It was one of those lean Christmases where you grab any gig that comes your way…
It was one of those lean Christmases where you grab any gig that comes your way. And when I was booked to put a quartet together to sing Christmas carols for the launch of a fishing tackle shop, I seized the chance. It was in a super posh part of town, and inside the cream stuccoed building there weren’t too many people wandering around wearing waders, rustling greaseproof paper, or slurping from thermoses. None, in fact. Instead, lots of people dressed up to the nines and looking as if most of the time they were more comfortable wearing plus-fours and shouting at Labradors.
I had not left quite enough time for us to rehearse, let me state this boldly up front. I’d dug out au gratin copies of Carols for Choirs containing all the old favourites. Shoe-horned into a stock room, the four of us planned what we were going to sing and the whole thing got off to a cracking start with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Lully Lula started well, then someone forgot a repeat and there was a bit of shuffling and an unintended element of Hindemith about the whole thing. We redeemed ourselves with Silent Night as the store filled up with a forest of quilted jackets and red trousers.
Personent Hodie is always a winner, I find, and it’s got lots of verses so you can just carry on going, and it uses up a good lot of time when you are running out of inspiration. The only problem is that in the edition we had, the extra verses were not written out under the notes. They were over the page. So you do the first Personent Hodie, all good, every syllable written neatly under the notes; then you get the second verse In mundo nascitur, yup fine; and then you’re on your own and you think, “Oh, how hard can this be?” On to Magi tres venerunt, flapping the page over from tune to words and back again, yeah, on a roll here, approaching the home strait.
I get to about the seventh verse and I realise I’ve miscalculated; I’ve used too many of the allotted notes for too few words, and I can see this precipice looming ahead like in The Italian Job, in this case the precipice being the end of the notes. I’m running out of notes but I still having almost an entire sentence of Latin syllables to sing. And as you’re hurtling towards this, you become aware that the other singers beside you – the alto, who’s been mucking about all the way through, the tenor who isn’t really concentrating because he’s been trying to grab canapés as waiters sway past, and the bass who wasn’t feeling well due to last night’s prawn bhoona – all have suddenly spotted this precipice themselves. And there’s this collective rising sense of panic that you know is going to erupt in the sort of inappropriate laughter one gets at a funeral when you really, really shouldn’t be giggling. And the tightening in one’s chest of dread and hysteria knowing you are one to a part and there is no-one else to save you. And you’re going to end up having to sing an entire sentence on one note and you know, just know, you are all going to laugh.
It didn’t help that there was a distracting television screen downstairs in the shop that was displaying adverts for products to do with fishing tackle. At one point on the massive screen, there was a maggot wiggling on the end of a fishing hook, huge and monstrous in close up. And it was one of those moments where you think you’re going to have to stage a heart attack to get out of the fact that you have too many words to too few notes, and there’s a giant maggot taunting you from below, and you are laughing and cannot sing, and your musical life flashes before your eyes. You want to rewind to the time where you thought you could get away with a quick half hour run-through beforehand, and replace that decision with one that factors in more time, less music, and a paper bag to put over one’s shamed head.
Christmas was redeemed, however, with a gig a week later outside a North London butcher’s shop where we got free packets of sausages, and no-one noticed that I went wrong in Hark the Herald at the moment when I spotted Charles Dance queuing up to collect his turkey. It’s the small things that make it all worthwhile.
They didn’t ask us back at the fishing tackle place the following year, but that’s ok because the butcher’s shop seem quite keen on repeated bookings, and there’s always the chance of a knockdown broiler and a celebrity sighting. The jobbing singer’s life is one of glamour, all the way.
A Musical Advent is produced by Joanna Sleight © 2021