Twenty years ago I joined the alto section of the choir of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland. My previous musical experience had been rather limited – as a child I reluctantly attended some piano lessons, and as a student I sang in the chorus of The Pirates of Penzance. But in 2001 the cathedral choir was open to anybody who wanted to join, no audition required. There were about 30 members. It was all new to me but I sat next to an experienced singer, Marion, who took me under her wing and has remained a close friend ever since.
I loved singing the sacred music, including well-known classics such as Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Renaissance motets by composers such as Tallis and Palestrina, and occasionally more modern works such as John Rutter’s Magnificat. I bought a piano, took some more lessons and did well in a theory exam although my practical skills hardly improved.
Apart from the beauty of the music, a benefit of belonging to the choir was meeting people of all ages and a wide range of nationalities including Filipino, Samoan, Korean, Chinese, American, French as well as both Maori and Pakeha native New Zealanders. I was usually the only English person there.
Over the years there were many changes. Old members left, new ones joined, and we had a series of musical directors each with their own different methods. The trend has been towards a smaller group with stricter technical standards.
Belonging to the choir was a wonderful experience but couldn’t last for ever. Others had retired when they turned 70 – I stayed till 74, but was starting to find it arduous. The rehearsals and services were longer than in the old days, transport from home was more frequently delayed, and decreasing stamina made it harder to cope with the physical demands. After breaking my wrist recently I had to take two months off anyway, and then I made the hard decision not to go back. Leaving felt sad, and still does, though I do appreciate having extra free time on Sunday mornings.
I wanted to continue some singing, because I enjoy it very much and it has many proven benefits – physiological, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social. So I have now joined a women’s community choir, which is more local, and involves attendance only once a week instead of twice. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, but some of the music is quite challenging, with songs in various styles from around the world forming quite a contrast to the repertoire at St Patrick’s.