An Unpainted Portrait: Celebrating Music, By Leo Simmons


Choir (school). Def: an assemblage of boys making a noise with their voices while a teacher stands in front of them waving his/her arms about with waning enthusiasm.

Each year the school held what was optimistically referred to as a music ‘festival’. Since a festival is usually a celebration of some kind, I can only presume that the intention was that we would, in some way, be celebrating music. If only…

Attendance was mandatory for everyone in the lower five school years and ‘expected’ of the sixth formers. Those of us with pretensions of talent (step forward, Ackerley Bo – oh, you already have…) anticipated the festival with a mixture of glee and nervous tension, while the rest of us dreaded what felt like the longest day in the school year.

Those of us unable to play any musical instrument – a recorder, apparently, definitely does NOT count – were automatically herded together into house choirs. I discovered that a choir is a strange beast. Despite standing among several people whose understanding of pitch and tone appeared to less than instinctive (that’s my polite and sensitive way of saying that some people couldn’t sing a note), when grouped together, our voices sounded more or less tuneful. I discovered this phenomenon while returning to the rehearsal room from a toilet break. Before I opened the door, I genuinely believed that another group of boys had taken our place in my absence, and I was astonished to find that a passable noise was being made by the Paton House junior choir.

‘Watty’ Watkins, for example, brayed like a donkey, and ‘Clipper’ Phipps had a voice that had been known to drive music teachers to the demon drink. ‘Whats’ Atworth could shatter eardrums at fifty paces and ‘Hairy’ Hughes, who had reached puberty before the rest of us (something for which he was never forgiven), experimented with notes never before achieved by the human voice. Nevertheless, it was undeniable; our choir was singing and sounding as if we knew what we were doing. I think it was this moment which started my nerves a-jangling. Suddenly, I realized, there was a real chance that I might screw up.

From that day on, as the passing days dragged us kicking and screaming towards the music festival, my anxiety grew. By the time the big day arrived, I was a nervous wreck, despite the insignificant part that I would play in proceedings. Numerous other boys were going to be very much in the spotlight; several pianists would be playing solo recitals, a rock band made up of fifth formers was scheduled to make a debut performance, and of course there was the inevitable appearance of Ackerley Bonce to be anticipated. By comparison, I would be an anonymous little oik among the general melee. I was, however, petrified.

Seven or eight years later, faced with stepping out onto a stage and singing solo in front of several hundred people, I was able to turn to the warm embrace of a famous Scottish distillery’s product for comfort and courage, but sadly no such avenue existed for me in the school hall at the age of twelve.

I went ahead with it, of course; short of breaking down in tears, making myself vomit on the music teacher or actually dying, I had no choice. Predictably, I was awful. I warbled appallingly through our two set pieces, singing worse than I ever had before. Watkins, standing next to me, was by contrast bringing forth delicious sounds that could only have come from heaven itself. The swine.

Incredibly, nobody seemed to notice my dreadful performance but I wasn’t the only one to experience disaster. One of the pianists had a particularly tricky piece to play and after fluffing several dozen notes with increasing frequency, suffered a complete meltdown, running tearfully from the hall under the blank gaze of his pitiless audience. Ackerley Bonce gave a masterful performance right up until he forgot what he was supposed to play, ending his recital abruptly, offering a curt bow to the audience and somehow making us all feel as if his failure was our fault.

We were all stunned, however, by the day’s final performance offered up by the newly-formed fifth year rock band. Rejoicing in the name of ‘Codpiece’ – you don’t forget a name like that with only forty years to do so – the four worthies took to the stage. Expectantly, we waited for some proper music. After two minutes of guitars being plugged into humming amplifiers, the occasional screech of feedback – startling the headmaster out of his daze – and a few random drum beats, a stubble-faced youth approached the microphone and while apparently trying to eat it, muttered: “This…is called…Dreaming of Pain…” Again, you can’t forget a title like that with the passage of only four decades. Believe me; I’ve tried.

We were then subjected to far too many minutes of the most diabolical noise that most of us had ever heard, while the lads hammed it up on stage, living their dreams. The centrepiece of the song – a solo by the lead guitarist whose name I happened to know was Lawrence Pigly – consisted of one note played with frantic speed over and over again, accompanied by pained expressions similar to those of anyone who’s stepped on a Lego brick. When the ‘song’ finished, nobody in the room needed to dream of pain any longer. We’d felt it.

A celebration of music, indeed…

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