You don’t always have to be told that you’re bad at something in order to work that out for yourself. In fact, I find it’s often the things people don’t say that fit together to make a clearer picture of what’s actually going on. Friends might not say, ‘You should probably lose some weight’ but you can work out that’s what they’re thinking if you go to sit down on a bench and 3 people rush to the other side to stop it tipping over. Your mother might not tell you she dislikes your new hair colour but the message might come through loud and clear when she always brings a spare hat for you ‘just in case’. So it was that, although no-one ever explicitly said it, I realised I couldn’t sing.
In school, other children were picked for plays, concerts and the choir. In music classes, other people were asked to perform for the class. I would sing, and people would respond with apathy. They didn’t say anything positive, nor did they clasp their hands to their ears and run out screaming. I can’t remember anyone ever praising my singing ability. The underlying message was loud and clear – singing was not for me. And so, over time, I just stopped. These days, I sing when I’m on my own (I’m singing along to this right now) or when the music is too loud / there are enough other people with me that those listening won’t be able to hear my voice.
The sad thing is that I really enjoy to sing! Since January I have been driving more than 300 miles a week and from the moment I close the car door to the minute I pull into the driveway of my guest house I am singing at the top of my lungs. And, sadder still, I now can’t bring myself to even attempt to sing publicly. Friends will say ‘how does that tune go?’ and, although I have the melody in my head, I’ll make an excuse rather than hum a few notes. Although on my mental list of things I should do as part of this project, I hadn’t even attempted to book it in as I knew how hard I would find it. Then, last week, a strange thing happened.
My job involves travelling to schools around the country, observing lessons and interviewing staff. Last week, as I walked into the staffroom of a school I’d previously visited in February, the TA rushed towards me ‘I’m so glad you’re here this week – I’ve got a brilliant idea for your V activity!’. I was taken aback. In the last visit, I’d spent a morning talking to the TA while the students were in an assembly and could recall mentioning the blog, but was surprised at her excitement. Also, week ‘V’ had been pretty tough to plan for; the only other suggestion proffered being ‘vajazzling’ – not exactly my idea of fun. I braced myself… ‘Vocal coaching’ she grinned, ‘We’ve got an African choir in and they’re teaching the children to sing. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind fitting you in somewhere!’. ‘If you’re sure that’s alright…’ I whimpered, eager not to offend the woman I would be spending the next 2 days shadowing. ‘I’ll sort it out now!’ she yelled over her shoulder, skipping out of the door.
Told they could fit me in on Tuesday lunchtime, I walked into the hall to find a group of people huddled around a laptop looking at my blog. Surreal. The choir, a group of 10 secondary school students and their teachers on an exchange programme from Pretoria in South Africa, were really excited about the possibility of being on the internet – despite my protestations, completely convinced that being part of my little blog would make them famous. They were enthusiastic, cheerful, excited. Any anxiety I had been feeling went out of the window. Their teacher suggested they sing something to me, to show me what they could do. Awesome. I sat down with the TA, my heart skipping a beat as they launched into one of my favourite songs – ‘Homeless’ by Paul Simon. As they sang they danced and clapped – full of joy. Beautiful.
‘OK, your turn!’ the teacher grinned, and I was brought back down to earth with a bump.‘Why don’t you sing us something, and we’ll work from there?’. I didn’t know where to start, what to sing. 14 pairs of eyes watched me expectantly, as I failed even to find the words to express my predicament. ‘Alright’ the teacher said, ‘We’ll do call and response’. I nodded. She called over one of the students, Angelique, who started me off by singing a 4 note melody for me to repeat back. To my surprise, I did it. ‘Good‘ the teacher said, ‘too quiet though’. We carried on, Angelique singing, me echoing, the teacher nodding. After a couple of minutes, she stopped us. Then she lead me through some scales. ‘OK,’ she said, ‘want to know what I think?’
I swallowed hard – the moment of truth ‘This is why I never auditioned for the X factor’ I thought, panicked. ‘You have good rhythm’ she said, ‘and you hit most of the notes…’. I smiled, that was much better than I was expecting. ‘Your range is pretty limited though and your singing far too quietly – if you put more power behind each note it will come out clearer’. I nodded, still overwhelmed at hearing anyone say something positive about my singing. ‘Now, shall we sing a song together?’.
As the words of the song went up on the projector, I literally bounced with joy – we were going to be singing ‘N’kosi sikelel’ i’Africa’, the South African national anthem. A song from my childhood, to be sung with an African choir – Wonderful. I explained that I knew the words (much to everyone’s surprise) and, after a quick run-through to make sure I could remember them all, we were ready. The teacher counted us in and then we were singing. I struggled to get my words out as I was smiling so much – those three minutes of singing by far the most fun I’ve had on this whole adventure so far. As we got to the last chorus, the school bell rang, lunch was over. I thanked each of them personally, helped put all the chairs away and headed back into class.
So… does this mean I’ll now be serenading my friends? Or stepping up first at karaoke? No, I don’t think so – I’m not a performer, and never have been. What it means is that I can sing along to the radio even when other people are there, I can join in with a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, I can actually answer when you ask ‘how does that tune go?‘. Not major progress, but definitely a step in the right direction and definitely alphabetter than it was – that’s good enough for me.