Choir: High and Low Notes

Being back in Victoria, and back at St. Paul’s private school in Esquimalt, I was also back singing in the children’s choir with Miss Pearcy again.

Craigdarroch Castle, Victoria, BC, where I sometimes had choir practice as a young lad.

I recall that a number of Sundays were spent at Victoria’s historic Craigdarroch Castle. Yes, it was an actual castle which at that time housed Victoria’s Conservatory of Music. It’s possible that these practices were for a special performance, since we normally only practiced in the school gymnasium.

I have a few clear images from our practice sessions at Craigdarroch Castle. All the kids in the choir would be dressed in formal church robes and we would race up the large old wooden staircase to get to a room on the second floor. The ceilings were high, and the acoustics were very different. More echoey and grand. It was a beautiful room with wood panelling on the walls and tall windows that let in a lot of daylight. It was kind of special to be able to practice in such a nice space.

St. Pauls Anglican Church, Esquimalt, BC

I remember that on numerous Sundays, we would sing for the congregation at St. Paul’s Anglican Church. I actually really enjoyed these times.

The impressive organ inside St. Paul’s, which Miss Pearcy would sometimes play.

It was a tiny little white wooden church, and was very old. During the time before our performances (likely for a regular Sunday mass), we would all be scrambling around like mad straightening our little neck ties and getting into our robes. I was quite small, and I remember someone pulling up the excess of an extremely long robe from under my shoes and cinching it around my waist with an old belt. Some kid also told me that old story about how to remember how to spell “arithmetic”. He told me “A Red Indian Thought He Might Eat Tobacco In Church”, and I thought this was pretty clever.

The inside of St. Paul’s Anglican Church was small and almost intimate. Our choir was seated in our own pews along the left-hand side of the hall, in front of the congregation, and perpendicular to them. Miss Pearcy was seated at the gigantic pipe organ to our left at the very front of the hall. I was always in the front row. If I looked to my left, I would see Miss Pearcy and the large round rosette-style stained glass window high up on the front wall. If I looked to my right, I could see the front rows of the congregation.

The whole church interior space was close, dark and very comforting. It felt secure, maybe because it was so closed in.

Sometimes, during choir practice in the small gymnasium of St. Paul’s school, Miss Pearcy would call me down from the platform to stand next to her at the front of her piano. This is when she’d play and sing a new song for me and the choir to learn. Of course I couldn’t read music, but as she played and sang, I’d read the lyrics from the sheet and follow her, trying to anticipate the next note. I listened intently, and it was during these moments that I learned that if I listened carefully enough and paid as much attention as I could, I could almost hear the next note before she played it. I felt that this wasn’t because of the repetitiveness or predictability in the melody – I felt like I could sense the right note even if I didn’t know what to expect.

This almost worked with words too, as I found out years later in high school.

I guess that after all our practicing and performing, we had become a pretty good little choir. I remember two fairly important public performances that were not held at our tiny Anglican church.

The first big performance that I can recall was at the MacPherson Playhouse. We must have practiced and practiced for this particular performance. It was a big deal for all of us. I remember that we all had to wear bright red robes, covered with white tunics and these strange high frilly collars. I thought I looked stupid, and I felt uncomfortable. Looking back now, it was like wearing a huge coffee filter around my neck.

The stage of the MacPherson seemed huge. On it was a large, black grand piano. The lights beamed on us were extremely bright, so I couldn’t see much beyond the edge of the stage. The overall sensation I had was like singing directly into infinite space. Even the air inside the theatre seemed big, and there was a slight motion to it. The space beyond the stage seemed gigantic to me. I could just feel the vastness of it.

But you know, we sounded so good! It was an absolutely terrifying and amazing experience for me.

Another time, we sang in front of a television camera for the local cable television channel. This time, the performance took place in a relatively small room. I sang some solo again, and I remember feeling much calmer in front of a camera than in front of a live audience.

Later on at home, we gathered around Poppy’s TV set and watched me on TV. They did a huge close-up on my face. I remember watching my face singing and thinking how much my ears stuck out from under my new, super short haircut. I thought I looked sort of dorky, but I was still proud to be singing on TV.

On one occasion, there was some extra special formal event, where I knew I would have to sing. I remember that we were getting ready to leave, and I just walked away from the house. I wanted to be alone, away from my family, and away from the committment of this performance. I guess I was just reacting to the pressure, and to my parent’s expectations of me. So I just calmly walked away a block or two. I knew I was being rebellious and that I would be in huge trouble when I was caught.

I also had started to regret walking away, having second thoughts. But Mum and Dad caught me within ten minutes. Dad yelled at me with such an angry contorted face. I don’t remember if he swatted me or not, but I felt very guilty and sad. I don’t know if Mum and Dad were aware of my feelings or not. Maybe Mum understood, I really am not sure. I just remember Dad being supremely pissed off with me.

I’m fairly sure we went along and I performed anyway. This was a case where, as a kid, my parent’s needs came before my needs.


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The memoir and family history of E. John Love