Revisiting the past and anticipating the future

People often say that you can never go back to the things you’ve left behind. Usually they’re right. We can’t turn back time and dwelling on the past isn’t usually a helpful idea. But once in a blue moon you can and it’s every bit as good as the imprint on your memory. Last Saturday was one of those days…

Half a life time ago, as a nervous 16 year old, I joined an organisation I was in awe of – the MAYC Orchestra & Singers (O&S), a national youth choir and orchestra that was part of the Methodist Church. 16 years later, I can safely say that summoning up the courage to send in a tape to audition was one of the best decisions of my life. It brought me ten happy years of singing; improved my sight-reading exponentially; gave me solos in exotic locations like Blackpool’s Winter Gardens; and, most importantly, an amazing group of friends

LWE 1998Obligatory dodgy photo of me, and friends, in the RAH dressing rooms at London Weekend 1998. After some discussion, we’ve decided ‘moody’ was in… [Thanks so much Rachel for putting it on Facebook!]

‘MAYC’ was the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs and when I was an impressionable youngster, we lived across the road from its HQ in Muswell Hill – I longed for the day when I’d reach 13 and be allowed to go to its events! Its annual highlight was London Weekend, an event that saw thousands of young people flood London clad in green & yellow (don’t ask!) and filled the Royal Albert Hall twice over for a show. [If you want to get a better idea of this, there are two Songs of Praises now on YouTube, one from 1991 & one from the 50th anniversary in 1995.] The O&S was founded to provide the backing music to this event, first with an orchestra in 1974 and later a choir too. This year marks its 40th anniversary and fortunately for us, the trustees of what has now become OneSound, realised the significance of the date in time to plan a reunion.

It’s really difficult to explain what O&S means to people who haven’t been part of it. On the surface, it sounds like a noble activity – a church based musical activity for youngsters. A group that meets together two or three times a year for three days at a time, drawing people together from all over the country. How could it possibly have that much of an impact upon its members’ lives?

Yes, I performed in some of the best venues in the UK – including the Royal Albert Hall, the NEC & NIA and several cathedrals. We recorded three albums and taped two Songs of Praises. But I took it for granted in that blasé way teenagers have. But I also found a place where I could explore and be sustained in my faith. A place that was a constant in the midst of A-levels, university, first jobs, unemployment and parents leaving the country. A group that provided some of the best friends a girl could have – which in no small way has probably made my sister and I closer together than we might have been. Countless people have met their spouses through it, including six friends of mine (and another couple currently dating).

O&S at an O&S weddingFormer O&S/OneSound members at a wedding that wouldn’t have happened without the O&S.

This past weekend, over 150 of us across its 40 year history joined together to revisit old friends and music. In all honesty, I was a little apprehensive. Would it be as good as I remembered? Would people really get into the spirit of things? Would I know many people outside the group of friends I see regularly? Would it be worth losing a weekend that could be spent on the final essay & presentation of my ordination training??

I needn’t have worried. At 8.30 on Saturday morning we launched straight into a run-through of an iconic O&S piece (an unlikely bringing together of Amy Grant’s That’s What Love is For and MC Hammer’s Do Not Pass Me By) and the moment the the first chords were played, the hairs stood up on my neck. The orchestra sounded amazing. The soloist sounded just the same as she had done 17 years ago. We were singing notes most of us never thought we’d get to sing again. I think there were probably tears… In that moment, I think we all knew the event was going to be a success. In fact, it wouldn’t have mattered if no one had come to the concert that Saturday night because we just wanted to play and sing. (Well, and chat. There wasn’t enough time for chatting!)

Children's choirThe Children’s Choir in action. (I’m the proud Godmother of the boy on the far right in the purple t-shirt. His brother is making a face next to the girl in the pink & blue frock.) [Credit: Matthew Tipple]

Time has moved on and nowhere was that more evident than in the presence of second generation O&S’ers – the children of ex members. Someone had the idea of forming them into a children’s choir and, although I know it was stressful at times [brilliant work Gill, Catherine, Joe, Jenna et al!], their participation made the event. My godson and his brother had a whale of a time, the younger of the two discovered what microphones do and made sure he was right in front of one at all times, singing loudly! In the first half of the evening’s concert, they performed admirably, with a particularly enthusiastic version of Let it Go. But it was the finale of Sing (the Gary Barlow Commonwealth anthem for the jubilee) that broke me, and most of the other adults. The children topped and tailed it and it was flipping awesome!

My friend’s Mum filmed this – she was impressed she worked out how to do video, so we’ll let her off the portrait-ness of it. The sound quality’s pretty good though. [Parents, this is posted more for your benefit than anyone else’s! You ought to be able to spot me…]

Life in O&S wasn’t always easy and I think I was worried that this weekend would bring up memories that weren’t quite so great. The time I spent as a member covered a period of massive change in Methodism and included the transitioning of O&S out of the national structure, losing all its funding. In 2005 I had a temporary job at the Methodist Church [the first of 3!], working in the same open-plan office of the then MD when news broke that it was to be cut and her post made redundant. At the time, I was also secretary of the support group – a band of volunteers from the O&S who had various, not hugely important responsibilities (mine seemed to largely revolve around our music library) – who, all of a sudden, were plunged into making plans for the future.

Over the months and years that followed I gave hours and days of my life to ensuring this organisation survived. We had long meetings that inevitably resulted in me catching the very last train home from Watford. We gathered volunteers; came up with structures and grant applications; we filed for company and charitable status; and we oversaw a transition from the now meaningless ‘MAYC Orchestra & Singers’ to ‘OneSound’. Sometimes there were days when it didn’t seem worth it – like when letters of complaint arrived or when members couldn’t understand why things weren’t how they were before. But then an event would come around and every late night, every meeting minuted, and form filled in was more than worth it.

When I began Vicar School three years ago, I made the decision that I could no longer spare the time for board meetings, emails and events, so after five years of being a trustee (ending up with a year as acting chair), I stood down. Until this weekend, I’d had next to nothing to do with OneSound except for chats with friends who are still involved and the odd favour. I’d forgotten what had made all that work worthwhile.

PerformingThe reunion ensemble. (I’m apparently deep in thought…) [Credit: Sarah Winser]

This weekend, I remembered why it was so important that we kept O&S going in 2005. That it matters that other young people have the chance to be part of something that can change their lives. Yes, it’s exceptionally cheesy, but I – and several hundred other people – know that it’s completely true. I’m phenomenally pleased that lots of ex-members have recognised it too. Hopefully lots of them will support what O&S has become in future years, so that when the 5oth anniversary comes around, we can do it all over again!

The past was Orchestra & Singers, but the future is OneSound.


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