We knew we were singing well; I was putting my heart and soul into it, and, tangibly, I knew everyone around me was doing the same. Clattering around in my brain were also a host of last minute instructions from our meticulous choir mistress Debbie Walton, ‘Don’t be tempted to just go for it! Focus! Focus! Keep the momentum!’ Sure, we were expecting a positive response from our friends and families. But when the entire auditorium erupted and dotted about the auditorium members of rival choirs leapt to their feet to applaud us, we found ourselves momentarily basking in a type of glory reserved for the pop world. We smiled warmly back for a while, mouthing our thank yous and nodding erratically. But it went on and on. Gradually we started to glance around at one another, catching looks that said, ‘Are you getting this?’; ‘Is this actually happening?’
That’s the thing about the BBC Choir of the Year Competition – the generosity of spirit that comes from valuing the same musical goal: to communicate to the audience in song to the very best of each choir’s ability.
That facility to sing at that level comes from a huge amount of effort and a massive time commitment to prepare just three contrasting songs for a performance that is over in a flash. Our programme comprised of the fast-moving and profoundly complex ‘Rytmus’ by Ivan Hrusovsky, followed by a piece which has become something of a signature tune for us, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, an Irish folksong arranged especially for us by the composer Gwyn Arch, and finally the celebratory spiritual ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’, arranged by Moses Hogan.
The format at the Choir of the Year Competition is that two judges out of three give immediate feedback on the performance. The comments were effusive and by now I was rooted to the stage with an inane grin stuck on my face. Eventually a fellow member chivvied me off. We all thought the feedback was over of course, but it was then that the third judge managed to grab the microphone, announcing that she had never seen a choir sing with such freedom of expression that we started to feel confident we were going to get through to the next round.
Why did Surrey Hills Chamber Choir get such a warm response? Well, choral singing is no longer about standing stiffly with one’s nose in a score. We sing from memory, which frees our hands and bodies up to fully engage with the music. We also sing unconducted – there’s no choir director standing between us and the audience. Our aim is to fully convey the music to the audience, without any inhibition. We work as hard on story-telling as we do on perfecting notes and singing technique.
Surrey Hills Chamber Choir was indeed awarded the coveted Choir of the Day certificate at the Basingstoke heats of this nationally acclaimed competition. It was our first time of entering. In all there are seven heats of this Arts Council sponsored event, which take place all around the country and in Northern Ireland. Of those that received a certificate in this round, four in each category (Children, Youth, Adult and an Open category for mixed age choirs) will be chosen to compete in the category finals at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on 6 October. From those sixteeen, the best six choirs, the four winners and 2 wildcards, will then compete at the Royal Festival Hall on 28th October in the grand final, which will be broadcast by the BBC on radio and TV.
Fingers crossed. We will know, in June, if we have got through to the category finals.