Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Le Glee

As I’ve mentioned before, singing isn’t exactly my strong suit, as much as I’d wish it otherwise. The last time I made an attempt to rectify matters vocal & choral was about 13 years ago, when I enrolled in an adult class called the Tone Deaf Clinic. Unfortunately almost every one else in the class was a female older than my mother (including the teacher), had no music training (no not including the teacher) and sang in an arrhythmic strangulated vibrato that my young(er) vocal chords simply could not tune themselves against.

Today I dropped by the house of my friends Chris & Emmy, and over a coffee Emmy mentioned the amateur choir she was a member of, and that it was a great way to integrate with the local community. I asked when the next rehearsal might be, so I could at least sit in and observe (much like a wannabe torturer at Guantanamo). “Tonight”. “Oh?” I replied in my closest approximation to a descending tone, trying not to blast a mouthful of coffee across the table.

Thus at 8.30pm I turned up outside a small building in a commune about 10 minutes away. Emmy was waiting for me in the carpark and led me into a smallish room with a digital keyboard at one end, and about 15 people milling around, removing their overcoats. As I stood in the doorway, 15 pairs of eyes swung around and almost as many mouths cried “un homme! un homme!”. Even in France, men are still in short supply when it comes to singing  - and I await with some trepidation Jean’s invitation to start ballet when she starts teaching dance again.

After muttering some words of introduction, I was tentatively assessed as “tenor” and ushered into a circle for vocal warm-ups. One exercise was to “pass” a sung tone around the room as if in a game of Chinese Whispers. Unfortunately I was the concluding recipient before having to return the “tone”- now sounding like it emanated from a damaged theremin – to the teacher. Listening to this with saintlike forbearance, she would gesture with her hands – higher or lower – in a manner which hadn’t made me so nervous since getting stuck in Naples traffic.


First song was a Jacques Brel number which I knew in English translation. By way of conversation I said “J’adore la musique Belgique” to one of my fellow tenors, which earned an appreciative snigger. Reading the SATB sheet for my part, I quickly realised that I couldn’t manage most of the upper range of notes assigned to the tenors – not intentionally anyway. We moved onto “Down by the riverside” which at least was in English, and halfway through I was shifted one seat over from tenors to basses. That way at least I could rumble under the melody rather than lurching from my so-called chest voice into chipmunky countertenor head voice. There were additional rumblings on occasion from the back of the choir: I’m a head taller than the next tallest person in the group, so when I stand near the front, no one behind can see Mme professeur. Not wanting to rock the bateau regarding placement of basses, I could only smile, stare theatrically at the floor and feign curiosity as to where the little voices from the back were emanating from.

 my f-f-f-f-fêve

Following the singing there was a small amount of wine and cake. I initially turned down the cake, but was convinced to partake as they were celebrating La Fête Des Rois which falls on the first Sunday of each year. The puff-pastry cake or galette des rois (cake of the [three wise] kings) has some object in it – the fêve ( as it was originally a fava bean ) – and the recipient is crowned king. A queen is also anointed, either by discovery of a second fêve, or by the king’s selection. Moments after this was explained to me, I found something hard in the portion of galette I was chewing – I had a mouthful of Super Mario Brother! Alerting the others of this discovery, I was swiftly crowned King – a cardboard gold crown settling onto my head just before I delivered regal kisses onto each cheek of my new Queen. I thanked them and said that I was a bit nervous about being made a king in France because I might be separated from my head. “France is getting a reputation!” someone cried.

I hung around for a while to talk to some of my subjects the other singers – many of whom were not in fact French, but hailed from Germany, Holland, Italy or the UK. I promised to return next week, a mixed blessing for them I’m sure. I’m even more sure that people who have known me for a long time will be crying with laughter (or shock) at the thought of me in any singing capacity. Maybe next week I will substitute Munson…

Postscript: The BBC just published an article Can the tone deaf learn to sing?, with a musical aptitude test run through BBC Labs (requires sign-in).

Music-nerd humour alert: I'm contemplating a treatment for a new primetime TV show about high-school musicians in early 20thC Russia, called GLIERE. It will feature students spontaneously breaking into a concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, and competitions against the Mighty Handful.


  1. Anita2:22 pm

    Fan-bloody-tastic! Good on you. Who cares if you can sing, after all we're supposed to 'sing like no-one is listening' aren't we?

  2. Anonymous1:44 am

    I think you'd look much better in a pompier uniform.

  3. I definitely think you should let Munson help with the singing!! After all, we Mal's do have great singing voices!!