Choirmaster Christopher Sherwood shares with SOMA BASU how he makes joyous voices sing and cheer up the hearts of people

Christmas carols are loved by all. You can croon the classic songs solo or with friends and even strangers on any evening to usher in the season.

At a city mall two weeks ago I sank into the soulful and spirited ambience recalling my school days when we welcomed Christmas in a traditional style with carols. On this balmy evening, different choirmasters led carollers of all levels blend together to serenade the city with a message of joy and peace as they sang the story of the birth of Jesus in a stable.

It was pure joy watching each of them conduct the singers in a wonderful succession of carols and hymns. Among them was the city’s seasoned chorister, Christopher Sherwood, putting in more energy and driving the choir to a passionate performance. “Music is what feelings sound like,” he says, “and you should always sing from your heart, for that is what makes real music.”

“To focus only on correct performance like a trained bird,” he asserts, “is not live music.”

This former Director of three decades of The American College Choir now leads an interesting mix of school and college students, businessmen, teachers, doctors and housewives who harmonise and synchronise their voices to entertain and uplift audiences.

Christopher is not a professional singer but he teaches people how to sing, mostly Church music. He offers a simple explanation, “just because I run to catch the bus does not make me an athlete. But if you can walk, I can train you to run.”

Christopher considers singing to be an artistic feat but regrets the poverty of people and talent. Being a voice trainer too, he selects his singers carefully. “They should have a sweet and clear voice and a bit of English accent,” he says.

For somebody who was born into music -- all his ancestors were musicians, his father was a violinist and his mother played the baby organ -- Christopher took to the piano early and became the church organist at a young age. It was his entry into The American College in 1980 as a lecturer in Ethical Studies and later Philosophy and Religion that turned him into a choir trainer. On a cultural exchange programme to Oberlin, U.S, first hand knowledge and experience helped him to give The American College Choir an image makeover. For the next 30 years, the college under him rose to new heights and popularity. He retired from the college in 2009 and set up his own Madurai Choristers with 25 members including his wife and daughter. An avid reader of choral music, Christopher constantly seeks to advance choral excellence by combining professional artistry with the beauty of the voice and the written word. “It is more important,” he adds, “to teach the values of life through music.

You have to be a good human being first to understand that every note has something to say, he says. “The way I touch the keys of the piano should move the audience,” he notes. The same applies to the carol singer. More than a beautiful word or sound, it is important to have character in what you sing.

Music with its positive effect is everywhere and in everybody, believes Christopher. You just need to connect. It is the little notes in music that require attention to connect. And, he connects beautifully whether at church, weddings or choral services. Good music never has monotony and my job is to fine tune the sound the choir produces, he says.

Christopher loves the pomp, circumstance and tradition that goes into creating music for the church. He finds it rewarding to be able to bring the youngsters together to sing the finest, complex sacred music. “I only search for commitment in them,” he says. That is why even his private students who take exclusive voice and piano classes from him go on to score above 90 per cent in the exams conducted by the Trinity College, London.

You learn by doing, says Christopher, leaving a warm glow on that evening of Christmas carols. He has pursued his learning.

The word carol is derived from the Old French word carole, a circle dance accompanied by singers. In modern parlance, it is a festive song, generally religious and represented almost exclusively by the Christmas and the Advent carol.

December brings the carollers together. Madurai has close to 100 small and big choirs who take you on a yuletide journey every year during these weeks. You hear them in Churches, in shopping malls, played on hotel lobby and restaurant stereos, performed by brass bands and sung at your or your neighbour’s home.

Traditional carols:

Halleluiah Chorus, O come all ye faithful, While Shepherds watch their flocks by night, Hark the herald angels sing

Contemporary carols

Santa Claus is coming to town, Jingle bells, Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas day, Go tell it on the mountains, Good King Wenceslas

The Carollers Say…

Dr. S. Justus, Founder-Director of Chordiels Music: "Carols make every Christmas meaningful. It is the best time to sing and celebrate the greatest true love ever defined -- sharing the love of God with people in need and spreading hope and happiness through music. Every moment of carolling is fun and joy, when family, friends and fans are around to hear us.

Favourites: Oh Holy Night, White Christmas, Beautiful Star of Bethlehem and You only left heaven for love that night .

Dr. Christianna Singh, Senior Choir Director, Lady Doak College: “Carols sung during the yuletide season retell the Christmas story, celebrate God’s love for mankind and inspire us to reciprocate by being a blessing to all. The carols carry a divine message and I enjoy singing both traditional and contemporary carols. The more I sing them, the more I love them.

Favourites: 'Joy to the world, the Lord is come' and 'What Child is this’

Sanil Joseph, Madurai Choristers: “I look forward to the Christmas season for the singing experience and the fellowship of a group of like-minded friends that comes with it. In order to make the singing enjoyable and one’s abilities enhanced, it is important to select quality songs and get trained by an experienced conductor. Carol singing has significantly enhanced my singing capabilities.

Favourites: ‘Oh holy night the stars are brightly shining’ and ‘Away in a manger no crib for a bed’.

Felix Irudayaraj, Karnataka Evangelists Association: “Carol singing is a form of announcing the good news of Christ’s birth, like how relatives and friends are informed when a baby is born. It’s an enjoyable experience going around door-to-door in the cold December evenings, spreading the warmth of music and cheer among households. Carols instil hope for a new beginning.

Favourites: ‘Santhosham thanthidum thirunaalam, Saami yesu pirantha thirunaalam’ and ‘Kristhumas matrum Puthandu Vaazhtukkal’

Christopher Andrew John, Choirmaster, All Saints' Church: The joy of sharing love is celebrated by singing carols as the holy Angels did singing together to announce the news of the new born King. We welcome happiness and share the love and friendship with our neighbours, friends, relatives through cheerful rendition of carols.

Favourites: The first Noel and "We Three Kings of Orient Are",

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell her about someone you know who is making a difference).