Saturday, 14 August 2010


During the last 15 years I have had many privileges as a by product of my job as a singing teacher. Non more delightfully unique than being invited to teach enclosed sisters in Abbeys and Convents all over the UK.

Initially I had a dilemma with this invitation, since I felt that what I teach is 'performing', and what nuns do is quite definitely NOT performing. How could I marry up the two and make it of value to this as yet unknown vocal area ? I need not have had such wobbles about it. In the first few moments of speaking with some of the sisters I was greatly relieved to hear from them that 'if we sing better, we worship better', and I have never looked back!

It has, and still is, such a joy and honour for me to be 'let in' to these closed and sacred spaces, which have beauty, peace, tranquility combined with an everlasting hum of work, humour and honesty. The sisters attack the business of learning to sing, and I only ever tackle the practicalities of technique and voice preservation, never Liturgy, with such zest and commitment to improving, they have become, without a doubt, my most diligent pupils.

And they can cook!

Actually they turn their hands to most things, printing, iconography, tending goats, knitting and sewing, editing erudite religious papers, and writing books! They are women who multi task like fast living octupi, juggling 8 balls and still managing to fit in 5 services per day, 365 days per year.

Yesterday J and I visited one of the Abbeys I have worked at for over 12 years. They have recently relocated to a fine site in North Yorkshire, where the views are indescribable in their beauty, but the weather is equally indescribable in winter!

Moving In

We arrived laden with goodies - the sort of eatables which a generally frugal approach to living does not always allow! Quite by chance we got it right! It was the day they began their retreat, and it seems, two of the sisters had been bemoaning the fact that there were no 'treats' to be seen for 'retreat consumption' ! Our boxes and bags full of melons, nectarines, grapes, chocolate cakes, weird and wonderful cheeses etc, just hit the spot, and they were clearly pleased with our choices.

We spent such a lovely couple of hours over tea and some of aforesaid chocolate cakes, laughing, giggling and generally having a good time. Don't, for one moment, think that ladies who dedicate their lives to God, do not know how to party - they do, and with relish and much merriment.

I have learnt so much about the chant, and psalm singing from these ladies, and I hope I have given them some tools for preserving their voices and using a good tone. Many enter the religious life for 'the religious life', and not to be what amounts to a professional singer, starting at 6am and finishing at 8.20pm, with no N/A days (not available!) and no fee. It is, I know, sometimes a nightmare for those for whom singing does not come naturally, yet it is a vital ingredient in daily life, both as choir or soloist. Vows need much solo work, and I take my hat off to those for whom it is the 'Great Vocal Wall of China' to climb over. Brave women indeed.

Indeed in my teaching of religious I have learnt many things - not least of all that time can always be used, even 10 minutes can be enough to do some small job, or not wasted. I am intrinsically lazy and often think about certain of my sister 'friends' if I am about to idle away those 10 minutes waiting for the next thing to happen! Sister M is always on my shoulder doing, something, so I am shamed into making good use of each minute we have. In truth, I am sure that if they read this they would say I am exaggerating about their industry, but you are wrong ladies - I stand in awe and wonder at your time management!

Sister M, World authority on Gregorian Chant, and my friend!

The sound of the Office singing is glorious some of the time, and less than glorious when colds and flu hit, or chantresses are away, but the tools of singing, I hope, give them something to rely on.

I simply melt when I hear the chant, pure and unified, soaring and ebbing with the sentence structure, timeless and sacred at the great feasts or religious ceremonies.

Best of all though I love it when it is ordinary. When the beauty is in the daily doing of it. Compline on a chilly November evening wraps me up for a safe night, with no glitz or frills, and sends me calmly to my bed.

What a lucky woman am I.

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