I love music, all kinds – but musician, I am not. I have never mastered an instrument, nor have I the skill of a balladeer. I am a kitchen sink singer who can sing some bits of songs, some of the time, and play air guitar like your mum. I don’t expect a call-up from the ENO, nor to make my rock debut live at Hammersmith any time soon. However, I can entertain a hall full of people for an evening’s gig with this one weird trick – I joined a choir. If one of us messes up, or forgets a bit, then another makes up for it, and somehow – ensemble – it sounds OK. After a few rehearsals, it’s pretty damned good, and we don’t even make those rookie mistakes – well not so often. I have learned how to rely on and learn from the strengths of others. As a collective, we work better as individuals. And it can be huge fun.
My career as a choral soloist ended, aged five, at the school harvest festival, with a child-high rendition of ‘We plough the fields and scatter/The good seed on the land…’ I was convinced that a ‘wolf’ came to quell the rain in verse two. It is, of course ‘warmth’, but I guess a wolf seemed more likely in a chill English autumn, and a great deal more exciting for the gathered mums and dads. If this error was marked by anyone, they did not say. As I grew up, the idea of singing alone in front of people became as scary as a visit to the dentist. It was not helped by a succession of intimidating school music teachers with their uncanny knack for detecting the tiniest quaver of discontent or an empty semi-breve of inattention. One could get into trouble at the infelicitous tink of a triangle, or the deathly silence of a dropped crochet. One teacher scoured the class to find the ‘growler’, so to eliminate him from the angelic chorus that was to form Junior Four’s class assembly. At least I wasn’t a ‘growler’ – wolf, or no wolf.
As an adult, I was shy of singing in public, partly because my voice is at the lower end of the female vocal range, and a lot of community songs seem to require women to sing like squeaky descant mice. In a choir, there is a whole section dedicated to altos, where women are allowed to descend towards the tenor stave without suspicion, and are readily forgiven for finding that high G is beyond the scale. However, a few seasons in, voice exercised, I am now able to sing in a mezzo range without it sounding like something squeezed through the nozzle of a piping tube, and can go into perilous vocal territory knowing that there is someone with a higher voice who can take the strain if necessary, and I can return the favour when it comes to the basso-soprano bit. The experience of not being a soloist has taught me a great deal about the possible.