"...some of the most real and lasting and best friendships that I have made in Cambridge came about through choir."Photo courtesy of Zohra Nabi

When I arrived at Cambridge as a bright-eyed fresher, I had already decided that I was not going to join a choir. Choir, I thought, had been fun at school, but things were serious now, and I was here to be a serious person. Already, my Director of Studies had set us ‘introductory reading’ which involved me desperately attempting to get my emptied head around the concept of ‘double-strict liability’, and when discussing how much of the day should be spent working, had been casually informed that eight hours a day after lectures ought to do it.

Love Letters to Cambridge

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It took three days in Cambridge for me to realise my mistake. Three days to feel anchorless and unmoored, sleeping in an unfamiliar room, partying, talking and living with people I had only known since the beginning of the week, and studying a subject that seemed as strange and daunting as a foreign language. I reached out for something structured, familiar and safe. I emailed the organ scholar and asked whether it was too late to audition for the chapel choir.

I approached my audition nervously. My voice was hoarse from Freshers flu. I had a sneaking suspicion that my musical ability might have gone the way of my essay-writing skills after three months of no practice. The mounting pile of supervision work my supervisors seemed to have no qualms about setting in my first week lurked on my desk. But I needn’t have worried. The Director of Music was smiling and welcoming, and he went through my mistakes in the sight-reading test with the same patience that he would address the choir (most of the time). The first service would be that Sunday.

"...chapel choir has, for a long time, felt like family."Photo courtesy of Zohra Nabi

When it’s perfect, singing in a choir is like no other feeling on Earth. When everyone is focused and in total understanding of where the music is going, there’s a stillness in the air, a feeling of expectation. When you hear the first intoned notes, the first slow swell of sound, you feel as though even your breathing is forming a part of something outside yourself - like there are invisible threads connecting you to every other singer in the room. Each time you sing, you can feel the sound coming from you and meeting everyone else’s, creating something that feels tangible as it settles in the air around you. Each new harmony has a feeling of consequence and meaning.

“...choir has come to define the rhythms and cadences of my Cambridge life.”

And (although I have a hunch there will be people who disagree), even when it’s bad, it’s good. I have had to stop myself from bursting out laughing at the stray note of an absent-minded friend, or at the panicked eyes of a choir director as he desperately tries to reign the choir back into some semblance of unity. I have felt my breath run out in inopportune places and my voice crack and sharpen, and discovered that the confidence that comes with drinking half a bottle of wine before compline does not necessarily lead to other qualities found in good singing, such as tunefulness, or the ability to read words and notes simultaneously.

"When it’s perfect, singing in a choir is like no other feeling on Earth."Photo courtesy of Zohra Nabi

It wasn’t perfect. We would all complain about long rehearsals and singing lessons that seemed to constitute cruel and unusual punishment (anyone who has waited in trepidation in T Staircase at Downing or outside the song school at John’s will know what I mean), and I have vented my frustration at the choir in less than kind ways more than once. But choir has come to define the rhythms and cadences of my Cambridge life. The familiar patterns of evensong twice a week, the quiet, thoughtful, candlelit intonations of compline; running to a Wednesday evening rehearsal from my seminar, trying to catch enough breath to chant the opening solemnity of that week’s psalm; dissecting the quality of the service over formal in between moaning about essay crises and resisting the suggestions of one of the tenors that we leave for Thursday Lola’s, or Sunday Life.


Mountain View

To the one-year students of Cambridge

And you’ll forgive me a bit of soppiness if I say that some of the most real and lasting and best friendships that I have made in Cambridge came about through choir. Through making mac and cheese in someone’s kitchen after a long service, and making up a defamatory song about one of your friends that has you all laughing so hard you can barely gasp out the notes. Through getting hideously, horrendously drunk at a benefactor’s dinner and dancing on the stalls in chapel at two o’clock in the morning, yelling up requests at the organ scholar. Through piling onto someone’s bed and talking together for hours because someone is feeling sad and being close feels like the best way to get through it. I have had a tiny soprano curl up and fall asleep in my lap like a drowsy kitten and been thrown shrieking into the North Sea whilst on holiday with a crowd of basses.

Cambridge has been many things to me, and it hasn’t always felt like home. But chapel choir has, for a long time, felt like family. You will bide with me forever, e’en the spirit of truth. I shall miss you all terribly.