DCYC 50th anniversary Concert: Old Songs and Muscle Memory

In the second blog from the fortnight of madness, let’s skip to the end, and a rather grand change of scenery.

Durham Cathedral 25th April 2014 - the view from the Naughty Row.
Durham Cathedral 25th April 2014 – the view from the Naughty Row.

That’s where more than a hundred of us were last Friday – in Durham Cathedral, nailing down the final tricky bits of Handel’s Messiah for Durham County Youth Choir‘s 50th anniversary concert. About 24 hours later, we’d be doing the same thing in evening dress in front of pews full to bursting. For all memories and feelings the reunion had brought up, after months of nostalgia, almost play-acting at being in a choir again, the reality of it would begin to sink in.

DCYC is one of the trig points in the landscape of my youth, a steady mud-spattered marker at age 14. At the time, auditioning had only seemed logical – I’d sung in school choirs, and I’d been performing in local amateur and school musical productions for about seven years. For anyone who was supposedly serious about their singing, this was the next step. DCYC was a different animal, though. We performed concerts all over the shop, toured Germany and Italy, performed on Classic FM…

Durham Couty Youth Choir, circa '95. Taken from the .
Durham County Youth Choir, circa ’95. Taken from the Friends of DCYC website.

But this was all fifteen years ago.

Then, in November, a leaflet arrived in the post. DCYC were getting together former choir members as part of a 50th anniversary concert at Durham Cathedral. The next rehearsal would be the end of the month. If I wanted to go.

Honestly, at the time, I wasn’t sure (And not just because of the prospect of this jeans-and-t-shirt girl having to find a suitable black evening dress.). Back then, I loved singing. Still do, really, but somewhere along the line, amongst uni work and music journalism, and many other Things and Reasons, I’d fallen behind with it. I can’t deny that I’ve mixed feelings about the usefulness of reliving the past. Then, this invitation came back in November 2013, the big month of saying Yes to things. I’d joined a short story pact with my friends. I’d decided to enter the Edinburgh Half Marathon, for crying out loud. So I decided to head along to a rehearsal, figuring what harm could it do?

As it turned out, the first faces I saw at that rehearsal was an old friend, and one of our choir masters from that era, Gerald Ions – names and faces thankfully intact from sketchy recall. And as we kicked into the first practice, nostalgia brought a lot of things back – memories of concerts, daft warm-up exercises, ill-advised pre-show ID tests… It was strange to see how much some people had changed, how far others hadn’t. The choir masters who’d come back to take part seemed to be frozen in time – but then, didn’t everyone over 30 seem ancient to us back then? Meanwhile, some of us alumni from that time have big careers now, spouses, kids… So much time has passed, yet we all feel just as uncertain and clownish as we did at 14, 17, 19.

Rehearsal scenes - 8th April 2014
Rehearsal scenes – 8th April 2014

Then, lulled into a false sense of security by tea and biccies, someone pointed out that we’re old enough to be parents of the current DCYC intake. Which fair ruined my orange squash, to be honest.

Not all the memories were good. Alongside all that nostalgia came something of the intense shyness and nervousness I had back then. Yet with a lot of the teenage sense of cliquiness gone, and the benefit of age, it became clear this was not only a chance to renew old friendships and rediscover old loves, but also an opportunity to do things differently. That I was no longer a soprano was no surprise (I’d always sung mezzo soprano anyway). Unfortunately that meant learning an entirely new part, for the concert. This time, I was determined to put some proper effort into practice between monthly rehearsals. The last few months have been spent trying to squeeze in time to go through Alto parts – a somewhat easier job now than in those earlier days of t’internet. Though, on the other hand, I’m not sure if having Cyberbass back then would have made me practice more.

By the night before, the massed choir was over 110 strong, made up of the current Youth Choir, plus alumni from most of the choir’s 50 year history. Photos were passed around between rehearsals of old concerts, as people reminisced, chatted with old choir masters – and the handful of us who’d gone on to become professional singers (including Ellie Chapman and Helen Bruce from our era), back for One Night Only to perform solos.

Despite all that, I still wasn’t prepared for the the sheer size of the audience who’d gathered for the show. The cathedral was packed by the time we rocked up, half an hour before performance – with family, friends, old alumni who couldn’t make rehearsals, and more. Real people! On real seats! I waited for the confidence-sucking anxiety to kick in, and… nothing.

It wasn’t just because we were stuck at the back on the Naughty Row, or even because I was just one in a hundred (You think you can hide, but screw-ups can really carry when everyone else is in sync.). I’d felt far more intimidated the week before at Eastercon, in front of ten times fewer people. In a strange way, this night almost felt like exercising old muscles. Or maybe it was something in the timing. As we sat down, the setting sunlight caught the stained glass windows at the far end of the cathedral, which meant we spent Part One of Messiah singing to a beautiful warm glow descending into dusk.

The After Party.
The Pre- and After Party.

Then it was over – at least for now. When we gathered at the after-party (And Grand Feasting – up here “bring enough for two” is automatically suffixed by the word “dozen”.), there was some talk of an alumni choir forming – especially after old choirmaster Alan Woods conducted us in an impromptu rendition of ‘Brown Eyes Blue‘. Who knows what will come of it, but for now? I’m thinking maybe, every so often, it might not be such a bad idea to exercise that muscle memory again.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebecca Williams Dinsdale.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebecca Williams Dinsdale.

Finally, thank you to current director Hilary Ions and the rest of the DCYC team for organising such a wonderful evening, and huge thanks to everyone who turned out to see us at the Cathedral. Here’s hoping you enjoyed it all as much as we did.

3 thoughts on “DCYC 50th anniversary Concert: Old Songs and Muscle Memory

    1. Sorry Julian, I thought I’d replied to this! Aye, I reckon we all scrubbed up reasonable. It was an absolutely brilliant night, wasn’t it?

  1. I can recall singing ‘Brown Eyes Blue’ many many times. I was a member of the choir from about 1983 until 1988. I would love to hear more about an alumni choir although Gloucester to Durham is a bit far to go for rehearsals!

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