After 18 long months, Choirs Beating Time has returned to in-person choir sessions in HMP Rye Hill. Our correspondent, Ophrys, reflects on Harmony On The Hill’s (our choir at Rye Hill) first performance since Christmas 2019 to celebrate the 50th edition of their prisoner written magazine ‘The Rye Hill Times’. The Choir is led by our Head of the Musical Team, Pete Churchill, and Gina Baker.
The Platinum Quality Choir
The choir has been reunited for just a few short weeks now, Covid restrictions being lessened. The initial, slightly breathy, enthusiasm audible when we first sang together after so long a silence has settled now into a strong, harmonic unity. We all remarked on it:
“Isn’t it great to be back?”
“Yes! The Platinum Quality Choir!”
“Of course! I’d forgotten!”
“We sound ok, don’t we?”
“We’re sounding good!”
“Like riding a bike!”
“You know – you don’t forget, do you?”
“Er, no. How have you been?”
“Well, I coped – had to really, but I’m glad to be back.”
And we have new songs – well, we would do wouldn’t we – which maybe when we are good and familiar with, and an event comes along, we’ll be ready to perform. But of course – new songs apart – they are just the vehicles used to display our united desire to perform, our individual commitment to the whole – the sense of and the reality of working together. A Choir is more than the sum of its parts and we are together again. As Gloria Gaynor once sang: we “have survived”.
Gina and Pete seem glad to be back. There’s a new warmth about – or is it the old warmth their presence has rekindled? I’m not sure. But it’s evident and it’s good.
“Singing is good for your health” said Dr Michael Mosely recently on Radio 4, “and singing in a choir is even better”.
Those established in the Rye Hill choir know this, as do those men who have moved on, gone elsewhere. They will miss us – but, well, nothing is forever is it? And we have some new members who are keen. Before long we’ll be performing together.
Then it’s mentioned, Pete tells us there’s an event coming along (should we call it a gig?) at the end of the month. Some celebration of the 50th issue of the Rye Hill Times. That’s the end of next week – we realised. Gosh!
“It’s too soon. We won’t be ready.” I hear a concerned whisper. I look up into our leader’s face and see the steely determination. He looks tanned. He looks lean. Not an ounce of fat has stuck to him over lockdown.
Suddenly I can see Daniel Craig’s replacement! And Gina is a perfect 008!
We will be ready. There’s no two ways about it. They look at me – did they see a flicker of doubt? I lower my eyes, humbled.
We rehearse today, Tuesday and we will have next Tuesday to check we are song perfect. Furthermore, we will meet on the morning of the event and have a quick run through and receive that essential boost of morale that our choir master is so good at injecting.
The morning dawns and resplendent in our Harmony on the Hill t-shirts, we meet up and greet each other, counting our numbers. Not all are present. We are somewhat depleted. I look for steely determination in the eyes of those present and it is wavering.
It wavers even more when we hear Pete and Gina are not coming. Someone’s forgotten to sign something, we hear. They won’t let them through. New ‘Potential Bond’ or not, Pete cannot risk karate chops or force. We are done. There are whispers of a plot.
So are we going to just sit around like lemons? It looks like it. I sigh and try to involve myself in the General Knowledge Quiz. When halfway through, guess who comes in? It’s only 007 and 008 – I mean – Pete and Gina – who carries the guitar case like it’s a Louis Vuitton accessory. Such panache! Totally natural!
It’s late in the morning but we’re assembled in the art room, off the main performance venue and given our warm up exercises to focus our minds and our vocal chords. We’ll do our best, our utmost – we really will, and the choirmasters know this, even if their fingers are crossed.
In the end we perform just 4 of the 5 planned songs: ‘Count On Me’ by Bruno Mars, ‘Caravan of Love’, ‘Rhythm of Life’, and ‘Only You’. Our closing number (‘Spread a Little Happiness’) had to be abandoned, we’ve run out of time.
The applause is genuine. We have done as good a job as we can given depleted numbers, the disappointment that were leaderless and would not be doing anything, then finding we were! It’s a credible performance after so long a time.
“Well done,” says Robin, “we did it – Platinum Quality Choir!”