Notes from the TEFL Graveyard

Wistful reflections, petty glories.

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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.”

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Blogger Gadjo Dilo said...

:-) The choir I sing in has a similar "that'll do" problem, in our case resulting from the fact that few people are ever very far away from peasent origins and a "if the family pig can't actually escape from the spare bedroom then so what if the house looks like it's about to fall down" attitude. The University of the Philippines Singing Ambassadors are clearly some soviet-inspired elite shamateur fighting unit, and are surely cheating. I once knew a Ecuadorian call Klever who struggled to live up to his name; I also remember several Brazilians called Hobson and Jobson, etc.

21 March 2011 at 02:41  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Thanks again for stopping by, Gadj - I'm beginning to realise you are my one reader.

It's nice to know I'm not the only one and this is not the only country. Why this should be is an altogether more complex issue.

21 March 2011 at 10:28  
Blogger massmo said...

I will never forget coming to the end of a rousing perfomance of "Oh wappy dayee" and hearing one of the tenors distinctly saying "so I said to him I said ..." This was France, so I can only assume that choir singing is not taken particularly seriously in many countries ... Mr Fishlifter (choir master) is at his wits end in any case.

21 March 2011 at 19:56  
Blogger Ermintrude said...

Curse this modern typwriting machine!! my name is Ermintrude Fishlifter and not Massmo

21 March 2011 at 20:07  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Ermintrude Fishlifter, may I compliment you on your fine name, and extend a warm welcome to you? Your tenor's antics sound depressingly familiar - our second tenor rabble have been known to exchange some choice language between songs as the accusations fly about who exactly it is that is singing wrongly. Have they no culture?

21 March 2011 at 21:15  
Blogger Gadjo Dilo said...

MC, the pleasure is all mine - I'll try to get Boyo over here if I can. Tenors do seem to be the problem, don't they (and being one myself I don't say this lightly). My Englishman presence seems to have provoked our most logorrhoea-prone armchair-Carruso, and he now brings beautiful al niente endings to abrupt halts with exclamations of "Sank you very much!" instead of the usual farmyard noises in his thick Transylvanian accent.

22 March 2011 at 03:23  
Blogger No Good Boyo said...

I'm a baritone!

"start [songs] impressively, start to wobble, and by the end have sometimes completely come apart"

The Welsh rugby squad in a nutshell.

31 March 2011 at 12:04  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Boyo, you're in - please attend Rua Aparecida, 568, Sorocaba on Wednesday at 8pm in regulation bermuda shorts, flip flops and counterfeit football shirt of your choice, and with a song in your heart.

And if you could bring some decent jokes along for good measure...

31 March 2011 at 12:44  
Blogger Special Brew Man said...

I dont want to scare you or anything but would I be able to email you? I have a couple of questions about Sao Paulo...which are not about and all boys choir.

Saludos from Buenos Aires,

The Brewman

7 April 2011 at 14:26  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Sure thing, SBM, I'm not easily scared. My email is in my profile thingy.

7 April 2011 at 14:37  

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