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.


OneSound logo

Music, movement and…


Sometimes the music takes you over and you just have to dance. Don’t you?

I am no dancer. My mother refused to send us to the ballet school that met in the church because the teacher smoked cigars (a grievous loss for my sister, I didn’t care in the slightest). However, my school friends and I all have a healthy appreciation for the wonder that is interpretative dance, thanks to compulsory dance classes until the end of year 10 (age 15).

My school (or rather, the one I ended up at age 14 in the Shire) was something of a mecca for dancers. Not only were there compulsory dance classes in which we had to choreograph material involving chairs and wear attractive leotards (no t-shirts allowed over the top) but there were biannual dance shows, award winning liturgical dance groups and official qualifications (both GCSE & A-level) to be had. Oh, and then there was the small matter of our dance teacher being called Mrs Dyke and her particular brand of choreography becoming known as ‘Dyke Dancing’ – did I mention it was an all-girls school??

Even those of us who opted out of dance at the earliest opportunity could (and can) do basic moves, and understand the importance of levels and height. The others can do this and more, with the added bonus of there being video footage somewhere out there of them dancing in a bright yellow catsuit to the Top Gear theme tune. [One day I am soooo going to convert that tape to DVD and humiliate some people!]

Anyway, just occasionally, the urge to move overwhelms me. Often, this is in a singing context, where amusing lyrics add to the motivation. Worship songs are particularly good for this, what with all their religious imagery – lots of shining, death, rejoicing, crowns, bowing etc. This weekend, the song of note was one of those chart hits that Christian choirs sing because it can be interpreted to be about God – Leona Lewis’ Footprints in the Sand.

It struck me, whilst my rather talented sister was rehearsing her solo, that it was perfect for a bit of interpretive movement. Some of the lines are just crying out for some passionate choreography…

I see my life flash across the skies;
[Classic *stars in the sky* action, or, if you’re a bit special, simply mime ‘flashing’ with your cleavage…]
So many times have I been so afraid. 
[Desperate fear]
And just when I thought I’d lost my way; 
[Confused looks]
You give me strength to carry on;
That’s when I heard you say
[Hand to ear.]

I promise you, I’m always there; 
when your heart is full of sorrow and despair.
[Anguished gestures and collapsing to the floor.]
I’ll carry you, when you need a friend; 
[Dirty Dancing lift]
You’ll find my footprints in the sand.
[Little footsteps.]

Pathetic, or genius – depending on your sensibilities. I managed quite a good rendition in cahoots with Morv during rehearsals, but dared not do in front of my sister, lest I put her off (or, more likely, publicly humiliate her). So, during the final rehearsal, I simply sat and filmed her – partly for her own benefit and partly because it was the only way that the parents would get a taster of another missed concert. As I filmed, I noticed Mim start to laugh, and the guys in the choir get the giggles and I realised that something was obviously happening behind me. I missed most of it, but got some of Morv’s moves on film, though I did miss out on her interpretation of ‘flashed’, which was probably not appropriate for a Cathedral setting… Re-watching it, I’ve also discovered Gill (on the right, blue hoodie, pink scarf) getting into it too. Enjoy.

Saturday night stories

To put these into context, I should explain that I’ve just spent the weekend in a sleepy Derbyshire town, doing ‘visioning’ stuff with the other leaders of OneSound, staying in a youth hostel type place & getting lots of work done.

1. The benefits of pianos in restaurants…
Dinner was at a rather random Italian restaurant situated underneath/in (we weren’t sure) a daycare centre for the elderly. (It was a small, small town.) When our food ended up taking an hour and a half to arrive, we did what any sensible gathering of musos would do – played around on the piano conveniently located next to our table.
Fortunately, the place was deserted apart from us (20 young-ish people) and 10 silver-haired diners. The music started off low-key – a bit of classic jazz to pass the time – but soon turned to musicals. A couple of us couldn’t resist a rendition of ‘Suddenly Seymour’, and pretty soon all had joined in.
Within minutes, a silver-haired lady came over with a request:
Could we possibly do ‘Shine Jesus Shine’?
Firstly, how did she know we were Christians?? We’d sung nothing religious! (Well, apart from something off the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, but that doesn’t count.) Was it tatooed on our foreheads? Was there a holy glow about us? Or was it simply that we’d not left, despite the long wait for our food?
Turns out she didn’t go to church, but had been to a wedding recently where it had been sung and she’d really liked it. Of course, we obliged with that and a few others. (It’s kind of musical evangelism.) They danced, applauded and we eventually got to eat. Happy times.
2. The problem with visiting country pubs…
Sometimes strangers just aren’t welcome. After our eventful meal, a group of us went along to a local pub for a drink (or three). It was already the third time we’d been in since Friday and it had seemed quite normal. The others times, we’d been in a side room, but this time we went straight into the main bar.
It didn’t look odd, until a friend mentioned it was all men (at that point we had 5 girls and 2 boys). We giggled, took seats and our men went to the bar. Suddenly, a hush descended upon the room. Looking up, I realised every single man was staring at us. (It probably didn’t help that my extrovert friend Morv had chosen that moment to sit on my lap.)
It was difficult to establish whether it was simply the shock of 5 women arriving, or the fact that we clearly weren’t from ’round these parts’, but it was a distinctly chilly reception. We retreated into the side room and stayed away for the rest of the evening. There we discovered a couple playing scrabble in the company of a toy badger…I’m not sure what else there is to say about that.
All this, my friends, is why it’s good to leave the Big Smoke from time to time!

Introducing: OneSound

I’ve spent quite a lot of this week writing a newsletter for a charity that I’m a trustee of, so therefore I feel it’s only right that I give my efforts a shameless plug…

One of the formative influences on my teenage/student/young adult self was singing in a Christian youth choir & orchestra. Putting it like that makes it sound a little stuffy, but it was far from it. Performing a repertoire that ranged from classic choral anthems and gospel greats to Disney songs and chart hits, we did gigs across the country including the Royal Albert Hall, the NEC, Greenbelt…you name a random city/town, I’ve probably sung there. (Even went to Grimsby twice – I assume God knows why!)

I literally wouldn’t be where I am today without this experience. Not at my church, not in my job, probably not still singing and with a lot fewer lovely friends.

But I digress. In recent years things have been hard for this group of young adults. We had to become independent in 2006 and this has meant a long toil of becoming a company, a registered charity, applying for grants, running an organisation with no paid staff…

However, a landmark moment has recently been achieved: we have successfully re-branded ourselves, marking a new beginning for the group and hopefully a very exciting one.

So, the group of 13-25 year old musicians formerly known as the ‘MAYC Orchestra & Singers‘ are now:

What particularly excites me is that we’ve put a lot of prayer and thought into our vision as an organisation, as a community of people. It’s never been just about the music, but now the music, our faith and our passion for sharing both of these is much more obvious. We’re not sure what the years ahead might involve, but there are lots of opportunities for the taking.

Hopefully lots more young people will continue to reap the benefits that I’ve been grateful for.

As an aside, at the meeting where we chose the new name, we joked before the discussion began that maybe we’d just end up still being ‘MAYC O&S’ at the end of it all. Mid-way through a conversation where we seemed to be agreeing on ‘OneSound’, I realised that was still ‘O&S’. One of our options for a strapline was: ‘Youth Music and Christ’ which would’ve been just a different configuration of ‘MAYC’.

We’ve always been affectionately known as ‘O&S’ so we really know God’s in this because he’s let us keep our initials!

OneSound can be found on facebook and on twitter.