“If you go down to the river” – Freshers’

Have you just arrived at university? Maybe you’re a Fresher, leaving home for the first time and looking to participate in as many aspects of university life as possible. Maybe you’re returning for a second or third or fourth year, maybe you’re even a postgraduate, but you’re adjusting to the university environment and ready to become more involved. Amongst the massed confusion of student societies and often intimidating walls of older, more established students, it can be difficult to find the place that fits you. I was helping Bristol Rev run their stall for Freshers’ Fair the other day and I spent a lot of time reassuring people that we didn’t mind if they couldn’t sing, that we didn’t mind if they could sing perfectly, that we were happy if they were atheists and that we were happy if they were Christians. There’s a lot of explaining to be done and a lot of nerves to calm. It brought back memories of my first experience of university, and of Rev. Maybe my story can help reassure you.

I had sung in a choir at secondary school and college, so I did have the advantage of knowing I wanted to sing and that I would probably enjoy it before I started. Using the university website, I narrowed my choices down to two choirs before I even arrived at Warwick. That was something in itself – there seemed to be millions of options just for people who wanted some musical experiences. Still, I didn’t want to audition and I didn’t want anything where I would need to be too talented a singer. My love of music doesn’t quite make up for my lack of musical talent. One of my picks was a traditional choir that sang Mozart and was a more grownup version of my school choir. The other, for something a bit different, was a rock-gospel choir called Revelation. I’ve always loved listening to gospel music, but I wasn’t sure about singing it, especially when I read the choir was Christian-based. I wasn’t going for religion; I was going because I wanted to have fun. The website tried to reassure me that Revelation was open to anyone, but I was more than apprehensive. Still, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to at least sneak into one rehearsal.

That rehearsal was on the first Tuesday of term, before the Societies’ Fair and when I had been on campus barely four days. That was a cause for hesitation in itself – was I allowed to join a society before the Societies Fair? (It was lucky I did, because when I did visit the Societies’ Fair a few days later, I walked straight back out of the building because it was so loud and busy.) Still, the website said that was when rehearsals began and one thing I had learnt at secondary school was that you weren’t allowed to miss rehearsals. I didn’t know that Rev doesn’t really care if you attend any rehearsals at all (see my Piazza 2014 article if you don’t believe me) and I didn’t know the sort of excitement I could expect from returning Revvers.

My first impression of Rev was of noise. I stepped into the unfamiliar Warwick Chaplaincy on the first Tuesday of term (after waiting for someone else to go in ahead of me to make sure I was in the right place) and found an impenetrable tangle of people who hadn’t even made it past the foyer in their enthusiasm to greet each other again. I wasn’t tiptoeing in with other cautious new students, but plunging into a maelstrom of old friends overjoyed to see each other for the first time in months.

It would have been easy for me to be lost in that noise and that crowd. I joined another university choir just a week later in that first term and I swear the only person there who knew me by name or so much as recognised me was someone I saw in Rev first. I’m not very good at getting to know new people, but in Rev that didn’t matter. The then president of Warwick Rev himself (who I was sure had better and more important things to do with his time than greet every stranger he saw) spotted an unfamiliar face (because he had already taken the time to know everyone else in the choir) and stopped to say hello and introduce himself.

He was followed by a girl whose name, to my great shame and irritation, I cannot for the life of me remember, but who picked me up from my moment of bafflement. She showed a surplus of excitement at meeting someone just starting their Rev journey, especially when she found out I was a fellow soprano (the people who sing the highest parts). I was asked the traditional questions you ask anyone you meet for the first time at university – what subject are you studying? What halls are you staying in? When she found out I was embarking on a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, her already immense enthusiasm exploded further. She had graduated in the same subject just last year. Before long she was talking to me about the course I would be taking and the tutors I had still to meet. I wasn’t alone after all.

That was when she told me “sorry, I’ve got to go now. I only came back to briefly visit my Rev friends.” Staring at the first and so far only Revver to have had a full conversation with me, I looked into the black hole of having to start in the confusion all over again. Everyone was still in the excited greetings stage and I still wasn’t ready to face that. Luckily, I wasn’t being abandoned. Before she left, she pulled up another girl and said “this is one of our Environment Co-ordinators. She has nothing to do with recycling.”

“No, I don’t,” the other girl said with the same smile and warmth that seemed to permeate all the Revvers I had met so far.

“Environment Cos are basically here to make sure you’re happy all the time. If something’s upsetting you, you can tell them and they’ll do whatever they can to sort it out.” my first friend said, “I’m going to leave you with her and she’ll make sure you’re OK when I go.”

To that first, nameless girl and to that Environment Co, I am eternally grateful, because they were the ones who made me certain I was welcome despite my doubts. They gave me a place in the noise where I knew I would be safe. It was enough to keep me going until I settled in and knew it was worth staying.

I can tell you the exact moment when I fell in love with Rev; the precise second when I decided I was going to stick with it as long as I could, and it wasn’t long after that. It was only my first or second Rev rehearsal and we had probably overrun slightly, as Rev rehearsals tend to do. As there were new people to be taught old songs and old people to be taught new songs, we’d spent most of the previous hour and a half note-bashing section by section. Everyone was still buzzing with the excitement of being back and I was still feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. With a couple of exceptions, I wasn’t sure who anyone was or what they were doing.

When the next song we were singing – the last song of the rehearsal – was announced, it meant nothing to me. The title was meaningless (which really is embarrassing, because I like Creedence Clearwater Revival and consider myself a Tina Turner fan) and I didn’t realise doing a full song, with band, that everyone else in the choir knew, was going to be completely different to the dragging through individual lines that we had done so far.

The person who stepped to the front, to the conductor’s spot, was someone I didn’t know. Like most of the choir, until that point she had been nameless and indistinguishable from everyone else. That didn’t last for long:

“Some of you may know this song from Glee,” she said, somehow louder than the rest of the room put together, “This is not the Glee version. This is my version. Mine’s better.”

She was right.

And that was how I first sang Proud Mary (later, I realised I had seen the episode of Glee it featured in – the one where they all perform in wheelchairs – but I thought it might not be safe to admit that). It was the first Rev song I sang in its entirety, from beginning to end with a full band and the full energy of rehearsal barely contained in the room. I didn’t know the words and by the end I’d barely picked up the tune but I was surrounded by people who did. I didn’t need to know how it was supposed to sound or the exact mechanics of what made it amazing, because I could watch the smile on the conductor’s face and she would tell me it was right. If I try to think of one moment that sums my experience of Rev up, that’s still it. One person who understood nothing about what she was singing and one person who could recognise every note that she’d placed where she wanted it to be, but both lost in the music. It’s the dialogue between so many different kinds of people: musician and non-musician, Christian and non-Christian, that makes Rev special to me.

Your story may be different to mine. I’d been singing in a choir since I was eleven, so finding a choir was one of the first and most important things I did when I started at Warwick. You may have never sung before and not have a clue what separates one choir from another or if you even want to join. Or, you may be someone who has sung far more than me, in far more professional settings and you’re willing to share that knowledge with those of us less experienced. The Christian aspect of Rev made me nervous at first, but it may be one of the main attractions for you if your faith and discussions of faith are an important part of your life. Within a few weeks of my first Rev rehearsal there were many more people joining and each one brought something new. There was the girl who I recognised from my Medieval-Renaissance Literature lectures, who already knew Rev because her older sister had been a member and with whom I shared a dislike of Haribo, there was the girl I didn’t speak to once in the entire year (she was an alto – we stood on opposite sides of the world) but who I assumed was doing Maths because I’d seen her revising with one of the boys who lived in my flat, there was the girl who immediately started talking to me about every detail of her life story and who I assumed had been in Rev for ages until I finally gave up on ignoring her and realised she’d actually started half way through the term, several weeks after me (so don’t worry about being having to be there from the first week). As the year went on, some of them started to try conducting or soloing, some joined the band and some began participating in national events. Others stayed in the background. I started thinking about if there were any ways I could contribute to the choir more myself, which eventually led to me playing the saxophone in public for the first time. Everyone can find a place in Rev. It can’t hurt just to give it a try.

Term Two