Tottenham Community ChoirAt the end of March this year, I started attending rehearsals at Tottenham Community Choir. I wasn’t sure it was going to be the kind of thing I would stick with, but stick with it I have.

When I tell people I’m part of a choir the differing reactions are quite interesting. They range from bemusement, to jealousy, to disbelief, and tend to be followed by a barrage of questions. There are usually too many questions, all at once, and I hardly ever feel like I answer them sufficiently.

With Tottenham getting a lot of attention for the wrong reasons at the moment, now seems like a good time to talk about something positive in the area.

Therefore I have decided to compile answers to the questions I am most frequently asked about joining Tottenham Community Choir.

  • “Did you have to audition?”
No. I went and hid amongst the tenors and basses, and apparently I didn’t destabilise the harmonics too much so I was allowed to stay. Nobody is singled out and asked to prove their singing chops before joining.
  • “Do you need to be able to read music?”
No. It certainly helps, I would imagine, as you can follow the sheet music more easily. I can’t read music (despite my constant statements that I’m going to learn), and this makes me feel like a bit of a dunce. That’s why I want to learn the basics – but if I didn’t learn I wouldn’t be chucked out of the choir. I’m certainly not the only one in the choir who can’t read music.
  • “How do you know whether you’re a tenor or a bass, etc?”
Unless you’ve sung in a choir before, you probably won’t know. I suspected I was a tenor but didn’t know for sure until I went along and found what felt most comfortable.
  • “Do you have to wear a cossack? (sic)
No, I am under no obligation to wear any form of eastern European.
  • “Do you have to wear a hassock? (sic)
No, I am under no obligation to wear furniture of any kind.
  • “Do you have to wear a cassock?”
No. The choir is nothing to do with churches or religion or any of that stuff. So we don’t dress like priests. We may do the odd hymn here and there, but that’s because they sound good.
  • “What songs do you sing?”

It’s a mixture. There are pop songs, hymns, bits of opera. I like the mixture of material, it prevents any one style taking over. Since I joined, songs we’ve we’ve worked on have included:

– “Fly Me To The Moon”
– “Just The Way You Look Tonight”
– “Love Me Tender”
– “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”
– “I’ll Be There” (Jackson 5, not Four Tops)
– “Ave Verum Corpus”
– “Cantique De Jean Racine”
– “What A Wonderful World” (Armstrong, not Cooke)
– Bits from “Prince Igor”
  • “Do you do choreographed dance moves, like in Rock Choir?”
No, thank goodness. We are encouraged to sway and jiggle and whatnot if we want to, but it’s not compulsory.
  • “What do you wear?”
You can wear what you want to rehearsals. When it comes to live performance we wear “shades of purple” (i.e. purple, lilac, etc), interpreted as each member sees fit (i.e. you wear a shirt/dress/whatever of your choosing). Thankfully the trousers are allowed to be black.
  • “How often do you perform in public?”

Not very often at the moment. We’re concentrating on building up our repetoire so that when the performances become more regular, they’re really good. In my time at the choir we’ve done a wedding and a couple of end-of-term school fetes.

We’re going to perform at the Haringey Green Lanes Food Festival on September 18th, and we’re also looking at doing a benefit gig for those affected by the recent riots in Tottenham (follow @TottenhamGig for details). We’re also going to do a winter concert in the run-up to Christmas, which is the biggie we’re working towards.

  • “How often do you rehearse?”
Generally it’s for two hours every week, on a Tuesday. But something I quickly realised was that you can’t rely on this time alone. You need to practise at home if you’re going to remember your parts and be able to recall lyrics without staring at a piece of paper. I had underestimated that bit of it, which is silly of me because of course it’s going to take more than two hours a week to get into shape.
  • “Do you have a conductor?”

We have a musical director: Nick Williamson. Nick has the borderline impossible job of arranging, playing and teaching everyone the music we perform. In live performance he conducts us and – depending on the set-up – plays the piano as well (no mean feat). I think we’re looking for a piano player to help Nick out, so he’s not stuck behind the piano in rehearsals.

One of the things I’ve been struck by is the amount involved in teaching a choir a) how to sing properly, b) how to sing their individual bits while listening out for everyone else, c) the discipline involved in getting all that stuff right. It’s not easy to communicate all this without behaving like a tyrant and pissing people off. Nick is immensely skilled at doing all this – he’s firm but good-humoured, knowledgeable but charismatic and strict but patient.

I think the result of his approach is that people want to gain his approval, which is an added incentive to put the effort in and nail the songs.

  • “Is it like ‘Sister Act’?”
Yes, very much so, only without the nuns and madcap capers.
  • “Do you do solos?”
They haven’t featured greatly so far, but over the next month or so I gather there will be more opportunity for individuals to “express themselves”.
  • “What are rehearsals like?”

Rehearsals are where we learn the songs. They’re fun, laid back and yet, by nature of how little time we have, they require a fair bit of concentration.

We start with Nick leading us in breathing and singing exercises. This can be anything from taking deep breaths to singing suggestive tongue-twisters designed to make you feel like a berk: “Lick a lolly, lick a lolly, lick a lolly lolly lolly” is a regular. As is “Suck a sweet, suck a sweet, suck a sweet sweet sweet”.

After ten minutes or so of this it’s on to rehearsing the various bits in the songs we’re concentrating on that week. We’ll tend to cover a couple of songs a week, going through each part of each one and then doing a couple of renditions from – as I believe it’s called – “the top”.

  • “What’s the age range?”
From early twenties upwards, I’d say. We have at least one octogenrian, and all ages in between are represented.
  • “How many people are in the choir?”

With full attendance it’s probably about 50-60 people; in performance it kind of depends how many people can make the date in question. Women outnumber men, which means the alto and soprano sections are sizeable. My section, the tenors, is probably the smallest.

This can be difficult if one or two people can’t make it one week; but on the other hand it means those of us who are there need to take responsibility, step up and belt it out.

  • “Do you pay a fee to be in the choir?”
Yes. While the choir doesn’t operate to make a profit there are obviously costs associated with our rehearsal space, sheet music, etc. We pay £40 per school term (normally twelve weeks; £20 concessions and £10 for students/under-16s). But you don’t have to pay if you just want to come along for a couple of weeks and see if it’s for you.
  • “I’m thinking of coming but have questions I’d like to ask. Who should I speak to?”
Email with any questions – that’s what I did, and I got a swift and reassuring reply.
  • “Where do you rehearse?”
Generally it’s every Tuesday, 7.30pm at Downhills Primary School, Philip Lane, London N15 4AB. We tend to relocate or have a break when the school’s closed over holidays.
  • “Do you enjoy it?”
Yes, very much. It can be challenging, but it’s really rewarding to put the practice in and be part of the result: a proper, well-received performance. And if you’re an insatiable egomaniac, you probably already know that applause goes some way to temporarily filling the gaps in your cavernous, empty soul.
  • “Where can I learn more about Tottenham Community Choir?”
At the following links:
  • “What if I’ve only ever sung drunkenly at karaoke?”

Then you’ll be starting from the same position as I did.