Sometimes I do wonder about myself and why I volunteer to get myself into ridiculous situations. Need someone to do something slightly silly or potentially humiliating in public? I’m there, drawn by some strange magnetism.
So it was that I found myself standing outside Clapham South Tube station last night, alone, with a tin of Cadbury’s Roses open at my feet, holding a big sign with the words ‘Sing with Me’ painted in red, about to launch into Once in Royal David’s City, solo.
I very rarely get nervous about singing in front of people. Ask me to play the piano in front of people and my hands and legs will shake uncontrollably. Ask me to sing, and I’m normally as cool as a cucumber.
But not this time.
Two hours before I arrived, I was sweating, my stomach was gurgling, and my heart was pounding with anxiety. Why, oh why, had I volunteered to do this? What on earth was I thinking?
It started like this – a few of us wanted to sing carols in a public place, but we didn’t just want to turn up like a bedraggled bunch, debate what we would sing for five minutes, quibble about the starting note, and have embarrassed passers-by throw money at us. We wanted to do something a little more creative, a bit more inclusive, and to do it for the sheer joy of singing out.
I love carols – the harmonies, the soaring descants, the tingly feeling of the words on your tongue – and I don’t ever feel like I get to sing them enough at Christmas. And I go to church, so I reckon that means the majority of people hardly get to sing them at all. They feel like magic when you hear them and better still when you sing them.
We decided we would give people the chance to sing along with us and create a kind of carol singing flashmob. We would redeem singing on the streets from the buskers and charity fundraisers. We would create a spontaneous ‘gloria in excelsis deo’ with the commuters.
But obviously we actually were organised and we needed it to look unplanned, and this is where the idea of the lone singer came in. Everyone would arrive from 6.30 onwards to sing. But I volunteered to start at 6.25, alone, with my sign, so that as my friends joined me, to the people coming out of the Tube station, it would look like they had just randomly and spontaneously decided to join me.
I checked the time on my watch, cleared my throat, and began to sing.
FF has written beautifully about carol singing. She comments that ‘Choir singing is about being part of something bigger than just ‘I’.’ She’s right. Singing alone left me feeling exposed and vulnerable. I didn’t care who it was, I needed someone to join in and sing with me. My singing was not an invitation for people to watch me perform; it was an open invitation for community.
As people strode out of the station, they looked, some looked twice and you could see the flicker of the thought ‘Should I join in?’ pass through their minds. But to be the first to join a lone singer is a risk too. What if I can’t sing in tune? What if people stare at me too? The transition from anonymous commuter to street performer is a fairly giant leap to make without psyching yourself up.
So I sang alone. All six verses of Once in Royal, until, finally, and to my great relief, one of my friends arrived with her little girls, to join me. Once they’d joined in, it snowballed, and one by one, random ones of my friends came and joined in, and random commuters came, took words and sang a carol or two with us.
Lots of people got money out of their wallets, and got confused when we told them to put their money away, and to take a chocolate or join in for a verse or two instead.
Slowly but surely, my reedy little lone voice had rich altos, dark brown tenors and even a rumbling bass added to it, so that when we sang ‘Gloria in excelsis deo’ it was full and resounding, full of the instant joy that comes from being part of something bigger than yourself.