If music be the food of love, play on ” ~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act I Scene I ~ Duke Orsino’s opening line.

One of the first lines of Shakespeare I had ever read, as a teenager, came from this play that I studied for English Literature at the age of 16. It still resonates in me today. I passed English Literature at ‘O’ Level, but not with any great distinction. Maybe if I’d had the talent, intellectual aptitude and whatever other indeterminate qualities and quantities, be they genetic or environmental, I might have been more distinguished in my appreciation of the literary arts; maybe even more accomplished as a writer or musician, instead of starting out my adult life as I did, as an engineer, or a ‘reluctant metallurgist’, as I sometimes introspectively muse. Thereby hangs another tale, for another time.

John & Guitar 1972
Photo: John Anstie (1972)

But that’s history; it’s part of what made me the person I am and I am grateful for that and all the subsequent opportunities that I fell upon as a result of the path I took, not least of all in my personal life. If I am unlikely to ‘make it’ as a writer, if any one of us, who sometimes aspire with our pens in whatever corner of literary endeavour we may hang out, there is something else that happens in that endeavour; something that possibly only time, ageing and accumulated wisdom can reveal. This is quite simply that, if you seek, you will eventually find.

Alongside an early appreciation of literature, which Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and a host of classical poets afforded me in my school years, came also an appreciation of music, albeit not through education and training; rather through my exposure to the music through singing as a treble in the Church choir and at school, through the music scene of the 60’s and 70’s and the saving grace of my decision to sell a car and by a good guitar with the proceeds (a Yamaha FG140, to be precise), which provided me with an escape from, and therapy to help in my resolution of some challenging times.

I guess, out of a deep desire to make music, which thus far had been confined to playing my guitar and singing mostly on my own or small groups of friends, eventually, after what I call a thirty-five year spell in a creative desert, came an opportunity to make music with other likeminded people. More’s the point, I was able to find the time to join and regularly attend rehearsals in a mixed voice choir. It was here that I first discovered the true joy, not only of the music and singing in harmony, but of sharing that love with others.

And now, for the past two years, I have been singing and performing regularly with one of the best Barbershop Choruses in the UK, as well as with a local chamber choir, whose MD has managed to attract some significant musical talent … and me! A year ago, I also formed a mixed barbershop quartet with some singing friends. Additionally, through the barbershop chorus, I facilitate a regular quartet night. I am, you might say, in at the deep end and making up for lost time! This all sits beside other occasional duets with a musical neighbour and the recent setting up of a five piece folk ensemble; and next year, I have already put my name down to allow myself (to be persuaded) to form a male barbershop quartet through the resources of Hallmark of Harmony, some time early next year.

The latest step in the development of this absorbing hobby is that I have found myself being asked, nay commissioned to write lyrics. I’ve written poetry for several years and, during that time, often dabbled with writing song lyrics too. Now it seems to be happening. Am I living the dream or am I kidding myself? We’ll have to wait and see … and I shall have to keep close to my very supportive wife, who is unstinting in her support of my ‘hobby’. Long may that last, as well as my ability to keep up the energy levels needed to perform at this level, but singing is something many can continue to enjoy well into old age. I am always hopeful of singing at my own 100th birthday party!

Whilst a painting may have the power of a thousand words, for me, music, singing, poetry, musical composition and songwriting are closely interwoven art forms that, when combined in the most skilful way, I’d venture to say they are probably the most powerful of the art forms. When you encounter a song, with a great melody and poetic lyrics, the combination of which is so synergistic and performed with such passion that it hits you with a power that is unforgettable, makes your heart ache or makes you smile, then you know you have engaged with the highest form or art.

adrea-bocelli-quote-when-i-sing

This experience is a quest, of which I will never tire. As long as I can breathe, I will sing. It has the power to change lives, to provide a therapy that no pharmacy can give you. Whilst I could never advocate that it replaces a true faith, whatever denomination you may choose, I have witnessed on many occasions, first hand, the healing power of singing in harmony with my friends. Singing takes you several steps beyond just listening to music. You only have to witness once the tears in the eyes of a grown man, when they feel that perfectly pitched chord sung in harmony, and when they have just performed a particularly moving rendition of a favourite song, to know how unique and powerful this experience truly is.

© text and photos, John Anstie

2 thoughts on “Singing for the Love of It

  1. Having heard your group sing, I can see how true your description is of the music and words as moving the heart and soul. I imagine that you are quite good at song lyrics, because your poetry is solid, too. It’s fantastic that you have managed to combine both loves into something more, into a whole that helps complete you, John. 🙂 You truly are blessed, my friend.

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  2. I came to see the transcendent power of music in a spiritual dimension through my late husband, who was a Far Western District Barbershop champion and International competitor…he was also the Cantor at our Episcopal Church and at a few synagogues for hire. As his health failed, his breath control weakened a bit, but he clung to each opportunity to make music with all the life in him. I truly believe he was closest to God and to a higher plane of awareness when he was singing, and his barbershop friends were the bosom buddies he held in his heart of hearts. When I had to come up with something to carve on his grave marker, I chose Cantate Domino. As a music major in college with Vocal Performance as my senior thesis, I felt there was something too mechanical, academic or anxious about how I sang, but Jim sang with joy and love and studied music with pure passion, never for a grade but with a higher purpose, I think. Keep singing for love, John. 🙂

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