Saturday, July 16, 2011

Human voices

It's a cold Saturday morning, at the end of the school holidays. As arranged, Joel brings me a strong cup of coffee at 7.15. We climb into the car. Its newly fixed thermostat registers 2 degrees. We pick up Meg, then head into the city and down Punt Road. The sky is pale but clear, and we see three hot air balloons in perfect triangular formation flying low across Parkville.

We are heading to a three-day music teachers' conference, being held at Melbourne High School. We arrive with plenty of time to spare, and sit in the car, marvelling at the school's enormous playing field, and the tall gothic brick tower of the main building. Our school is made of grey concrete blocks, doesn't have its own oval or gardens, really, and the kids use the public park a block away. This feels like a private school, though it's Melbourne's only selective boys' high school. Two different balloons are flying low towards us, and seem to skim past a block of flats on the other side of the oval.

The vocal group meets with Miriam in the foyer, surrounded by glass cabinets full of trophies, wooden honour boards, and memorials to the fallen. As they prepare, I walk into the main hall. A young girl is practising a violin solo with piano accompaniment. She plays with great accuracy and skill, but is still warming up to full performance mode. It is not yet 9.00 am.

Our kids rehearse. They are wearing their usual medley of clothes, supposedly in performance blacks and greys, but interpreting the colour code very loosely. They look a little withdrawn and distanced, standing apart from each other. Miriam checks their cues, the sound engineer jumps athletically up on to the stage several times as he checks levels, and adjusts their mike. They run through most of their set, just going over a few tricky entries. One of the girls can't be there, so Claudia steps in for her solo.

The conference begins, and our group is on first, as a kind of warm-up to the day's proceedings. The girls have brushed their hair, and everyone has taken off at least one outer garment. They walk on to the stage and Miriam announces the first song, modestly not mentioning that this group came second in a national jazz competition not too long ago.

I realise, at this point, that the battery on my phone is about to run out. I am sitting with Susie's mother in the front row, and the angle is all wrong, as I can't get all seven in the one frame and am looking up at them. So I record just the two middle songs from their bracket of four: "Sometimes I'm Happy" by King Pleasure, and "Rachel", by Trish Delaney-Brown. They sing well today, very well. They stand close together, and sing accurately in key and in time, which is hard when the piano is so far away, and of course, even harder when they sing a capella, and with no conductor. No one "sings out" (i.e. making their voice stand out from the group), but the parts and words are distinct. The solos work well, too. Claudia, Mary and Joel just step up to the mike and sing without fuss. "Rachel" is a show-stopper.

The music teachers in the audience — that's a tough crowd for kids to sing for — are warm in their applause, and the other parents and I follow the kids out in to the foyer. Miriam does a quick debrief, and the group breaks up with hugs and congratulations all round. I have been struck, as always, by the authority and confidence of this group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, and the serious intent with which they sing, and sing with each other, listening so hard to each other. They don't all hang out together as friends. They are in different year groups and subject clusters. But when they sing together, there is often a great warmth and strength about their voices in harmony. Joel and Meg explain to me later how they have literally learned to breathe together, so they can all start phrases in the same second. The other parents and I have confessed we regularly cry when we hear them: it is the terribly beauty of their vulnerability and the fearful power of their strength, brought together by a wonderful teacher who guides them with skill and passion.

Marion and I take Susie, Meg and Joel to brunch in Richmond: Dench fruit toast with maple and vanilla butter at Richmond Larder, sitting outside in the sun. Then I drop Joel and Meg off in the city, and watch them head down Bourke St on their different expeditions. A good morning's work...



Double-click on these to get the full screen view which will show you the seven singers.

1 comment:

Penthe said...

Thanks Stephanie, that was lovely to listen to on a Saturday.