I’ve been to my first carol service already. It was last week, in fact; an evening service of medieval simplicity on the first Sunday of advent. I wasn’t in the choir, I didn’t play the piano. I sang no parts. I sat somewhere towards the back, slightly to one side, concealed by semi-darkness, shadowed as the candles and the brightly lit choir passed by. It was peaceful. I came away refreshed; my mind calmed and my spirit eased.
Carol services and concerts haven’t always been this way. For years, I was a participant, someone with a part to learn, to perform. When I was a little child, at primary school, we spent hours (or at least it felt like hours) learning words off by heart. Mrs Puddicombe played the piano (I never got used to calling her Ruth, even when I grew up and I understood that she was a friend of my mum’s) and the rest of us, the children and the other two teachers, sang the words from the pungent purple typescript, a banda-ed copy of the traditional and modern, until we could do without. There was always ‘Little Donkey’ (plus coconut shells) and ‘The Calypso Carol’ (wood blocks, tambourines). (For some strange reason there were also always crepe paper hats; we used to design our own and wear them for the Christmas Dinner and the Christmas Party. There was a competition, and I never won it, not once.)
When I went to secondary school, I left the hats behind and joined the choir. The carols were no longer a simple affair, in the village hall or Top Class with the tables pushed back to one end and the sliding doors opened. Now they were much more complicated, with parts (alto, followed by various descants, I was a confused chorister, I admit) and an orchestra. There was a sale of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ at the back of the church, and my dad bought one. When I was older still, I gave up the choir and concentrated on the orchestra. I learned the bass, and how to fake it when you lost your place. There was a cathedral and mulled wine; no uniform, we were far too cool for that, but a similarity in dress brought on by arran jumpers and Doctor Marten.
And then there was teaching. As one of the pianists in Key Stage Two, it fell to me, and my colleague Rose, to take it in turns to play or lead the singing. More parts, this time for recorders and triangles; no coconuts, but ‘The Calypso Carol’ too. I used to enjoy it when it was my turn to play. We used to borrow a Clavinova and set it up, just to one side of the rood screen. There I would sit, tucked away, filling the church with my choice of the empty melodies of waiting while the pews filled and the cold air warmed with the steam of subdued conversation. It was far better than conducting the singing, standing in the front, waving your arms about for all to see.
Of course, the advantage of conducting is that you can hide your own mistakes in a way that you can’t when you are accompanying singers on an instrument. One time, our choir were taking part in a competition, and I got so nervous that I made them sing without (we didn’t win, we didn’t get anywhere near winning); often I would get out the guitar and convert every song to sing-along-a-G-C-and-D. Rose and I had a running competition going over who could do the best Les Dawson impression, and we had trained the children well to JUST CARRY ON REGARDLESS.
I reckon it made them more aware of the imperfections inherent in any performance anyway. And, like I said to one young lady, curiously seeking me out on a cold January afternoon when I was stamping my feet on the playground and wishing that I had brought a hat, I didn’t ever feel embarrassed, because, when it came to it, the assembled throng hadn’t come to see me.
That’s the thing I often think about teaching. For all our loud, strident, in charge voices, we are a quiet profession. The stage is not ours. The prizes and medals and stickers and certificates are given, not taken. The hours of practice, the preparation and planning, are not to show how clever we are, but to showcase them.