clear that the group was, and always had been, as informal as possible. They never turned anyone away, regardless of what their voice sounded like, because the whole idea of the group was to come along and have fun through music. The quality of the voices was unimportant because, as Mike said, “we’ll cope with anything that’s thrown at us.” Coming from a mindset where musical proficiency was always the main goal, this idea of enjoying and sharing music for music’s sake regardless of ability seemed very foreign to me. Mike explained that the vast majority of the initial members of the group were not musicians by any stretch of the imagination and even Mike himself, although he had been in choirs from the age of eight, did not read music although he could follow it if given the first note.
I’ve never allowed it to be called a choir. I’ve resisted it! Elsie [the church minister] has kept trying to get me to call it St Mary’s Choir. If you don’t sing in parts [SATB] you’re not a choir, to my mind. So that’s why it’s always been kept as the Singing Group. And I also feel there’s more chance of attracting some people to a Singing Group rather than a “Choir”, you know? If you call it a church choir people might feel that they can’t go into that.
I could see where Mike was coming from. The first image that comes to my mind when I imagine a church choir is of angelic, pre-pubescent, classically trained choristers in white robes – possibly lit by candlelight – singing complex, polyphonic hymns. And while such choirs’ perfect voices and harmonies are undeniably fantastic, they can also be inaccessible and intimidating to the listeners and discourage those who are less musically confident to be involved in their church’s musical activities.
Although the Singing Group is very openly accepting of everyone of all standards, Mike explained that it has nevertheless developed to be more ambitious:
We’ve been doing a lot more things that we’d never even have dreamt about when we first started out. If I’d said to them that they were going to sing in three parts, you wouldn’t have seen them for dust! But now they take it in their stride... I think it’s a confidence matter, really. They realised they could do it and it wasn’t too scary.
The group certainly has been more adventurous recently. When the group started out they would only sing simple songs in unison. But the selection of songs that have been recorded shows the variety of ways in which the Singing Group has progressed over its lifetime. We can see from Christmas isn’t Christmas and Highland Cathedral that often the Singing Group is split into two parts: males and females. Occasionally extra instruments are added, as in Mary’s Boy Child and Calypso Carol, and sometimes the arrangements are made more complicated: adding soloists (In the Bleak Midwinter) or creating extra parts (Father We Adore You).
The addition of instruments other than the organ was a relatively new step for the Singing Group. Calum Cameron, who first introduced me to the Singing Group, was the first person to add instrumentation with his trumpet three years ago. He told me how that came about:
They had a fanfare arrangement of the hymn [Stand up, Stand up for Jesus]. I think I had told Mike previously in a general conversation about music that I had a Grade 7 in trumpet. And so, because it was a fanfare arrangement of the piece that he had, he clearly remembered that I was a trumpeter and therefore asked if I would bring my trumpet to the rehearsal and see what it sounded like with the actual trumpet fanfare alongside the singing. And when we tried that it went down pretty well so every so often, if there’s another trumpet-suitable song, Mike will make the same request.
I thought this was really brilliant; it showed Mike is always thinking of new ways to help and encourage the Singing Group. He invests a lot of time and effort into the group: he’s in charge of the song choice – which he selects from a wide variety of sources; he teaches the songs to the group; and then he sings and conducts at every Sunday service.
I asked Mike how he chose the pieces (which Calum had very aptly described as “the kind of old-school, moody and sanky-type church organ music”). Mike told me that he just chose what he liked! His background as a chorister gave him a good knowledge of church music to begin with and he also borrows music from the other choirs he’s involved in.
Of course, we have access to the church hymns themselves, and the psalms. I think the tunes are wonderful. So I’m just selfish and choose things I like! But things that are basically simple as well. We don’t go for anything too complicated. The internet, of course, is another source. I use a couple of websites which allow me to listen to the music in addition to printing the sheet music.
I wanted to know what effect the Singing Group had on the church and congregation, so I talked to Elsie Fortune, the church minister. She told me that when she arrived at the church, the congregation wouldn’t sing out at all. They enjoyed music but were timid because they didn’t feel they had a lot of musical ability. After the Singing Group was created everyone was more enthusiastic and felt they could sing out more. The Singing Group was a welcome addition to the church services:
The congregation just loves the Singing Group: the variety of music that you sing ... Sometimes it raises the roof, other times you can hear a pin drop in the silence after you’ve finished. The hairs go up on the back of my neck when [the Singing Group] sings. And that’s why when we were talking about disbanding it and not being able to carry on all the congregation were very much against the idea. So, you know, they’re very enthusiastic and really enjoy you leading us.
Elsie explained that the Singing Group was very therapeutic for the congregation. There were several older members who had been lovely musicians and singers in the past but were now not so able. “The Singing Group really does have a calming effect,” she said, “and yet there’s an energy in it as well. And of course, your flute and Calum’s trumpet just add to the whole thing.”
It was clear from talking to Elsie that the congregation didn’t want the Singing Group to discontinue, yet the future of the group is on tenterhooks. With fewer members than it has ever had, and complications with Mike’s health, the group is in danger of being disbanded altogether. Calum told me that he would be sad to see the group die because it was the only regular musical outlet he had but he added that, while it’s always a bit of a disappointment to lose a church tradition that was enjoyable, there’s little that can be done if the resources or manpower are just not there. At the moment Mike is waiting to see how things progress over the summer.
My current plan is that I will call a practice meeting in September to offer an ultimatum: if people want a Singing Group then they have to come to practices and if they don’t come along and help us out then there won’t be one.This entire experience of researching St Mary’s Singing Group has taught me a lot. It has made me re-examine my own musical values (which I think have a tendency to be a bit snobbish) and has given me a greater appreciation of how much of a positive effect music has on everyone – regardless of how much training they’ve had. And while I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Mike, both as a person and as a Singing Group leader, I don’t think I quite realised how much work he puts into the group. I think he’s done a fantastic job of bringing music into a church which had been very shy and reserved around music beforehand. It would be a real shame to see that musical enjoyment disappear.
For more information on the research process for this essay, including transcripts of the full interviews with Mike Hay, Elsie Fortune and Calum Cameron, visit the full website I created here.