Hinterland: Bernard Jenkin MP
I was always interested in politics but at school I became determined to pursue a career in music. Blessed with a good treble voice, I was a chorister in St Michael’s Highgate and took lead roles in my prep school’s operas. I joined the Finchley Children’s Music Group, the renowned children’s choir which performed regularly at the Aldeburgh Festival and, in my period, did a tour of Scandinavia. FCMG introduced me to the late Esther Salaman, who taught singing at the Guildhall School of Music, and who become a great figure in the singing world. From when I was about nine until she died only a few years ago, she taught me almost everything I know about how to sing.
Singing is all about losing your inhibitions. Her book, Unlocking the Human Voice, starts by describing how babies cry. To learn how to sing, you must rediscover the same natural technique. If you watch a baby crying, they really go for it; purple in the face, making a huge effort – and a huge noise. Now think of a great opera singer, and begin to understand why the sound of the human voice can be so utterly enthralling and consuming. Singers must sing from their whole being and personality. They must expose themselves emotionally – and when you hear and see a great singer, you feel that person is speaking personally to you. The vocal chords are tiny, but train them like an athlete, and learn to employ the cavities in your head and chest, and anyone can sing.
After I gained a choral exhibition to Cambridge’s Corpus Christi College to read music, politics began to take over as the primary ambition. The decision to abandon the ambition to sing professionally left me with a sense of bereavement. Today, I find singing with the Parliament Choir (I am a trustee) not just a wonderful distraction from the travails of politics. Performing Elgar’s The Apostles or Britten’s War Requiem have been utterly enthralling experiences. Singing with smaller groups and solo work is even more intense. In and around my North Essex constituency, I have sung solos for local choirs and choral societies and sing regularly with a group which specialises in Bach choral works – such as Christmas Oratorio, which we performed last December in Dedham Church. Many had not heard the work before, and were astounded at the power of Bach’s account of the Christmas story, interwoven with the familiar Christmas chorales. I took the role of Pilate (a frightened politician!) in Bach’s St John Passion in Lavenham Church.
I was honoured and delighted to be invited to sing as bass soloist in a complete performance of Handel’s Messiah in Bury St Edmund’s Cathedral in December last year, alongside professionals. This required real preparation, but luckily my sister Nicola is a professional singer and teacher. It was a thrill and a privilege to have such an opportunity. Five minutes before we walked out in front of the orchestra, the soprano asked where I usually sing. I don’t pretend to be as reliable or experienced as a professional, but it was gratifying that the other soloists had no idea I was really only an MP.