Years ago I decided I would invest in a week long course with one of my heroes (who shall be nameless and you’ll see why). This person wrote a seminal book about what I’ve been doing for decades and has inspired me. On one of his rare trips to London I grabbed a week with him where I felt my knowledge of technique and wisdom of the work would swell massively.
How wrong I was. He was bored. Fed up with teaching adoring disciples. By now he hated the seminal work he’d written, detested it. He was uninterested in anything anyone there was doing. He barely got through the week. I barely got through the week.
I left, poorer, furious and so, so sad. I haven’t picked up the book since.
I was slightly worried that meeting Young@Heart would be a similar experience and that I would leave disillusioned. Young@Heart are THE group of older singers, probably in the world. They’ve been evolving for 30 years from jazz and folk standards to some really out there stuff – including a rap version of “We’re all Going On a Summer Holiday”. They’ve toured all over the world.
26 singers, band manager, drummer, bassist, keyboard player, and Bob Cilman, founder and conductor of the band for the last 30 years pitched up to start bang on 10 am. No one was late. There was a woman sitting next to me “I’ve been auditioning for the last 6 months”, she said, “but I won’t be 73 until September.” Only then will she know her fate. She comes to every rehearsal of this year long audition. “I think I may look too young” she frets.
They are 7 rehearsals away from a week long tour of Holland and Belgium. They are singing 3 or 4 of the numbers in Flemish: for example “Vlaanderen Boven” is “Under the Boardwalk”. I’m staggered at how well everyone has learned the new language but Bob is less impressed “This could sound like noise if it’s not done well. We have 7 rehearsals left. This is where we need a marked improvement. Some work at home. It’s getting a little close for comfort.”
And the thing is, you know they’ll do it. They will walk through fire for him. “He’s a genius” one tells me afterward. He brings up three women to sing one song, then takes two of them out. “You know what, Jeanette. You’re going to do this on your own”. There’s no sulking from the others. One gives Jeanette a squeeze. “You can do it, you’ll be good”. I detected no moods, no atmospheres, no prima donnas, nothing but support and genuine positive feeling in the group. Bob was boss. He gave comment and criticism and people were flattered that he directed his attention toward them. They truly would go to the end of the world for him.
One shy woman with a small voice has a solo she is having trouble with. “You know what? You gotta get to the point where you’re wearing the song like a sweater. You’ve gone back to having it in your head.”
In the final analysis, he treats them like grownups. Being old is no excuse for – anything, not knowing words – they learn them. They learn them! Like their prayers, they learn them. They are professionals. People pay to see them. It’s not even a question.
I get a ride back with one of the women in the chorus. “I joined five years ago when I was 73,” she said. “They’ve been the best five years of my life.”