Questions for Nick Robinson, an Alto Lay Clerk:
Where do you live and what do you do in your working life?
I was born in a Humberston a village next to Grimsby and Cleethorpes in what is now called North East Lincolnshire attending school there and working locally after leaving sixth form. I chose not to go to university having neither the funds nor the academic discipline. While at junior school I became keen to join the school choir. The teacher running school choir was my form teacher and a tenor in the local church choir, St Peter’s Humberston. The choir was an adult mixed choir with a strong boy’s line about twelve in number. It had a local reputation for maintaining a solid boy’s line. Within weeks I found myself in a probationer’s cassock. As a boy I experienced very little choral music. The diet at Humberston was canticles to chant, hymns and occasional anthems, maybe Stainer’s Crucifixion in Holy Week. After my voice broke like most boys I distanced myself from church life as quickly as I could.
By the time I was in my late teens I was aware of a much wider choral world out there and started to explore. The organist at Humberston a marvellous chap called Norman Wattam pushed me in the direction of Andrew Shaw at St James Grimsby. St James had a solid reputation as the only parish church in the country with a choir school. I started to sing bass there as an 18yr old alongside the sixth form choral scholars and started to learn the cathedral repertoire. At the same time I was starting my career in food retailing and management. Ten years with ASDA and with a couple of jobs in between I joined Tesco in 2001
How do you fit in travelling and work in order to sing in the choir?
My work has always involved commuting and most recently working in a group role travelling every day. The needs of working in retail mean working the majority of Saturdays. I have tended to use my day off to take care of singing duties although many times I find myself dashing from work to drive towards the cathedral.
Have you ever had to miss important services because of unforeseen travelling problems?
Several times! The problem is you never know when you’re not going to make it. The same for a couple of the other lay clerks. I think the DOM dreads Text messages on a Thursday night.
I remember deputising at Ripon and evensong being delayed several minutes especially for me. A fellow lay clerk was waiting at the North door with my cassock and music. The clergy found this most amusing; I didn’t though when the same lay clerk whispered to me in the procession “by the way you’re on verse” Most embarrassing was getting into serious trouble with the traffic police on the M62. A court appearance followed where I had to explain I was late for Mass. The bench didn’t disqualify me from driving but the fine was eye watering.
As you live so far away, what do you do between Sunday services?
I live in Brigg, Lincolnshire 55 miles from the Cathedral, about an hour’s drive away so it’s not practical to drive to and fro between services even in the summer. In autumn / winter the break between Mass and evensong is just right to have a drink and lunch. Several of the lay clerks stay in Wakefield so there’s always plenty to do. In the summer the more local lay clerks are very generous and put me up. I usually end having an afternoon nap on a comfy sofa somewhere.
What was you background in singing before you joined the choir?
I spent 10 years at St James Grimsby during which time the music was superb under the late Andrew Shaw and Andrew Cantrill. When work moved me to Leicester I spent a year singing at Leicester Cathedral with Jonathan Gregory and St James the Greater, Leicester for Theo Saunders. Work moved me relatively quickly further north and I joined Wakefield cathedral choir in January 1998.
How did you become an alto singer and not a tenor or bass?
I spent my first 3 years as a bass and I remember I didn’t have a particularly natural bass voice and no tenor voice at all.David Overton the senior “Gentleman of the choir” at St James was a superb musician having been an Abbey chorister at the coronation. He could sing every part and frequently had to sing alto which he didn’t like doing. He started listening closely to my voice and concluded I was an alto in hiding. He collared me with Andrew Shaw after evensong and made me sing to them in falsetto. I changed voices the very next service and that was that. I have always really enjoyed singing alto and never once regretted switching. The only problem is being a “false” voice you’re much more prone to vocal difficulties and the effects of coughs and colds.
What have been the highlights of your time in the choir?
A difficult question in some ways as the musical experience at the quietest services with very few congregation and simple music can be extremely rewarding. The great thing about Wakefield is the huge repertoire and the strength of both boys and girls top lines. There is little repetition and the music is always fresh. The singing of psalms for the day is real gem of our music list. The liturgy and Anglo-catholic traditions of the cathedral add immeasurably to the music. Holy week is very special each year. Other favourite times of mine are the feast of Corpus Christi and the solemnity of All Souls. Real highpoints have been the Royal Maundy. I will always remember singing the Sunday services at St Thomas 5th Avenue New York, a spectacular church and the choir was on top form. Away from Wakefield I have deputised a lot with Ripon over the years and recently started to sing with a semi-professional chamber choir based there. The most unusual event I’ve ever taken part in was an arrangement of Spem In Alium for 40 counter tenors at Magdalene College, Oxford. Let’s just say the sound was remarkable!
Choir Tours are always great times and have seen me visit Reykjavik, Tokyo, New York and lots of Europe
Do you see the rest of your singing career at Wakefield or would you like to move on to one of the old foundation cathedrals with a bigger commitment each week?
If circumstances allowed me to yes I’d Iove to sing full time for one of the top choirs. London obviously, Winchester, Wells and Salisbury all appeal. However there’s probably a mismatch of ability and ambition on my part, I won’t hold my breath. I would make the point that Wakefield is one of the best three or four choirs in the Northern Province. We’re about to get back a wonderful building after the re-ordering of the nave is complete. There is a lot to stay put for.