With less than a week to go before Chaps Choir sings at the Southbank’s Being A Man Festival, one of our Chaps Alex has penned a short ruminative essay on what being in the choir and indeed ‘being a chap’ generally has meant to him.
Every year the media devotes a certain number of column inches to some quality genderised navel-gazing. “David Fold-Edges on how gardening and carpentry have helped him regain his post-divorce mojo”… “Suzy Column on why you shouldn’t date a man who can’t make soup…”. We’ve all read them, if with a wince or a sigh.
For men in particular it’s often a neatly unhelpful choice between polar opposites: are you Sherlock or Watson? Should you be a DJ house-husband, or a master of the financial universe? Usain Bolt or Gok Wan? (Don’t worry, there’s totally a quiz you can click on if you’re interested.)
True, one should never really take one’s existential cues from lifestyle magazines but on a personal level in Spring 2013 I did kind of engage with the background noise of some of these questions when I decided to join Chaps Choir, an all-male singing group. I’m not sporty, I don’t engage in any other mass communal activities, and work on my own. So what on earth would it be like to hang out and ‘do choir’ with 40-50 guys (chaps)?
Perhaps as a man you might think the answer would be a blanket-sounding “erm… some men in a room singing?”, and yes, marks for brevity with that – (quite a man value, brevity.)
But that’s not quite it.
Granted, providing a compelling definition of manhood at this point in history causes the same polite derailing of conversation that occurs when someone asks you to describe what “being British” might mean. Feet are stared at, pints ruminatively sipped, middle-distances given a damn good stare.
But as we approach the first anniversary of Chaps Choir I feel I can start to answer this question as it turns out the joining a big bunch of strangers and performing songs is something rather amazing, revelatory and yes ‘menly’ (I’m making these words up now, that’s, like, a man thing…).
Maybe it’s because so much of what we think of as ‘mannish’ is about outward signs and symbols, gestures and fronts, paintjobs and carry-ons, that something so natural and childlike as singing does such a good job of bringing us all back to life. Let’s face it, there aren’t many contexts for today’s gents where suddenly forming ranks and taking cues from a leader leads to such a creative and harmonious outcome. The liberation of large numbers?
Most of us now live in cities, during a period where our economics has enthroned the individual as king, but in a world without subjects. It’s a time when expressing communal interest is largely about clicking buttons in lonely rooms, or mutely ‘following’ celebrities who will never return the favour. Where the idea of group-activity itself seems to conjure up only images of flared-trousered terror cells, in BBC4 documentaries.
And yet having seen a flyer in a pub or a poster on a wall (“men wanted!”), up a group of us most definitely turn. Some 50-odd random men, acting perhaps a little randomly? What will we sing? Will we be able to find the notes? Are we bass, baritone, or tenor? Will it be terrifying, embarrassing, difficult or all of those things combined?
But just five minutes in and suddenly we have become chaps, making a huge shared sound, finding harmonies, smiling as it comes together, all marshalled by a charismatic and whipsmart leader who knows where we can get to, if just we’ll take the step with him. Turns out, yes, I could ‘like’ that.
We’re singing songs from the fields of Georgia to the snows of Finland, the chart world of the 1990s to the elegant drawing rooms of Manhattan’s upper-west side. Men of all stripes and ages, learning in public, transmuting long held fears about public speaking into a determination to make the very air turn new colours in song, in front of hundreds of strangers.
Revelations include the not-the-melody complexities that a baritone must often face, the vertiginous heights a tenor might be required to reach, and the treacherous leaps of a bass part that runs counter to the tune… Yet no-one is competitive, camaradie reigns supreme, and no-one has asked my opinions about football (I don’t have any – phew). Indeed, the greatest controversy to date has turned on whether or not a yellow bobble hat is acceptably “chappish” (it got awkward, but let’s move on).
So we’re chaps, but we’re not vintage-obsessives. We don’t greet each other with a Wodehousian “What ho!”, but we will don braces or caps when we sing in public because it helps share that we’ve learned all these songs together.
Father, husband, leader, worker, partner… being a man, the Sunday supplements would often aver, requires being a good actor. But it turns out a choir unleashes something more direct and communal; your voice is up and your guard is down. Acting in concert, if you will. And if we’ve learned one thing in Chaps Choir it’s that concerts really make these men sing.
Alexander Mayor is a musician, writer, leader of the popular music combo Alexander’s Festival Hall and a happy Chap.