Notes from the TEFL Graveyard

Wistful reflections, petty glories.

My Photo
Location: The House of Usher, Brazil

I'm a flailing TEFL teacher who entered the profession over a decade ago to kill some time whilst I tried to find out what I really wanted to do. I like trying to write comedy (I once got to the semi-finals of a BBC Talent competition, ironically writing a sitcom based on TEFL), whilst trying to conquer genetically inherited procrastination... I am now based in Brazil, where I live with my wife and two chins.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


The male voice choir I participate in has reached something of a plateau I feel. For over a year now, we seem to have stagnated, unable to see any marked improvement in our performances and still victims of the vices that have become commonplace. We start songs impressively, start to wobble, and by the end have sometimes completely come apart – rather than singing as a unit with one voice, it’s more like every man for himself. And much of the cause is cultural, it seems to me. I don’t like to criticise my adopted country, but I am going to make a rare exception and opine that I am living in the land of “that’ll do”.

Choir singing, for example, is the pursuit of excellence. Our choir, being one of the few male choirs in the region, is met with standing ovations at every turn, largely because we are such a novelty. This is not to say it’s undeserved; to the untrained ear (there is virtually no culture of choir singing in Brazil, apart from local church ensembles, which are all fervent bleating into microphones to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars), we are a competent group. But we are far from reaching, let's say, German levels of excellence, a point proven when we competed in a festival in Poland three years ago and came into contact with some of the best choirs in the world. The all-conquering University of the Philippines Singing Ambassadors choir in particular, which won all the categories it competed in and the overall prize for best choir, was flawless. Apparently they rehearse 5 hours a day, every day, from 6 am until 11 am, which goes a long way to explaining their unique sound. But even in rehearsal, we fall down.

This comes from the fact that Brazilians are playful, in any situation. I remember entering the room for my first business meeting when I worked in HR in a large aluminium company to find a group of people nattering away, some standing, some sitting, several different conversations going on at the same time. Being a true Brit, I sat politely listening in to the various topics being simultaneously discussed, assuming we were all waiting for the chairman of the meeting to arrive. Doce ilusão. Before I knew it, a few notes were scribbled on a piece of paper, and everyone got up to leave. That was the meeting. No agenda, no opening the floor for questions, no minutes, just everyone having their say in a process of utterly chaotic decision making.

Our rehearsals are similar. I was singled out for praise by our exasperated conductor recently. “You don’t see MC chatting during rehearsal,” he snapped, after the familiar round of banter had just totally destroyed the group’s fragile veil of concentration. One false comment and inevitably someone weighs in with a weak joke, another weak joke follows in response, three people on opposite sides of the hall start to comment on the weakness of the preceding jokes, and bedlam ensues. This leads directly to a generalised habit of not concentrating, even during concerts. Choir singing is all about precision. Several of our band haven’t even managed to grasp singing a note until its end, or ceasing to sing when the conductor gesticulates to request this - things I learned in my school choir at age nine.

The “that’ll do” culture pervades everything. Just look around our small town and everything is done on the cheap. Houses remain unfinished, or at least unpainted, the roads potholed and abandoned. Everything is grubby and untended and slapdash – rather than seek excellence, it seems people have caught the whiff of a barbecue halfway through a task, no matter how important, and said, “I'm feeling peckish, Kleverson, lad. That’ll do.”

Labels: , ,