Thoughts from the Chapel

Anon 22 January 2019
Image Credit: Cornell University Library via Flickr

Today, someone else left my choir. Left it not at the end of a long year of concerts, tours, recordings and the repetitive evensong, but instead after only a term. I don’t blame them, I get it. I know of two other people thinking of leaving. Yet despite also thinking of leaving myself, I can’t get past the fact that I know I won’t. I haven’t got any greater mental strength that keeps me in this hobby/alleged-career-prospect, yet I just won’t leave.

Last year Varsity published an article about the choral scene in Cambridge. Like all the other choirs, we discussed it, reflecting on its inaccuracies and biases yet also appreciating that it provoked such conversations. It was one of the only times I’ve encountered how effective ‘raising awareness’ can be. It changed my perspective on the simple power of talking about things.

Being in a choir is a weirdly individual experience, your experience of a rehearsal and evensong is often vastly different from your neighbours. God knows what it’s actually like to be an organist up there away from everyone. So it’s quite alienating when you are suffering, perhaps under the condescending comments of your fellow singers, or perhaps after a harshly worded comment from your director, or more often from a kind of ‘imposter syndrome’ unique to a place where self-confidence is quite hard to make and preserve. It’s a place where a lot of people, including me, are in constant need of validation, anything to make you think: ‘I got this’. When you stand there for 2 hours just singing, usually not talking, not able to steady your thoughts with the reassuring similarity of another’s unenjoyable experience, it’s hard to remember that everything is fine, and to notice that the person over there on the other side of the aisle hasn’t said anything today. Choirs are often seen as cram-packed; everyone knows everyone else, and knows with excruciating precision exactly why they are annoying. Yet they are also, much like a London crowd, places of isolation in community. Its easy to be missed.

That Varsity article talked a lot about choir directors at Cambridge being responsible for so much pain, through bullying, harassment or ignorance. It’s an industry where, like the others, this kind of thing happens a lot. Yet perhaps more uniquely it’s an industry where one person’s actions can affect everyone’s around them with no oversight, no adequate welfare training and no accountability. Yet about year on from that article’s publication in February 2018, it might be useful to consider whether anything has changed. My director has certainly made inroads towards a more open discussion of problems in the choir, yet there is still no adequately defined welfare office where complaints can be made without repercussions. Nor is there anyone neutral who has the power to address such complaints. Yet. It always somehow comes back to this ‘yet’. It suggests that this experience is one of those you can weigh on the scale and decide rationally whether it makes you happy or not. One of those ones I’ve yet to find.

I know about two choir directors outside of Cambridge under investigation for bullying and sexual harassment and many more have been already charged. In my experience as a chorister I was bullied, made to cry, forced to perform the 18th century punishment of writing lines. Yet all of it was absorbed into a narrative of necessary suffering. It would build my character, allow me to become better. Those people who left, weren’t strong enough, weren’t chorister material. Its at this point that people mention sports teams and how in all competitive places hard work is part of the norm.

It is interesting to consider why the choirs in Cambridge get a lot of attention, in terms of their pastoral problems. Maybe I’m not tuned in to the problems surrounding the rowing community or the other sports teams. It’s obviously much more likely that I’ll know about the problems of my own community, yet the narratives I know about the rowing teams all involve camaraderie and rowing chat, whereas with choirs it’s all about our relationships with our superiors. It definitely seems naïve to suggest that only choirs have this problem. Any group that meets again and again every week is bound to have problems of some sort especially in the stressful environment that Cambridge can sometimes, if not always, be. Let me clarify, therefore. I can only talk about my experience of the choir I’m in and I definitely can’t talk about rowing or anything else. I think my only small talk with a rower would involve crabs…

All I know is that I’m staying, despite, with and against the problems. I love my fellow singers, I’ve spent what feels like years with them and I’m really sad that I can’t get to know those people that have left. I know that if I could weigh this experience on the scale, I would probably leave, yet I just can’t.

Go to an evensong in your college, if they do them. Give us a reason to keep doing this.