Great to rediscover the joys of singing with our staff choir in Cork's choral festival 

Dan Buckley is part of the Irish Examiner's staff choir, which is taking part in the online version of the Cork International Choral Festival 
Great to rediscover the joys of singing with our staff choir in Cork's choral festival 

'It Must Be Love' - The Irish Times/Irish Examiner Group Choir.

FORGET about the lofty musings on music by Shakespeare, Cervantes and all the rest. The best and most memorable salute to the sound of a soaring human voice comes from Ella Fitzgerald who declared: “The only thing better than singing is more singing.”

 She knew what she was talking - or singing - about. From the cradle to the grave, from lullabies to laments, we are accompanied on life’s journey by singing, one of its great joys and pleasures in good times and a source of solace in times of sadness and despair.

It is the background music to sport, whether it is Tipperary GAA fans singing ‘Slievenamon’ or their Cork rivals belting out ‘The Banks’. Players on the Irish rugby team soar to greater heights when they are serenaded with The Fields Of Athenry.

It spurs physical effort, from sea shanties to military marches. As GK Chesterton put it in his jaunty jingle:

“The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad.

“For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

 Sad or not, even a lament can raise the spirit of the nation in times of crisis and hardship. That is what the Cork International Choral Festival has been doing since it was founded in 1954. It was part of An Tóstal, a national festival begun by Seán Lemass in 1952, as an attempt to lift the country out of a prolonged period of economic depression.

So, when the Human resources department of the Irish Examiner announced a joint singing venture with our colleagues and friends in the Irish Times, it seemed an ideal way of dealing with Covid lockdowns, a way not just of passing the time but of embracing it. 

The new ‘Choirworks’ programme devised for the 2021 choral festival offered workplace colleagues around the country and internationally the chance to learn to sing and form a company choir, or improve their singing and existing workplace choir, through online interactive music lessons, choir workshops and team building projects.

That sounded ideal. If we couldn’t defeat the pandemic, perhaps we could sing our way out of it. Even those of us who do not have the most melodious of voices can enjoy singing as part of a choir. I have been doing that for years, both for pleasure and, on occasion, as part of choral competition. But this was to be a unique experience, uplifting and fun but also very strange.

The first question that came to mind was how was this going to work since we would have to do this remotely? Would we all be zooming or Team meeting or Google Driving and singing our heads off at random? Who would control the chaos?  Such fretting was natural but unnecessary, as our musical director Eimear Hurley was a constant guiding presence during the eight weeks of rehearsals that began in the middle of February. Eimear is the Learning & Participation Officer of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London.

She holds an MA in Music and Cultural History from University College Cork and is not only a fine musician, playing with the Irish Gamelan Orchestra, but also sings with the City of London Choir.

She knows her stuff. Nonetheless, it must have been a daunting task for her to take on 20 or so musical misfits, singing at a distance, but she accomplished it with style, humour and a plan to avoid disorder among the ranks.

The first order of business was to get everyone limbering up, breathing correctly before even attempting to open our mouths. The second was to instruct everyone to mute their laptop mics. This seemed utterly weird but it worked. In fact, it couldn’t have worked any other way.

Eimear’s was the only voice to be heard and her instructions were clear: “Open your mouth! Take a big breath, open up your mouth and give the sound even more space than you think is necessary – you could be pleasantly surprised by what you hear!” We were. At least I was and I assume that everyone else was, too, because while we could all see each other online, we could not hear any other voice. The Choirworks sessions began on February 8 with some warmups, including a rendition of What A Wonderful World and I Like The Pasta, a song about Italian food that sounded like a children’s rhyme but was, in fact, a very effective way of improving diction.

The song Eimear chose for our entry into the Workplace Choir of the Year entry for the choral festival was It Must Be Love, written by Labi Siffre and famously covered by Madness.

It has proven to be an inspired choice and, for the first time since the pandemic began the constant reminders that ‘we are all in this together’ felt less of a cliche and more of a fact. Each Monday night session was a chance to see our colleagues in their own homes while also getting on with the serious business of singing our various parts, divided into soprano and alto for the women and baritone for the men.

After eight Monday night sessions, each choir member had to create a video of themselves singing It Must Be Love from start to finish. Each video was then handed over to technical specialists to work their magic and I can’t wait to hear and see the final results. Whether our final efforts will impress the judges doesn’t seem to matter so much. We have all done this together, and that’s something worth singing about.

  • Cork International Choral Festival continues online until Sunday, May 2. For more information or to book tickets, see: https://www.corkchoral.ie/

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