Now that I have reached the end of my year abroad, these blogs shall be written in the form of ‘memoirs,’ giving an account of my experiences as well as reflections on such things as what I learned from the experiences, and how they went on to shape my year abroad as a whole.
My memories of the first part of my first semester are dominated by a few key things. The language course is, of course, the first, followed by my travels to Budapest and Prague, and my adventures in and around Prague with that group of friends. It was also around this time that I started to get involved with the Prague live music jam scene via my friend Jaimáku, who I met by way of buying a guitar off him. Which of my instruments to take to Prague proved to be a difficult decision, I having a great many (and yet somehow never quite enough), all of which I play in different capacities. In the end, I opted to bring a bass (and ukulele) and purchase a cheap second-hand classical guitar while I was there, which is where Jaimáku, a professional guitar restorer, came in. Our plans for me to join his band never quite materialised, for the usual reasons, but I did greatly enjoy those jam sessions that I was attend throughout the city, most of which he seemed to have a hand in organising.
As the semester progressed, my music education classes started to take up more of my focus, as did my attendance of the Charles University Chorus, with assessments and concerts looming, respectively. I also started spending a lot of time with my friends from my classes, while drifting gradually away from my friends from the language course (notable exceptions being my Paraskevi, who was also a music education student, my friend Charlotte, who I started seeing on a weekly basis at open board game nights in the city, and Regina, who also attended the Chorus, along with Paraskevi and Elli, another friend from my music education course).
I must confess, until about a month before my arrival in Prague, I didn’t quite realise that I would be taking music education classes (that is, learning how to teach music). In Southampton I study BA Philosophy and Music, and I knew that I had been accepted into Charles University via a link with the Southampton University Faculty of Music, but not a lot more than that (primarily, I am certain, as a result of my own lack of thorough investigation). Fortunately, my teachers in Prague, and, as a result, my classes, were quite exceptionally good. Teaching had always been sort of on the periphery of my interest, but never something that I’d put a lot of serious thought into. Now, at the end of my year in Prague, it falls firmly within the scope of areas that I would be interested in pursuing.
Throughout my entire school and University life, I’ve been a part of a great many clubs, societies, and other extra-curricular activities. At my secondary school and sixth form I would have some kind of after school band or club or organised activity more or less every day, and a lot of the time in my first and second years at Southampton I seemed to just about spend more time running between society events and student bands than anything else…
There are, however, two extra-curricular activities that I greatly enjoyed during my secondary school years but was forced to give up (as a result of having too many other things that I wanted to do) when I went to University. The first was drama and musical theatre, something that I had been involved in for in the region of 11 years before coming to University. It is still something that I miss, but I have at least been able to get involved in a number of LARP events in the meantime, which is more or less competitive improv theatre with more fighting. The other was singing in choirs. I therefore leapt at the opportunity to join a choir in Southampton. But which one to join?
The first choir that I investigated was that of my faculty, which happened to be the largest in the University (and, as an added bonus, one that I could earn academic credits for attending). I attended an introductory first session, and it certainly seemed to be run to a high standard. However, I couldn’t help feeling that it did rather seem to be run by the Czechs for the Czechs. It is, of course, a Faculty choir in a Czech university, so this should have been hardly surprising. Nonetheless, with no discernible welcome given and not a word of English spoken by anyone involved in the running of the choir, I’m afraid that I didn’t feel particularly at ease. I sat at the back for a while, struggling to follow what was being said, but it was largely in vain. In the end, that no-one had acknowledged my presence did at least allow me to slip out of the back of the hall unnoticed after half an hour or so.
It should be said that Gustavo, one of my friends from music education did remain in this choir and did in fact report greatly enjoying the experience. Perhaps, then, it is to my discredit that I was unwilling to put in the effort to communicate with the other choir members and overcome the language barrier. Still, a choir is, for me, as much about united spirit and collective endeavour as it is about merely learning and performing songs, so as much as I wanted to integrate and get to know the Czech students and way of life, I couldn’t face joining a choir that I felt quite so isolated from right from the beginning.
This experience was one starkly contrasted with that of my first rehearsal at the Charles University Chorus. This choir is open to all undergraduates and recent graduates of the University (with an auditioning process to determine suitability for its ever-ambitious repertoire) and, being led primarily in English, is very popular with Erasmus students, who usually make up the majority (but not the entirety) of its number. These were all things that I knew about the choir before I turned up to audition. I did not, however, know quite where rehearsals were held.
This shouldn’t have been as issue- the address was, after all, clearly posted online. However, this being one of the ‘between working phones’ periods of my Erasmus year, I managed to get myself lost enough that I was, in the end, around 15-20 minutes late. Fortunately, having eventually located the correct building, all that I needed to do was follow the sound of the rest of the choir warming up. Unfortunately, this warming up was finishing just as I entered. Trying not to draw attention to myself as I snuck in among the basses and tenors, I was reassured to spot Regina already among the chorus.
When it comes to choirs, the personality of the choir’s leader is often what defines the entire character and atmosphere of the group. My first impression of our choirmaster, Haig, was thus an immense relief. His manner seemed to foster a natural and immediate kind of fellowship between himself and the chorus, with a certain implicit authority born of respect never diminished by his affability and charm. Within a few minutes of his direction, I could tell that this was the choir for me.
If, that was, I passed the audition. The majority of the rehearsal was dedicated to introducing the new member of the choir (about two thirds of us, given the high proportion of Erasmus students among the population) to the established and new repertoire, all of which, though unfamiliar to me, seemed at first impression to be pleasant and more or less singable. The last half hour or so, however, was dedicated to the auditions, organised by order or where we were sat. I had my laptop with me, as I nearly always do, so I pulled this out while I waited my turn to sing. The vast majority of the auditionees did indeed pass their audition, the only exceptions being those who struggled to stay on pitch without accompaniment. So by all rights, I should have been able to pass with no real difficulties. But did I?
As my more astute readers will have noticed, the answer to this question was heavily implied in the second paragraph. I did indeed join the choir, as did Regina, and subsequently of Elli and Paraskevi. It was a fun choir to be a part of, and we put on some excellent concerts at amazing places (including a Christmas concert within Karlštejn, a beautiful castle as if from a fairy tale that sits upon a hill a short train journey away from Prague. One particularly notable performance however, and among my first with the choir, is that at which I played the triangle.
My triangling career began with Haig asking whether any of us among the choir had a good ear for rhythm and could count. Seeing an opportunity to put my a level maths to good use, I volunteered, as did one of the tenors (I being a bass, my natural enemy, though this particular fellow was actually rather a pleasant chap). What I turned out to have volunteered for was a rather fancy do put on by one of the specialist universities in Prague, at which our choir’s orchestral counterpart was providing music entertainment in order to give the audience the energy to remain awake through the many subsequent speeches, or so I presume.
First, however, I had to learn how to play the triangle. I had played percussion before, many years ago in a samba band and, more recently, when not playing upright bass in my University Jazz Band. Still, the triangle is a fearsome and noble instrument, and deserves its proper respect, so I turned to the most reliable and comprehensive tutor that I could think of. When one of the professional percussionists arrived, he asked me whether I, too, was a trained percussionist or percussion student. By way of response, I showed him the WikiHow article still open on my phone.
All in all, I’m pleased to say that the concert was a roaring success! The audience seemed to greatly appreciate our music, and the chorus most definitely appreciated the open bar and buffet that were provided to us thereafter, along with further musical performances while we consumed and imbibed (including from hit(?) Czech new age band Support Lesbiens)!
My playing was, in fact, such a hit that I was asked to resume my role as trianglist at another performance, this time one with both choir and orchestra. The venue this time was the Karolinum, the oldest part of the University of Prague and thus the oldest University building in central Europe, still a functioning part of the University to this day! I was there both to sing and to perform as a percussionist, which meant, as you can see from the picture to the left of this blog (taken during that very concert, and showing approximately half of the orchestra and chorus), it was necessary for me to navigate may way up to the raised platform where the singers were stood. Fortunately, I was just about able to do so without knocking over any music stands, and the concert was, once again, greatly successful!
My friends and I did also get the chance to see Gustavo singing in the faculty choir a short while later, also in the Karolinum and another stellar performance. This was also the night that I, Gustavo and our tragically un-be-choired classmate Matthias (that son of a gun) earned the name ‘the Drunken Harmonists’ after making perhaps a little free with the post-concert open bar and, after most of the other attendees had retired for the night, performing some international Christmas hits in improvised barbershop-esque three part harmony. Personally, I thought that we sounded rather good, thought the wine may have had a hand in that.
All in all, I have always had a great appreciation for choirs, orchestras, and any other group or society that brings people together to produce something wonderful. Not only did the choir keep me in contact with and strengthen my bonds with the friends that I already had, I met a great many really wonderful people through my participation therein, from the Czech Republic and all the rest of the world. But more than that- not only did I meet these people; I shared a bond with them. When you collaborate in that way, and work together so closely on that kind of a project, you don’t just become a team- you become a family.