by Smilla Bjurbo, Gy1

There is something special about singing in a choir. You may agree, if you’ve tried it. I have been a member of Uppsala Cathedral Girls Choir for almost eight years. Of course it can be tough sometimes, but I love the choir like a family. Sometimes I ask myself: has it always been like that? Have the choir members always been “sisters”? How can one stay in a choir for many years without getting bored? My thoughts led me to Alex Pfeifer, the idol of all us choristers who stayed with the group for sixteen years and saw the choir transform into what it is today.

smilla
Alex Pfeifer. Photo: Smilla Bjurbo

by Smilla Bjurbo, Gy1

There is something special about singing in a choir. You may agree, if you’ve tried it. I have been a member of Uppsala Cathedral Girls Choir for almost eight years. Of course it can be tough sometimes, but I love the choir like a family. Sometimes I ask myself: has it always been like that? Have the choir members always been “sisters”? How can one stay in a choir for many years without getting bored? My thoughts led me to Alex Pfeifer, the idol of all us choristers who stayed with the group for sixteen years and saw the choir transform into what it is today.

Bjurbo: What was your first time in the choir like?

Pfeifer: I was eight years old (1996) when I became a chorister. One of my first impressions was how it felt walking upstairs to the rehearsal room. We didn’t practice at Domkyrkomusiken, as you do now, but at the place in Odinslund where the Villa Anna Restaurant is today. You walked up a stone staircase and through some white, thick doors. There we sat and sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as a warm-up exercise.

For those who don’t know, the choir today is divided in three groups called Anna, Maria and Lilla flickkören. During that time there were no particular groups, only the girls choir. There were two other choirs called Ungdomskören and Koralkören which many of the older girls were in. They were teenagers and they never spoke to us. I remember that me and my friends were scared of them.

Bjurbo: Tell me about your memories from the first few years.

Pfeifer: I have one strong memory from a Christmas concert, I was about thirteen. We didn’t sing Handel’s Messiah on Christmas morning the way you do now, but there was a concert with a short play about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I was supposed to play Mary, and that day, I had my first solo. I remember how great it felt.

One other time, a couple of years later, we actually sang Handel’s Messiah. This time I also had a solo, “He shall feed his flock”. Another girl sang “Rejoice”, the one that’s so hard, and I can still recall how good she was. I really wanted to sing like her, and I was so upset that I broke down before the concert. I was really sad, but as I sang the solo I felt better, and now I see this as a positive memory. It made me understand how important the choir was –– and is –– to me.

Bjurbo: You started in the choir seven years before our current conductor, Margareta Raab. Who was the leader before her?

Pfeifer: We had lots of leaders before Maggan. First there was a woman called Maria Schildt, if I remember correctly, then had a stand-in teacher called Richard. Then we had another new director called Cecilia Martin-Löf, then a temporary teacher called Niklas, and then Maggan. I was in high school when Maggan came.

Bjurbo: What was that like?

Pfeifer: Before Maggan, we had a relaxed attitude towards the choir –– of course it was serious, but not in the same way. You could miss a rehearsal and it didn’t matter. When Maggan came, I understood quite soon that she was not strict just to be strict, she was an artistic director who wanted the choir to develop as much as possible. The choir was her instrument.

Bjurbo: As a director, was Maggan similar to the way she is now, or has she changed?

Pfeifer: I think when she began to get to know us, she could joke and make us laugh during rehearsal. In the beginning she needed to be strict and tell us what to do so we learned.

Bjurbo: How has the friendship between the girls’ and boys’ choirs changed since then?

Pfeifer: From the beginning we were separated, since we had different conductors – the boys’ choir had the organist Andrew Canning. It was later, when both choirs got Maggan, that we started to work together. Many of the girls asked why we never did anything together with the boys, and then Maggan started to arrange projects for us. First we had some small concerts. One thing led to another and after a few years, we went to The United States. Then it really felt like we belonged together.

That tour was 2010. I was twenty-two and much older than the others. Personally I was more like a friend to the boys, but I remember that the younger girls often teased them and called them “gåskören” (“goose choir” instead of “boys choir”, a play on words in Swedish). Back in the years when we practiced at Odinslund, some of my friends knew some of the boys, although we never sang together. They thought it was cool to hang around with the boys. But I didn’t.

Bjurbo: Was the boys’ choir famous than the girls’ choir, due to tradition?

Pfeifer: Yes, indeed, and for a long time they were even better than us, because they were more invested. Actually it was Maggan who gave us more popular exposure. We got badges, our colors –– green and white –– and hoodies. We changed to surplices vestments in our own colors. Earlier we’d had red surplices which we borrowed from the church, but now we had green ones with white collars. We also set up a blog, and now there’s a website and an Instagram account.

Bjurbo: You have told that there was no connection between the younger and the older girls from the beginning. How did that change?

Pfeifer: I don’t know why, but I remember when the small ones started to speak to us. Maybe that was also thanks to Maggan; it became better when she came. We understood that it was okay to hang around with the nine-year-old girls, and they were less afraid of us. Soon we grew tighter, and no one cared about age.

Bjurbo: What was it like to be the oldest chorister?

Pfeifer: It was pretty fun to be like an older sister to the younger, but sometimes I missed being a teenager, like all my friends. When the other choristers my age left, I started hanging out with the younger ones, and actually it’s those I’ve kept in touch with. But because I had grown up and they were still teenagers, we gained a different kind of friendship than we would have if I’d been like them.

Bjurbo: Did you have a stronger relationship to Maggan, since you were a grown-up?

Pfeifer: Yes, but Maggan has always been a very important person of my life. I had a tough period when I became open with the fact that I like girls. I was together with one of the choristers Alva, for three years, but my family did not accept it. Maggan supported me very much. She promised I could always come to her, she let me stay in her house during Christmas if it was too hard at home. She was a saviour in all areas. She still is. Three years ago I separated from my wife, and it felt like everything had broken down, but she was there. I was so afraid of being alone, especially at Christmas. Maggan welcomed me to her home again, but then I met Gina, my current girlfriend, so I was not in need of it. But the fact that Maggan still supported me although I was not in the choir anymore, that meant so much.

Maggan is not a cuddly kind of person, she’s authoritarian and people have great respect for her, but she beams out so much love. That is what I appreciate about her.

Bjurbo: Many of the choristers do not like that everything is so strict in the choir, what do you think?

Pfeifer: Society today does not accept that kind of strictness, but sometimes you need to work hard. I have learnt to behave, to listen and respect others –– why shouldn’t that be positive?

I also studied violin for a few years, and I had Russian teachers who told me “You don’t practice enough, you’ll never get anywhere,” and I couldn’t take it. But now, in hindsight, I understand them. You must practice. The teachers do not want to harm you, they just want you to be as good as you can. Maybe it is a little tough, but the important thing is that you have a goal, and I know that Maggan has one for the choir. As I have said, the choir is her instrument.

Bjurbo: During your last year, you played the ikon-of-peace Mahalia Jackson in the musical Good Enough which the choir produced. How was that like?

Pfeifer: That was one of the last things I ever did in the choir. It was so amazing to get that opportunity, to represent and sing the songs of Mahalia Jackson in the cathedral. I remember a few days later, I was on my way home –– I lived in Gränby –– and I passed Kvarngärdeskolan. There were some kids outside, and as I walked by they said “Wasn’t that you in Good Enough?” and I said “Yes!” and they said, “Wow, why can’t you sing a song for us?” I remember that I stood right on the bike path in front of the kids, and sang “Bä bä vita lamm” (Ba Ba Black Sheep).

In a choir you work together, but the privilege of having a solo has also sometimes been important to me.

Bjurbo: How does it feel to think about the choir in hindsight?

Pfeifer: I miss it so much. My girlfriend’s daughter Celia has joined the choir, and I often accompany her to rehearsals and concerts. Sometimes it feels a little awkward to come back, because I want to be a part of it again. But one day I’ll learn to accept that.

There is a picture in your rehearsal room –– a girl chorister, painted on a piece of cardboard. I was the one who made it, together with my grandma. It was for a game, we had some kind of open house in the cathedral, and the choir had a table. It was something like “pin the tail on the donkey” but instead “put the collar on the chorister”. My grandma who helped me died one and a half year ago. She was actually the one who led me into music, we often sang together when I was a child. When I see that picture on the wall, I think, there is the one who was the music to me, and there is also a piece of me, and that feels so amazing.

I wish people could understand, as we understand it, what a huge part of your life a choir can be. Sometimes you’re doing well and other times not, but the choir is there through thick and thin, like a family. And now, even though life goes on, the choir is inside of me, it makes me who I am. That’s crazy. The girl choir will always be a part of me.

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