On joining a Choir When You Can’t Sing
My own singing journey is, I think, depressingly familiar. When I was thirteen years old I joined the chorus of a school play, having already learned by then not to even think about auditioning for a ‘part’. After one of the initial rehearsals a friend told me that I was tone deaf and as a result of this I left the play and stopped singing. For thirty years. And, when I say I stopped singing, that's exactly what I mean. I used to mime 'Happy Birthday' and sadly mutter Christmas carols under my breath. I didn't even sing along to Wham! tunes when alone in the car and I had no idea what my own singing voice sounded like.
Like many people, I longed to be able to sing and believing I couldn't blighted my life for all of those years. I had filed singing away in the drawer in my brain labelled 'not for me' and it makes me feel incredibly sad that stupidly paying heed to one person's opinion resulted in me missing out on thirty years of one of the most fun, beneficial and life-affirming hobbies around.
A couple of times in the intervening years I considered taking singing lessons but the thought of having to sing out loud in front of a teacher was utterly terrifying, the humiliation too much to bear. It turns out that's not actually how it works and that learning to sing is a lot less traumatic than I ever could have imagined and I found this out by joining a choir.
In July of last year, my husband Richard attended the inspiring Do Lectures in Wales and, after resolving to do something that scared him, wandered into a singing workshop run by a musician called James Sills who, unbeknownst to him, was about to change both of our lives. Just like me, Richard believed he couldn't sing and also found the prospect terrifying. He was thrilled to discover through James' workshop that not only could he sing, but that he enjoyed it immensely. When he returned home he played us a recording of one of the songs they'd performed and, as ridiculous as it may sound, I was awestruck that a group of people who had never met before, some of whom had never sung before, had actually made music, using no instruments other than their own voices, and that that music was rather lovely.
Richard was emphatic that I would love singing too and, petrified as I was, I decided to trust him when he suggested we join a choir. I knew this was my chance, I could ride on Richard's tailwind, be brave and give it a shot, or I could let fear and deeply held assumptions take hold and regret it for the rest of my life. I chose bravery, feeling that if it was humiliating and shaming I could just walk out of the session and never have to see anyone there again.
We waited until the new term began in September, thinking it would be safer to be lost in a throng of new members rather than join halfway through a term. We walked into the room in the community centre for the first time and Richard took his place in the middle with the other men whereas I sat as near to the door as I possibly could, on the edge of the sopranos, ready to scarper. I had absolutely no idea what a soprano was or whether I was one, but I wanted to have a clean exit in sight so I stayed there.
We started off with some fun warm up exercises and I realised straightaway that when there are forty people singing in a room, no one can actually hear your voice unless they are stood right next to you. In fact, you can barely hear your own voice to begin with and this immediately made me feel relaxed and able to focus on what I was doing. I’m sure I was singing horribly of tune but I had no idea and so it didn't bother me in the least and besides, by now I was enjoying myself.
During the break we new members had to stand around the piano and sing back to our choir leader Matthew so he could establish whether we were each in the correct place. I was so glad we did this as a group and not singularly, and so that thing I'd been terrified of for so many years never materialised. I took my rightful place back amongst the sopranos and by then I felt a fully paid up member of a choir.
What I really love about our choir is that it's a community choir and so although there are some very good singers there, they are singing in this choir purely because it's fun, not because it's supposed to be particularly accomplished. I had expected there would be people who would, intentionally or not, make me feel anxious and self-conscious when I struggle to hit a note but it's not been the case at all. It's incredibly friendly and welcoming and I've found it to be a good strategy to stand next to one of the good singers and try to keep up with them, letting their stronger voice drown me out a little, which has increased my confidence. And the most marvellous thing is that singing in a group is so forgiving, the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts and even when you feel that you, or sometimes your neighbour, aren't getting the notes quite right it just seems to work en masse.
Being the Autumn term, we were of course practicing a lot of Christmas songs and this was to culminate in two concerts - firstly in the church near our home (where we later found out 'In The Bleak Mid-winter' was sang for the first time, a hundred years ago) and secondly... at the V&A. If you'd told me six months ago I'd be singing in a choir, let alone in the foyer of one of the world's greatest museums, I would have thought you deluded. But, on the first Friday in December, I crossed something off my bucket list, something that was never actually on it in the first place.
Singing has been exhilarating and thrilling for both me and for Richard. Our choir meets on a Monday evening and it's been a brilliant tonic to fight the urge to sit in front of the telly with a glass of wine to get over the fatigue of being back at work after the weekend. What I've found is that singing wakes me up, invigorates me and makes me feel energetic and happy. It's been a hugely welcome and unexpected joy in our lives and the focus required takes me out of my normal life and off my phone for a precious couple of hours each week. Singing has given me a greater enjoyment of, and appreciation for, music and I confess to having once or twice removed my AirPods from my ears to find myself singing out loud on Primrose Hill whilst walking my dog. We have become singing people, a singing family in fact, and the singsong we had with the kids and our parents on New Year's Eve in Scotland was the perfect end to this most surprising of years.
The more people I tell my singing story to, the more people I find whose lives have been affected by a belief that they couldn’t our shouldn’t sing. Similarly with drawing and painting, we irrationally seem to feel that we should have an innate ability to be good at it, when we've not put in our ten thousand hours, or even just a few of them. There's something about these insecurities that cut deep with us and makes us believe we are failures but the truth is, unless you are required to sing a solo at the Albert Hall, it doesn't matter if you're not the best singer, what matters is that you try your hardest and that you enjoyit. If you long to sing but feel you shouldn't or can't, I hope my story has inspired you to give it a go, I promise you it won't be as scary as you think.
Singing is one of the most life affirming things I've done and I am convinced it's one of the keys to real happiness and so when I was planning my Pembrokeshire Experience which is taking place in April of this year, James Sills was the first person I called. James is a hugely talented musician and teacher and as well as running singing workshops at the Do Lectures he also runs them at The Good Life Experience. I'm absolutely thrilledto tell you that he said 'yes' and is coming to run a singing workshop for us on the last morning of the Experience. I can't wait, it's going to be so much fun!
Photo of the Regents Park by Lauren Keim