At school, I was the only person who wasn’t in the choir even though I wanted to sing. This pretty much lasted three decades until a few days ago, when one of my children sang a solo.
As a little girl I use to belt out Fernando, “disco dancing” on the lounge carpet with my brother and cousins, not to mention nativity outpourings of Away In a Manger or Little Donkey, but when I was nine years old we moved 300 miles south to a new school. Far from my friends and extended family, in this new place where my accent was “funny”, one of my first lessons was a singing test. We lined up by a classroom door and, one by one, were sent in to sing a solo for my new teacher, Mrs P. Mine went like this:
“Let’s do Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
(What? Never heard of it.)
“Can you sing it for me, please?”
“There’s a class full of children waiting to come in after you; please could you sing it.”
“I don’t know the song.”
“Of course you know the song; everyone knows Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
“Right, just sing one verse, after me:
Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah, Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah. The River Jordan is deep and wide, Hallelujah, Milk and honey on the other side, Hallelujah.
You copy that.”
“Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah, Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah.”
“Well, finish it.”
“The River Jordan.”
“The River Jordan.”
“IS DEEP AND WIDE, HALLELUJAH. I sang it just a minute ago.”
“Deep and wide, Hallelujah.”
“MILK AND HONEY ON THE OTHER SIDE?”
“Milk and honey on the other side.”
“I’ve never met a child who couldn’t sing Michael Row the Boat Ashore before.”
I was dismissed. And that’s how to make a nine-year-old child hate you.
After that, I stopped singing — but around the same time, our very lovely piano teacher, Mrs F, got me plonking away and writing songs. Before long, I won a school Christmas Carol writing competition and was told to add a tune to the lyrics so it could be sung by the whole school (and parents) at the carol service.
“Can you sing a tune for it?” Mrs F was gentle and encouraging. I loved her but …singing? I stood with tears in my eyes and my throat closed over.
“It’s OK, it’s your song – you can’t go wrong. Whatever you sing, they have to follow you.” Mrs F smiled, “Just one note?”
I managed it. I managed a note. And another. My fear came through. I didn’t reach for anything high, didn’t go low. I stuck as mid-range and quiet as I could, barely managing three or four notes. Mrs F stretched it a little, and four hundred people had to sing my weird little groaning dirge every Christmas from then on. Community cringe.
Mrs F made me feel that I was not a total failure, though, and I love the idea of Mrs P being made to sing my awful tune in perpetuity (may it be the last thing she ever remembers) but still… I left the school believing I shouldn’t sing and this, therefore, was the last song or poem I ever wrote.
Next up, secondary school. Once again we were all told to line up by the classroom door and go in one by one to sing alone to the teacher, Mrs H. This time, Mrs H asked me to sing The Church’s One Foundation. While Mrs H sang and played piano, my brain went into 3-year back-spasm and my throat closed even for speech. I lost four lunch breaks before Mrs H gave up. We got on fine, but she didn’t understand how scared and lost I was, and I couldn’t explain.
From then on, at carol services and concerts, I was placed at the back of the choir and told to open and shut my mouth silently to the music, like a goldfish. Because I was short (I was tiny), this meant I was both invisible and inaudible. For three years, in churches and assemblies, my lovely parents were directed specially to sit at the side of the choir so they could see me “goldfishing” at the very back. Bless them, they always came.
I didn’t sing a note from the age of 13 through to 33.
Then, after exactly 20 years of wistful, song-free existence, I had my first baby and, I decided, I was going to give that baby all of me, voice and all.
So, I had three babies and we all sang bravely ever after in yummy mummy baby bliss, right? Not exactly.
I limbered up and took my eldest child to baby group where we sat in a circle with various other birth-shocked parents to sing Wheels on the Bus, Old MacDonald, and a load of tunes about bubbles and little green frogs. It was very wholesome and no one was rude enough to tell me to shut up, so I howled away with my one-note and slight stammer, imagining that my baby loved it. Turns out, not so. The moment he could crawl, he scrambled off my lap to sit on other mothers’ knees. So I was the only one who (i) couldn’t sing and (ii) didn’t have a baby on my lap.
My second son was more forthright. I’d start to sing him to sleep and he’d say, “Stop, Mummy, please.” I tried to carry on once and he actually cried.
My third child liked my singing, “Ha ha ha ha haaaaaaaaaaa! Do it again!” Finally. My third child taught the others to laugh, and the three of them taught me to sing (“sing”). And when we’re out in public, they do their best to drown me out.
Thankfully, they can sing.
So now, when I go to school and see my children perform in choirs, recitals and on stages, I sit there, bursting with a very particular pride: not only is my child singing, but LOOK! LOOK! We’re in the normal audience, not secreted around the side! Seriously, it’s underrated.
The other day, my shyest child sang a solo at a guitar recital as a surprise for me. He sang, faltered, and his teacher walked around to sit beside him, nudging him along under his breath. I felt my child relax, felt him breathe, continue, and smile through the words. He rose up on the music, carried on by his voice and that of his guitar. He rocked it.
They ended thirty-three years of musical torture: if my children can get up and do that, then finally, finally, it really doesn’t matter whether or not I can sing. I’m free.
In 2009, I wrote Can a Hummingbird Sing (first published on Like Birds Lit) about a child who was too afraid to sing. It was inspired by my own story and an article I read about the Anna’s Hummingbird.
During mating the male Anna’s Hummingbird has the ability to sing a song. They don’t sing any other time of the year and females aren’t able to sing.
Can a Hummingbird Sing is up on Fictionaut