Some people have harboured years of closeted vocal desires by singing in the shower and warbling their way through karaoke duets. I am not that girl. Those who know me well have learnt that karaoke is my worst fear – it combines my dislikes of reading out loud and singing out loud. The reading aloud portion of my karaoke fear comes from the fact that I’m useless with lyrics. I still make up different choruses for sing-a-long classics like Sweet Caroline and Bohemian Rhapsody. With my luck, I’d discover that the lyrics “sweet dreams are made of cheese” are actually “sweet dreams are made of these” for the first time up on stage, microphone in hand... and after years of thinking “the Eurythmics just get me!” my disappointment with the real version would be palpable.
Technically speaking, I should love singing. You see, I am blessed with the prized “gift” of perfect pitch but sadly, I’ve always felt that I wasn’t gifted a vocal instrument to go along with it. To me, perfect pitch just means I am painfully aware of how off key I am. The last time I sang was probably in high school when I was in a few musicals – exclusively as a chorus girl because I could jitterbug and Charleston with the best. It’s probably unfair to judge my voice so harshly. After all, we would never judge a first-time figure skater as she attempted to execute a triple salchow. Our voices, like all muscles, require training and my singing voice gets a workout about as often as I go to the gym.
That said, for years mastering one single song for karaoke has been on my apoca-list (which is my list of things to do before the world ends). I’ve already determined it will be Carly Simon’s Your So Vain. While I own the power of my voice in many realms, I’ve been scared of its song. Sammy Davis Jr, one the singing greats, said, “you always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear” so this burgeoning songbird joined the flock at Hackney Harmony and became a treble maker.
How does one transition from a crackling blackbird to a serenading starling? In my case, my friend Lu (whose effervescent joy is contagious) had been spouting the joys of singing in a choir which probably primed my thinking. And my flatmate, James, was the one convinced me to come along for the last drop-in session before “serious training” began (aka we have a Christmas concert in December). Having taken a couple seasons off, he had been missing the vocal heart and soul.
On the dot of 7pm, I showed up nervously at Hackney City Farm. After an opening of silly warm-up exercises that included buzzing our lips (which tickles immensely) and echoing repeating patterns of na-na-nana-nah, Sophia E, our choir leader, shared a simple Zimbabwean proverb. If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance. While I have the walk/dance part woven into my being, I would have to take her word for the talk/sing parallel. But her teaching is joyful, instinctive and inclusive and my nerves were instantly calmed in her presence.
Sophia is clearly called to her work and her passion is infectious. Her warm and playful nature creates a sense of ease and unity, enabling everyone to drop into a space that is both held and free. As she uses her hands to indicate the flow of the melody (thankfully, I don’t have to remember the acronym for EGBDF in order to read sheet music), she breaks down each song into it composite parts: Bass, Tenor, Alto (that’s me) and “Soppies” (if you’re in the know that’s choir lingo for Sopranos). She makes even a self-diagnosed bad-singer like me feel like I belong.
I can’t even remember what we sang that first night but I like to think it was Marriage to the Earth by Helen Yeomans because it’s my favourite of all the songs we’ve sung so far. Two hours later, I left Hackney City Farm vibrating. I felt uplifted, buoyed by a flurry of endorphins flooding through my body. Perfect for a rainy October evening.
I’ve actually never sung in harmony prior to that night. I ducked out of choir in school at the first chance. Singing the out-dated hymns at school assembly felt like punishment for something I did in a past life. Instead, I opted orchestra and proceed to lug my flute home to “practice” and a paralyzing fear that my grandma would ask me to “play a little something” when she came to visit. With teenagers (and likely adults too), if music is an experience similar to jogging uphill with an infected in-grown big toenail, you’re toast.
The reality is that it doesn't even matter if you can sing well. Lord knows, I can't. The best I can manage is singing in tune. Most of the time. Hopefully. Sophia teaches in alignment with the Natural Voice style, whose approach is about celebrating the voice you were born with, rather than trying to train it to an ideal of perfection. Group singing is a perfect case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For entirely non-magical reasons – such as the averaging out of flat and sharp voices – a choir can sound far better than its individual members’ talents might suggest.
What is it about singing in harmony with other humans that changes the way we feel and think? Like scientists, I’m still figuring that one out. Singing in a choir is a transcendent experience – and there aren't many of those in life. It instils gratitude and bliss without the contortions of yoga or hangovers of alcohol. Sophia always closes the evening with a song so deep and soulful that someone invariably ends up moved to tears. Here's just one sample that I had the presences of mind to try and capture on my phone. It pales in comparison to the live experience but it's the best I've got.
Our weekly rehearsals have become such an oddly transporting highlight of my week that it almost feels too personal to share. I’m not alone in this, I realise. These days, with amateur singing exploding in popularity, there’s no happiness advice less original than “Join a choir!” From the very beginning, singing with this marvellous group was a tonic, an instant pick-me-up and the effects of which lasted all week. I feel indebted to Pitch Perfect and Glee for making community choirs cool again – or maybe they were cool all along but this songbird just didn’t know it yet!
"The only thing better than singing is more singing."
- Ella Fitzgerald
Nice to meet you...
I'm Andi (hence the blog name). I'm a travel aficionado, passionate eater, tireless explorer of internet rabbit-holes, and amateur thinker. Join me as I give it all up (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration) and go around the world on a mid-career "soul sabbatical" & year-of-learning to figure out what to be NEXT when I grow up. Won’t you grab a cup of chai and stay a while?
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