The last time I wrote about my life in singing I reached the point where my voice had broken and I’d given it up – I wasn’t really enjoying singing at that point and I had other things going on in my exciting thrill a minute teenage life – that’s right, I was an altar server at Llandaff Cathedral. I loved being a server so much that I even joined the Guild of Servers and met with other servers once a month at various churches around Cardiff – I got a medal to wear and staggeringly there were about five of us who were around the same age that did this. I also served the altar when there were school Eucharist services and on more than one occasion the priest giving the sacrament couldn’t finish off the altar wine that was left and so I had to down half a chalice of the stuff – anyway enough of this exciting Church in Wales related fun, though an altar serving blog might be good – oh there are tales to be told, it was a cut throat world the world of altar serving: lies, deceit, betrayal…
I also joined the Scouts, went hiking around the countryside, nearly getting shot by some North Walean as we went through his garden – it was a right of way – basically having a great old time. Then in August 1987 I was on holiday in West Wales and Dad told me that when we got back he’d set up an audition for me for the South Glamorgan Youth Choir. I really had no intention of going, I didn’t want to sing, I didn’t want to spend every Tuesday night back at the Friary Centre singing. Anyway the next week I found myself in a room with Helena Braithwaite and Jan Ball two people who I’d known since I was five years old and I sang a Welsh hymn to them and I was in and so began five of the happiest years of my life.
I’d been in SGYC for a month or so when it was mentioned that the choir were off for a weekend away to Boys Village in St Athan – and so it was that on a cold Friday in November 1987 that we all arrived at a educational centre just down the road from a large cement works in one direction, Aberthaw power station in another and then to the north of us the St Athan RAF base. I was sharing a room with Matthew Glyn whose Mum and Dad sang with my Dad in the Ardwyn Singers and the weekend lay ahead of us. It was a weekend of tons of singing rehearsals, food, laughter, a guy called Matthew Mudge playing The Last Post on his bugle as Saturday night turned into Remembrance Sunday and also it was the weekend of the Cricket World Cup final which we stayed up to watch and then both Matthew and I overslept and missed the first rehearsal of the day which we thought had blotted our copy books with Helena as we got the mother of all bollockings – she told my Dad later that night that she’d been amused by the sight of us trying to sneak in the back of the rehearsal room without being seen.* The highlight for some of the choir was the annual Boys Village disco on the Saturday night – for others the highlight was the tiny, tiny bar that Boys Village had and where it seemed that at any age it was okay to get a pint. I didn’t drink at the time so for me it was the disco – I could look at the girls in the choir and dream of actually talking to them – I didn’t want full on get down and dirty coming five times in an evening sex – I just want to be able to talk to them.
Just after Boys Village two of my friends from school Dave and Huw joined and my time in SGYC just got better and better. In the summer of 1988 we travelled to Llangollen to compete in the International Eisteddfod there – we were so cocky and confident that we knew we were going to win. BBC Wales didn’t though, they’d put their horses in the New Zealand carriage even flying over with them on the plane over and so when a Choir from a place down the road in Cardiff from their studios won it threw them a bit. We did Christmas broadcasts on HTV, made loads of appearances at St David’s Hall singing in things such as a Sondheim prom and gala performances of things such as Carmina Burana (That was on the night of the World Cup final in 1990 – Helena had a knack of booking concerts and rehearsals on the days of big sporting occasions.) We did lots of concerts at Llandaff Cathedral including one where I played maracas during a set of Spanish carols! We travelled to London to sing in the Festival of Music for Youth at the Royal Festival Hall which we won – of course we did, we were the South Glamorgan Youth Choir sponsored by the Principality Building Society! They were brilliant times but the best thing about being in a choir was going on a foreign tour.
My Dad was a keen and very good rugby player back in the day and the culture of the rugby player back then was (and for some still is) to play hard both on and off the pitch but when he came back from his first choir tour he told my Mum that he didn’t need to go on rugby tours anymore. Choir tours are hardcore, they are getting up at seven am to get the bus to your next stop and making a call in at the nearest available place to stock up on beer and ice to put in the cooler that you bought at your first port of call on the first day of the door. It’s drinking and singing all day and then having a drinking session after the concert until the early hours when you have to be up to get on the coach, it sees men literally falling off the coach when it stops and they’re heading off to find more booze and possibly some food, it’s about choir members being fined for not drinking enough, or getting fined for not finishing a huge American meal that they didn’t even order. Choir tours are where you found out that you really didn’t like some people who you thought you knew and others you realise that actually they are okay.
I met my first girlfriend on a choir tour – her name was Laura she was in the alto section and we got to know each other when we went to Israel in 1989 to sing in a choir festival and on a trip to the Dead Sea she sat behind me and Dave and knowing what school we went to asked if we knew a guy called Martin Evans – of course we did – that was Orville! Anyway I sat next to Laura on the way back to Jerusalem and was that the start of our relationship, my first love, my first kiss? No of course not, that took another six months before I finally got the guts to ask her out and we became an official “SGYC Choir Couple” – we lasted eight months before we split up and began to score points against each other by bitching and moaning to everybody – ah young love.
I had a couple more quick gropes and snogs with girls in the choir and then went out for – again – eight months with an alto called Catherine, she dumped me just before we were going to go and see Erasure in London and she told me a few years ago on Facebook that once we’d split up she was cut dead by lots of people in SGYC – the world of a choir can be a bitchy, harsh place. Anyway in conclusion re: relationships in choir, I always went out with altos and never sopranos – this was either because I sat behind them in rehearsals and got to know them better than I ever did sopranos, or maybe it was because sopranos didn’t appeal to me – let’s be honest here, they can be high maintenance – I don’t know, but what I do know is this: when I saw the woman who I would fall in love with at first sight**, the woman I would marry at Llandaff Cathedral in 1999, the woman who would have my children and the woman who I would leave the place that I grew up in to be with – well that woman was an alto.***
Right, back to Israel – the tour was bloody hard work, we rehearsed every morning with a conductor called Lazlo Heltay, and sang Haydn’s Nelson Mass for a concert at the end of the tour and then after lunch we’d relax a bit and then practice our stuff for our other performance in the Zimrya festival itself. We then had to go to the Zimrya performances every night and sit though other choirs that we didn’t think were as good as us. These concerts went on for hours and hours and we did all we could to relieve the boredom – at one point paper aeroplanes were flying down from the back of the auditorium and when Guido Jones’ reached the stage it got one of the loudest rounds of applause that evening – that was also the point where the compere asked that we all refrain from launching paper planes.
Our tour to Israel was also when we got called an example of the “Sick British Society” by choristers from other choirs after an incident that required a hospital trip for one choir member during which – according to the no doubt apocryphal legend – electrodes were attached to his testicles to try and bring him around at which point he sat upright and when asked if he knew where he was and who he was asked where his wife and children were. He wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. Helena and the rest of the choir staff gave us the bollocking of all bollockings after that but the fact is that we sang well and got standing ovations when we performed out there – result!
The SGYC choir tour of 1991 was to Canada and the USA. We flew into Toronto where a lady called Jean Crook took my suitcase by mistake – she returned it the next day but I didn’t get it back until we flew out of Toronto airport two weeks later as the choir staff didn’t think I was able to get a bus back to the airport the next day. I was very well looked after by the choir who gave me money to but replacement clothes, music for my solos (Oh yeah, I was a soloist by this point which is a whole other story.) Jean Crook several months later sent me twenty quid from Canada by way of an apology – nice lady. Our first stay was in Stratford, Ontario which was a small town that had an annual Shakespeare Festival but for me it will always remind me of where we met Spaz the dog who became known as “The First Dog We Met on Tour With An Unfortunate Name.” The second was a dog in Bridgewater, New York who went by the name of Bastard and who we met whilst walking in the sight of a nuclear power station just down the coast from the university where we were staying – it was a charming place and where I fell out with a good friend Stu.****
Stu and I had sung together for a few years in the choir but on tour we really didn’t like each other and things came to head there – he thought I was a twat – I probably was in those days – and he moped around for most of the tour as he was missing his girlfriend and the final straw for me was when we went to a pizzeria in Cambridge Massachusetts and as he didn’t like pizza he got angry about the fact that we’d gone to a pizzeria he tucked into a cardboard placemat instead. We got to Bridgewater and I called him a sheep for hanging around with Dave and his new girlfriend Rachel all the time and he gave as good as he got, saying that the other soloists were better than me***** and that he really didn’t want to be on tour. That was the last time we ever spoke to each other – I know he’s friends with a couple of people from those days on Facebook and I also know from those mutual friends that he can be very touchy about those days even 22 years on.
That tour in 1991 was the end of my golden period in SGYC – I stayed in the choir for another year by which time I’d been accepted to study at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, new younger people had joined the choir who I didn’t like, cocky little things they were who didn’t actually seem to want to sing and so in September 1992 I left to focus on singing in college and so ended one of the happiest times of my life.
Next time in My Life As a Singer: Stuttgart or Bust! A whole blog about the St Cyres School tour to Stuttgart in February 1991 – ten days, two concerts, £100 and a driver called Roger. It’ll be better than it sounds and Generalfeldmarschall Rommel’s son finally serves us that veal.
* Favouritism there from the conductor who had known us since we were little boys
**September 1994 in the canteen at the (Royal) Welsh College of Music and Drama, I loved her from afar for eighteen months and stalked her into submission before she agreed to go out with me and reader, I married her!
*** And a bloody good one at that.
**** On the US tour I also fell out with Jon and with Dave – Dave and I normally fell out at least once on tour. Sorry for being such an arse sometimes back then.
***** Some were, others definitely not.