I was back in my old alma mater yesterday, King’s College Cambridge, singing in the Chapel. I think I may have finally conquered the fear that overwhelms me whenever I start to sing in the place, but I’m not sure. It’s a fear rooted in my first ever experience of singing under it’s famous fan-vaulted ceiling.
It was September 1975 and I was seventeen. I had applied for a Choral Scholarship to King’s which, if I was successful, would get me a place in the choir the following academic year. I was desperate to get into King’s. Nowhere else would do, but the system was that you listed in order of preference which other colleges you would also like to consider. Such was the rivalry between King’s and St John’s that if you put either of them second you could forget it altogether. They weren’t prepared to be anybody’s back-up.
What I didn’t know then was that the Choral Scholarship also guaranteed a place in the University without the need to sit the entrance exam that I was currently cramming for, not too successfully.
The selection process was pretty tough. All the applicants descended on Cambridge for two days and were put up in college rooms. The first round, the one I actually dreaded most, was where you were sent into a small auditorium and were made to sight-read in front of all the choral directors. The ability to read well was key as the top choirs covered a lot of repertoire and there wasn’t enough rehearsal time to cope with stragglers. I was crap at reading which I blame squarely on poor education in that department in my early years.
After the first round a list went up of who was through to round two and who could go home. Despite having made a hash of my sight-reading they let me through.
The next round the next day involved singing an aria in either St John’s or King’s or both. I had to do both, St John’s first. All the candidates sat in a line on a pew, and one by one we got up and did our party piece. Mine was a Handel aria. Various choir masters were dotted around each chapel, mostly looking pretty bored. We were all incredibly nervous.
Half an hour after my St John’s audition (which wouldn’t have been in my case for St John’s itself, as I’d nailed my colours to the King’s mast, but which was for any other colleges that might be interested) I was down the road in the choir stalls of King’s waiting my turn. I sang my aria in this wonderful building that I already loved with a teenage passion, and when I finished, thought “that’s it, nothing more to do”, when Philip Ledger the King’s Organist announced he was worried about my sight-reading and wanted me to have another go at it. Oh crap. He handed me a copy of some Magnificat or something, told the organist to start from such-and-such a bar and off I went. And when I say off, I mean it. I hadn’t a clue. Not only that but all the other candidates were still sitting there watching me melt into a pool of humiliated goo. I think I remember wanting to jump into the Cam and drown.
When I’d finished wrecking the brief piece of Howells (I’m pretty sure it was Howells), Ledger said I could go but to wait outside. So I walked out in a state of despondency. He’d found me out. I was a fraud.
A few minutes later he came out of the chapel and told me that he was giving me the scholarship. He said my voice was “terrific but for God’s sake go away and learn how to sight-read”.
Despite the happy ending, it’s always been the seventeen year old in me who turns up first when I’ve gone back to sing as a soloist. “This is it,” he tells me, “this is the moment they find out you really are a fraud.” If I’m lucky I’ve been able to shut him up, but not always. Yesterday I actually felt too old to be putting up with that shit anymore. But that’s not to say he won’t put in another appearance sometime.
The weather was warm and gorgeous yesterday and it reminded me of a tour of Japan when I was in the King’s Choir. We used to sing concerts in our cassocks, worn over white shirts with college ties, trousers and black shoes. The boys had to wear their Eton collars.
It was August and unbearably hot and humid, and back in the 70s air-conditioning was not so common, even in Japan. One night the heat was awful and the men went onstage looking angelic as we always did in our red cassocks, but underneath none of us was wearing any trousers. We were wearing underpants though.