You could tell she was miserable. Her sullen angry face stared straight ahead from the audience’s front row, her lips clenched tightly together. You’d think we were torturing her – we probably were. This concert took place in a bygone era when folk were allowed to come together. It was a simple audience participation song where we in the choir (facing her) asked everyone to join in on the chorus. They did, with stumbling cheerfulness. So, who cared what she sounded like? She had the whole choir to drown her out. Whatever had happened to make this supposed-to-be-enjoyable experience so excruciating? How many more people are there in our world like her?
Singing is part of being human. If you listen carefully you will hear babies as small as two weeks old starting to coo and sing. As they develop you can hear them singing as they play. If encouraged, singing will be just one way of communicating for the rest of their lives.
Much has been written about singing’s benefits:
- it exercises major muscle groups in upper body.
- aids in the development of motor control
- generates endorphins, the feel-good chemicals
- ameliorates chronic pain
- reduces stress — monks in monasteries used to sing to each other
- boosts the immune system
- raises energy
- generates a mood of confidence.
- a widely accepted health tool: improves cardiovascular symptoms against colds and flu, an aid against depression, used for recovering from heart attacks, possibly lengthens remission times in cancer patients; relieves asthma, and definitely brings back memories to those with dementia.
So then, why have I encountered so many many people who make fun of their own singing voices?
- “Oh you wouldn’t want to hear me sing”. Why not? The world hears you speaking. What’s different?
- Or “We don’t sing in our family. Singing is bad.” Now where did that come from?
- Or “I couldn’t bear to hear myself singing alone.” What, not even in the shower???”
This aversion to one’s own singing voice baffled me for a long time. I grew up as a missionary child in countries far away from my homeland. We used to gather around the piano and sing songs familiar to home. Later, I went to a boarding school with a whole booklet of school songs, praising singing and the school itself, as a way of drawing everyone together into a loyalty that still extends far into our adult life. University activities involved composing songs to sing to other year levels – some of them wryly insulting, but always in good humour. Student dishwashers sang their way through the grim task of clearing up after a meal. As an adult there were folk singing groups, and friends who could break into song halfway through a sentence, to illustrate a point – all of this a natural part of life. So what happened, on life’s journey from birth to adulthood, to create a wall of self-chastisement in others?
I started asking people about their stories and they could all identify a specific instance in their lives. The poison always came from another person, someone in their life whom they trusted, respected, looked up to. This person told them they couldn’t sing, and they believed it. It might have been a one-off passing remark, or something said in jest. But it struck home, embedded, and became an Undeniable, Unredeemable Truth in the recipient’s soul, a remark that cemented and blocked away that whole chunk of humanity within them. Sometimes forever.
“When I was 8 I was so excited that I was joining the choir, I rushed home to tell my father. He laughed gently as he said, ‘Do they really want a foghorn in the choir?” She was an adult when I met her, and she still believed it, and she still doesn’t sing.
Another victim: “The teacher listened individually as we sang in a group, pointed to me and said ‘out!’
Still another: “YOU! YOU! YOU over there! STOP THAT NOISE IMMEDIATELY!” Said to a young boy in an auditorium of classmates . So he did. Forever.
And of course there’s the stupid music teacher who tells a child, “only mouth the words; don’t sing and you’ll be fine.” I meet these “children” 6 decades later and they still believe they can’t sing.
There are lots of stories of half-lived lives, not benefitting from what is justly and rightly and naturally part of their humanity. Their destroyers are the people I would love to jump on from a great height. Their saving grace is that they probably didn’t realise how destructive they had been. They are NOT funny. They are life-destroyers who should be publicly castigated. I wish we still had the stocks.
Some damaged people are willing to let their own voices die within them forever. “I guarantee you will never get me to sing anything,” bragged one man. What a waste!
Others, with sticking-point courage refused to accept this as normal. “My father told me I couldn’t sing and it was only when I turned 60 that I stopped believing him,” said a woman at a party. Day by day people are sloughing off the shackles that have gripped them. The Gareth Malones of the world are encouraging people to sing. There are choirs up and down the nation, zoom choirs still operating, and singers of all abilities longing to come together again. There are Natural Voice Choirs (check out the websites) who welcome and value whatever sound comes out of your mouth. There are friendships being made, a sense of belonging, a sharing of making music together.
“My husband says to thank you for bringing back my smile,” said a woman suffering from depression, who started attending sing-along sessions.
A man, a recluse all his life without any social skills at all, joined a choir, made friends, and happily worked his identity into society at last.
Two women made the singing group their “girls’ night out together”.
A recently widowed woman, with a crushed saddened heart, made herself go to choir, and slowly found friendship in a new relationship, but also helped others in the group.
I keep hoping that that haunting, haunted, hollow face in the front row will be a face of the past. I hope that, even with Looming COVID, more people are secretly humming behind masks, freely singing in the shower, making up tunes as they walk in the open air. Who cares what anyone sounds like! A personal, unique voice is a thing to love and cherish as part of the mystery of the human being. “The only thing better than singing”, says Ella Fitzgerald, “is more singing”. Wherever, and whenever it’s possible, let’s make 2021 a year of song!
What’s your story?
Carrot and Cashew Curry
Some people like to have a curry for Twelfth Night. Here’s a mild Vegan curry that is warming and substantial. It is liberally tweaked from Indian Cooking for Pleasure by Premila Lal (Hamlyn 1972). Chop two onions and two cloves garlic and let them cook gently in 2 tablespoons coconut (or other) oil. Once they are soft and translucent, stir in 1 teaspoon turmeric, ½ teaspoon ground ginger, and ½ teaspoon ground fenugreek (optional) and cook until the spices don’t smell raw. Then add 1 teaspoon flour (optional) and cook a minute. Add half a tin of chopped tomatoes. Cook for a further two minutes. Stir in 12 oz (360 grams) peeled and diced carrots – (about 5 or 6) and 9 ozs (240 gms), 2 cups cashew nut pieces, a finely minced chilli (deseeded or not), and ½ teaspoon garam masala. Add about half a cup of coconut milk or creamed coconut diluted with hot water. Stir until thickened, cover and let it chuckle gently until carrots are cooked (mine took 45 minutes), stirring now and then. Serve with chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves. Season with salt – much needed!
Notes: The recipe called for 12 ozs cashews (360 gms) , but I only had 9 ozs, (240 gms, 2 cups) and the curry was plenty nutty with the nine.