This week I’m practicing Christmas carols and songs on the guitar, having promised to go in to the preschool Christmas party and lead a sing-along.
I’m looking forward to it, but it’s a bit of a far-cry from my days singing four-part harmony original compositions by a choir director who was to go on to become “the pre-eminent Scottish composer of his generation”.
In the mid-eighties my mother taught at a small private school in darkest Ayrshire. A new young music teacher joined the staff and was put up in a staff cottage down at the end of a muddy lane on the edge of the school grounds. He was a passionate, somewhat scruffy, dark haired, bearded and bright-eyed type. Among his other duties in the school, he led a choir of adult voices made up of teachers and their roped-in spouses (including my parents), maybe a few parents and, since I was too young to be left at home alone, me.
The choir met for a couple of months leading up to the school’s annual Christmas concert, which was always held in a frigid old stone church on the village’s main (one) street. In late October it always seemed ridiculous to be learning about Good King Wenceslas’s snowy footprints in four-part harmony, but the nights soon drew in, as they say, and the cold came with them.
A soon as most of the choir members arrived Jimmy (as I was, in a rather grown-up fashion allowed to call our leader) would somewhat reluctantly tear himself away from an impassioned conversation with a nearby somebody about the inequities caused by the long-running miners’ strikes, and start handing out sheets of music to the small group crammed into his tiny living room. There were dining room chairs and a kitchen bench for the ladies, at the front. The few men up the back tried to sit up straight on the edge of the sofa and armchairs. Jimmy perched sideways on his piano stool, playing with one hand and guesturing animatedly with the other. There were weeks when he was the only tenor there, and two game basses struggled on in the back of the room.
I had been in choirs before, at church and at school, but there was an intensity about the way Jimmy led this choir, that was new to me. He demanded precision and could be now severe, now jokey. It was the first of three or four choirs I’ve been in that were led by real professionals, for whom this was an avocation as well as an occupation and they’ve all been the same: brilliant and funny and fearsome; passionate.
I loved the precision that Jimmy demanded. I loved being squashed into that living room with teachers and other grown-ups, pretending I was grown up too. I loved his wife, Lynne, peeking her head — and a tray of sherries –around the door. I loved bundling up and putting on my gloves and standing in the old, cold church singing my heart out. I even love (the memory of) Jimmy’s scowls when we blew a difficult passage.
But what really sticks with me was the night Jimmy passed around a hand-written piece that was utterly foreign to me. It was his setting of a Renaissance song (a madrigal? A carol?) called “Adam Lay YBounden”. He had written a haunting, dischordant (to my ears), odd and utterly beautiful setting of it. I was enchanted by the music and also by the idea that this guy, who worked with my Mum, had written this music and we were performing it along with the standard Christmas carols and that This Could Be Done.
I know that that was the year Jimmy started playing traditional Scottish music, because I was there in the room, while he and Donald talked about their band and their next gig. About five years later I was there when some of that came to fruition. I listened with amazement as this classical work had a bunch of weary parents, who were only there because their kids were in some school orchestra, tapping their fingers on the knees to the familiar Burns tunes woven into the piece, then guffawing as the brass section perfectly mimicked a bunch of drunken Scotsmen, boasting.
For a few weeks leading up to this, Jimmy (now Dr. James McMillan) had been coming into Ayrshire secondary schools and trying to teach us the very thing I had learned in his living room: that artists live among us; that music –even classical music– is ours to make; and that it should be enjoyed.
He had his work cut out at our school.
We didn’t have an orchestra. We had a ragtag bunch of Wednesday afternoon skivvers who liked to hang out in the music department and play electric guitars, drums, keyboards — and hashily at that.
But he seized it. And he made us compose. He made us bang and pluck and strum and tootle on anything that was to hand and called it music. Then he turned the rhythm backwards and made that the “B” section. Then he took a sarcastic comment from the back of the class and acted on it, gleefully turning the scrawled music on the blackboard, that he had picked out of our busking, upside down. Voila, the “C” theme. Then he slowed us down and found the “D”. We got to perform this wierd and wonderful cacophony as an interlude in the Strathclyde Concerto No. 2, by Peter Maxwell Davies, along with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
And for once, our school was no less grand than the schools with real, organized sports teams and prize-winning orchestras and kids who could actually read music.
When it was over, we went back to being school kids and Jimmy went on to become a star in the classical world. And all over Ayrshire, there were kids whose ears pricked up every time the Scottish Chamber Orchestra came on TV or was mentioned on the radio, because for one night, we had sat among them and played music that was ours, and they had listened to us.
I was lucky. I came from a home where music was a normal, everyday thing. But I’ve learned that mine was not the average experience.
So, it’s a small step, but I hope that by taking my guitar into a class of three year olds and singing Christmas songs with them, I’m starting something. I want these kids to know that music doesn’t just come from speakers, and that instruments aren’t meant to be listened to reverently. I want them to know that we can all sit around on the floor and bang on things and strum things and shake things and that the music belongs to them.
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