The People Who Never Sang….



I think that I first became really interested in ‘singing’ when I was ‘just a wee boy’ in a Junior Choir at our church in Northern Ireland. I came from a family steeped in amateur music. My Mother ALWAYS sang, my Father sang in choirs in church and also in male voices, as well as conducting; cousins, and uncles were singers and an aunt was a piano teacher.

So it was probably not surprising that I would sing in choirs and also learn the piano and organ (reasonably successfully), and the clarinet (unsuccessfully). Junior and senior  church choirs, playing the organ at services, and choral and instrumental composing meant that I was in the thick of what was the great interest of my family, and this was no doubt a large part of their legacy to me.

I was probably about 18 when I was playing regularly at church services , and taking a choir of people old enough to be my parents, and perhaps grandparents! The bravado of youth obviously shaded me from my mistakes, but hopefully I did something right!

After Evensong Lochgilphead

The ‘formal’ Angelus Singers at Lochgilphead…

As you can imagine, many of these choirs required a rigid discipline in attendance and standard of singing to operate well, as we had Church-year timetables, and music, to perform. No good getting the Christmas anthems ready for mid-January!….or having half a choir turn up for the Easter Service!…..or someone hitting a bum note, or a wrong entry!

But there was  a sort of self-selection process going on, where people would not put themselves forward for membership if they felt they had no voice, or a poor one. And it obviously worked well, in that most of the choir-members I met, and dealt-with, had quite reasonable voices.

But, what about the folk who, despite our protests, thought they had a poor voice, or were TOLD by someone that they had a poor voice, or were embarrassed, or did not have the time, or were not tremendously motivated? We obviously never saw them, so there MUST have been a waste of natural talent out there.

Jump forward some decades to Gareth Malone on television, who parachuted-in to various places across the UK to form some type of choir, and obviously left it to underlings to get on with the practices. He would then appear again to conduct some item. It made good television, but not really practical in today’s hectic world!

Meanwhile I had given up full-time organ-playing and was happy to occasionally fill-in, and with there being fewer choirs, that door had been closed. Retirement had come, but I still longed for the heady days of choral music…..but surely that was all history, now, and I had better get used to it……but I was not to reckon on the  U3A, the University of the Third Age, which we only joined a few months ago!

I have blogged about it before, and the great motivation it engenders in people.  Someone had said in passing, in front of a crowded room at our first meeting, that there was a wish for a Singing Group, and that ‘Harry might be happy to start one!’ So there was a challenge! But where to begin?

Now, remember that the age-group range  of the Members probably centres on the early 70’s…..some are in their 90’s! You cannot start analysing and auditioning folk of this age, so the only two criteria would be, could they stand-up (even with help), and breathe?


The interest was amazing! We had 22 with us today at one of the weekly practices, we have 13 pieces on the practice list, and we sing lustily for an hour after some warm-up vocal exercises. Not everyone can come every practice (retirement is busy, you know!) so we are never exactly sure who will be there, but some have been to every practice. No notice is taken of previous experience, musical skills, embarrassment levels, etc, and mistakes are very common. But we are now singing lots of old post-war favourites, and rounds, in parts, and very good they are, too.

I have been given loads of music to look through, by members, so that there is always a new piece every week, of THEIR favourites.

We laugh, we joke, we do little musical tricks, ask them to ‘volunteer’ as  soloists, and have a thoroughly-great relaxing time. Everyone goes away smiling, and making sure they know when the next practice is. And beside all this the voices are really very good!

Personally, I have had a new lease of life, back to helping people find the joy of singing, and this time with no constraints of any kind, on the music, or the musical ability; simply the idea of having fun as a group, and, of course…….they will never be able to say ‘WE NEVER SANG’

P1050874A few of our Singing Group who obviously enjoy themselves in a relaxed atmosphere

(can you spot the 90-year old?)






24 hours on…….and some fear!

The early hours of Saturday morning, in fact almost all of it, were taken up with trying to absorb the full impact of the terrorist attack at the Bataclan Concert Hall in Paris. Of course, we have seen it before, it regularly happens in war zones, and it will, no doubt, continue to happen for time immemorial.

However with modern communication we can hear about events within seconds and are constantly updated without pause for thought, so that you feel closer to it, following it in real time.

So it was with some trepidation that we went to the Glasgow Concert Hall last night to attend another one of the RSNO winter programme. We go regularly so never gave thought to our security and repercussions of such a large gathering of people in the ‘second city of Empire’, enjoying wonderful music….but you don’t do you?

We were really looking forward to the programme as we already knew two of the three pieces, and there is always a ‘buzz’ as the amphitheatre fills up. But last night was different. Instead of being almost full, I reckon that it was only one-third or one-quarter full. Now whether or not the poor weather, the programme content, shock, or even an understandable fear, was to blame, I have no way of knowing, but in any case there was a subdued feeling within that audience.

The bubbly, cheerful Music Director, Peter Oundjian, usually bounces onto the stage to the adulation of the audience. This time he was quieter and the applause mirrored his attitude. He very often speaks to us before and during the concert and this was to be no exception, but for a different reason……

He spoke very briefly about the events and was obviously pleased that we had all turned up on such a terrible night and under the traumatic circumstances. He then outlined what would happen to acknowledge the French tragedy……..

The opening piece was the short Langsamer Satz, by Anton Webern. An idyllic love proclamation to his beloved Wilhelmine, it reminds me of a punt gliding down a stream. Unfortunately he never heard it played as it was discovered after his death. It comes to the gentlest of closes and fades to silence over quite a period.

As the silence hung like a cloud, the lights gently dimmed to an almost-complete darkness. There was no applause, as he had requested, and we all sat with our own thoughts and fears. I have to say I felt no anger at that time, only an over-whelming peace and tremendous sadness together.

I don’t know how long it lasted but the lights came up gently, and we proceeded to the second item…but how do you follow such a poignant event? There was no way they could have known in advance about the events or changed the programme but somehow the next item was very suitable….. the Brahms Violin Concerto.

Not everyone who is reading this will enjoy Classical music or know of this wonderful piece. It has many tremendous melodies woven through it, and as it is a ‘strong’ piece requiring a lot of energy from the bow arm of the player, we usually hear it played by a man. But this evening was different…..

On to the stage came a willowy tall young lady called Vilde Frang, with a wistful, almost sad, look in her eyes. She then proceeded to play this piece in the only way a woman would….the violin almost became her child as she taught it to speak, drawing out notes and expressions that we never knew existed. We then saw this child in tears, in joy, jumping about full of the fun of life, and wonderfully happy. It was a joy to listen to, and as I said  in a previous post the lachrymal glands were somewhat active!…But what the hell, I was crying tears of joy and emotion whilst others across a short stretch of water were in anguish, uncertainty, unbelief, grief and pain.

The applause seemed to be a great corporate sigh of relief, allowing us to breathe again. The final piece was the well-known Symphony No 41, by Mozart. Strangely, he wrote his three final Symphonies in the Summer of 1788, while he was in depth of despair over his finances, losing some of his children, his marriage problems and falling out of favour…..yet he managed to rise above his problems and leave us with some of the most remarkable and mind-blowing music from an uplifted troubled soul.

May we hope that those affected by the events of only a few hours ago, directly and indirectly (and I suppose we all are) see some glimmer of hope in the coming Season.

Choir Membership

Having been involved with choirs of all types since a child, and now retired, we decided that Lady of The House should just join a choir, where I had no responsibilities…..just going for pure enjoyment.

A group called Stepps Songsters appeared in the frame, and after a quick phone-call and a ‘trial’ evening, we both went along. It is great fun, but again points up what I discovered a long time ago…..the disproportionate number of women members attending, compared to men. Often in the proportion of about 8 : 1.

Can anyone explain this….’cos I can’t.


Good Lady and I like going together to classical music concerts, and have done so for many years. We are very lucky that we have the great Royal Scottish National Orchestra available, and  a marvellous Royal Concert Hall to attend. Prices have risen astronomically over the last 20 years, but this is now balanced with the free bus pass, which takes us literally door-to-door. So you see there are advantages in being old, and living in Scotland!

One of the last ones we attended featured the Chopin 2nd Piano Concerto played by the ebulient Argentinian Ingrid Fliter.    I love Chopin’s piano music, but not particularly with an orchestra attached to the piano. However it was a wonderful fiery performance by the young lady, and we applauded as enthusiastically as anyone.

But it set me to thinking…..why in this day and age do we spend a lot of money to go out on a miserable evening to attend a venue where we have been many times before, to hear an orchestra we have heard many times, playing pieces we have heard many times, when we could be at home with our hi-fi with a massive choice of CD music at our disposal?

It’s probably a question which has absorbed the brains of many observers of the human mind over many decades. I’m no psychologist so it is unlikely that I have an answer. Is it to relive some previous happy experience of this piece/soloist/orchestra/venue? Is it an attempt to again find some personal solace/excitement in a piece we know well? Is it a ‘communal’ thing where we just love being ‘drawn-into’ an event with other like-minded people? Is it an attempt to keep looking for something new in the interpretation? Is it a continuing admiration in the un-doubted skills and artistry of the orchestral members/soloist/conductor?

Maybe it’s a combination of all of them……I honestly don’t know…..but I have no intention of camping out or tramping through mud to experience anything held at T in the Park!!!…………….what about you?

P.S. ….we have already signed up for the 2012-2013 Concerts!

…at the end of the hearing-aid.

I’ve been involved in the world 0f deaf and hearing-impaired people for over thirty years, much of that time from the managerial and technical side. I have lectured students, instructed, written technical papers, prepared audiology training courses, designed complex sound and inductive loop systems for major buildings, assessed and tested people,  fitted hearing aid systems and provided counselling.

All very worthy, and relatively-easy, as I felt I was in charge. Just over a year ago I was honoured when appointed a Trustee of the Board of Directors of Hearing Concern Link. It is a national charity devoted to helping people to survive socially and psychologically after the onset of hearing loss.

The early Board meetings had been tough with the reduction in Government and Council funding, and most of the talk has been about money (or lack of it!). Although we seem to have turned the corner with the help of some funding from grateful people who had been helped, we cannot rest on any laurels.

The necessity of the work we do was vividly made evident to me at an organised meeting of some of our members one Saturday in Glasgow. This is one of a series of regular courses providing an opportunity for many folk with severe and not-so-severe hearing loss, to get together and learn from a facilitator, and each other. I think it is fair to say that most of us were over 21 by a long way!

Many practical subjects were covered, including personal security, available equipment, frustration and anger. What we didn’t have the time to cover were the effect of losing the ability to appreciate music.

This is a season full of music, so can I ask you think of those who for one reason or another are not able to hear the wonderful music we so love during the Christmas period.

Maybe I should retire here!

Headed-up recently into Argyll…yet again! A previous post was about a long weekend break when we could explore the side roads. However this time it was a quick day trip along roads familiar to tourists wanting to see the wonderful scenery. We used the A828 road between Glencoe (of massacre fame) and the Connel Bridge. A few miles south-west of Ballachulish there is a little hamlet called Duror which features in the history of the Stewarts of Appin.

 If you want to know more about the area, I am assured that the book ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson gives all the lowdown on the bloodthirsty history.

But this wasn’t the reason for our visit. It was to visit a little Anglican Church, which is so small that it could be missed behind the trees on the road. If you Google Street the phrase ‘Duror Argyll’ you will be right at the spot where the church is.

It has a delightful organ which was made in Germany (it is believed) in approximately 1683. If so, it is probably the oldest church in regular use in Scotland!  There is also a belief that perhaps George Frederick Handel had played it, but it is probably impossible to verify it at this distance in time. The present organist, Kerr Jamieson, temptingly suggests that the connection may have more to do with the fact that there is still a working handle to pump the air for the bellows!

They have a Community Choir, and with such beautiful countryside no doubt photography and rambling are all part of the life up here. It gets more enticing every day……maybe another long weekend is called-for!

An apology….but it wasn’t my fault!

A couple of posts ago I intimated that your TV screen would be graced by my image on the last three Songs of Praise programmes which were based in the West of Scotland, and the Cathedral I attend, St Mary’s in Glasgow.

Well, I have to admit that I didn’t have any kind of starring role, because the cameras, with all the opportunities they had, steadfastly managed to avoid the rear pew where I was seated. I even thought of waving to them to let them know I was available at no charge, but still they kept looking for the lovely young ladies!

I did appear at a distance quite a few times in the wonderful high shots from the front… I don’t feel too bad!

However, the stars of the shows were the wonderful architecture of the Cathedral, the superb performances of the musicians, and of course, the supreme beauty of the west of Scotland….but you should come up and see it all for yourself!

Irishpisky’s on Television!

Yes, it’s official, I shall be on television for the next three Sundays….well perhaps you might catch some brief glimpses of me!

The next few editions of Songs of Praise, hosted by Sally Magnusson,  involve the beautiful west if Scotland, and some of the singing comes from my own Church, St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow.  Recording was done over two evenings; the first to do the sound recording and the second to superimpose the camera work with the previously-recorded music….quite tricky, I should imagine!

So on Sunday, at 5pm, watch out for a tall, grey-haired bloke with glasses and a beard near the back of the cathedral, singing lustily with an Irish accent. If I am able to record it and put a bit into the blog, I shall do so.

Eurovision Song Compost?

Spent some of my dwindling life-hours yesterday evening, watching the rectangular screen in the corner of the room, trying to establish exactly why I was being so masochistic !

The annual nonsense called the Eurovision Song Contest is supposed to be the cream of the song-writers producing brilliant innovative lyrics, and tunes, which are then transmitted to us by great singers and a backing which should have added to the basic tune to emphasise the best features… produce a series of truly-remarkable and memorable events.

How wrong can you be!…..I watched the first 10, and that was enough…..and from what I heard I missed nothing with the rest. Why do foreign countries sometimes feel they have to sing in English when they have a perfectly-good language of their own, or try to copy the musical styles of other countries? aAnd why are gimmicks thought to be essential. It might be better to broadcast it over the radio, so that the music and words spoke for themselves.

No doubt all involved got their share of the trough, but perhaps if this is the best that Europe can offer as international musical entertainment, it is probably kinder to put it down painlessly than let it drag itself deeper into the mire of obscurity….

Or maybe I am being  too severe….no, I don’t think I am!

Singing in Argyll….NOW WITH PHOTO


 On Sunday our Choir ‘Angelus Singers’  went to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ballachulish, at Argyll near famous Glencoe, for the service of Sung Evensong. You can’t miss the Church, in its glorious setting halfway between Glencoe and the Ballachulish Bridge. It has an ancient history with the graveyard of especial historical interest, and they have the Communion Cup and Plate reputedly used by the Jacobites just before Culloden. The building is in some need of restoration, but the beauty is still evident. 

The fact that we were asked made us feel very proud, as the area of course is full of musical choirs, who participate in the Mod Festival, and Gaelic is still extensively spoken.We were supplemented by some local choir members, and a total of  18 singers filled the choir stalls. This allowed us to have a rousing service of well-known hymns, traditional sung responses, collects, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and Psalm 119 (only a small part!). In addition we had an Introit and Anthem. The performance of the latter, ‘I saw a new heaven’…. was a first performance. Words of the Revelation of St John were the inspiration of this piece, and it is dedicated to the present congregation, and those who have gone before.

The weather was foul, during the two hour  journey both ways, but ballachulish-original-churchwe all arrived safely. We couldn’t  process from the ‘old church’ (really an old storehouse), to the ‘new church’  (1830’s)  because of the rain and snow.  The  organ then threw a tantrum by ‘ciphering’, when certain stops and notes got stuck and kept on playing! The organist kept her cool and and played well under the circumstances!

An excellent congregation had braved the weather, many from a long distance, and obviously enjoyed the old well-kent words, spoken and sung.
So it was a great event, and shows that many people working together, despite the many problems can produce something bigger than any of us.

How fortunate can anyone get to be in the midst of some of the most wonderful countryside in the world, and sing our hearts out!