I joined the school choir in Grade 2 when I was seven. I was a part of the choir at three different schools throughout my schooling. That’s eleven years of school choirs. In my final year of school I was in both the main choir and the twelve-member madrigal choir and I played the Scarecrow in the school production of the Wizard of Oz. This performance garnered me a scholarship from a local theatre company (of which I was a member) for a year of singing lessons.
I was a member of a church singing group for more years than I can be bothered going back to figure out.
I spent eight years performing musical theatre with a local amateur group.
I’ve been a member of community singing groups for the past twelve years.
And yet, you won’t hear the phrase “I am a singer” come out of my mouth.
(Yes, those of you who have been following this blog long enough may think this sounds familiar. I had similar issues with calling myself a runner until I successfully completed my first marathon. What can I say? My psyche is not built for self-confidence.)
I had piano lessons as a child/teenager and I can, to varying basic levels, also play guitar, ukulele and banjo. At various points in my life I have picked up and then discarded the flute and harmonica. (I also learned to play the recorder at school but everybody does that so it doesn’t deserve a mention.)
Not just a Jack of All Trades but a Jack of All Players.
But I’ve never sat a music exam. Ever.
Good question and one I’ve had to ask myself a bit over the past several months.
And it comes down to fear as these things usually do. For me, a fear of judgement and not living up to expectations.
My mother informs me it has always been this way for me since childhood.
Sometimes the genetic lottery gives you a messed up hand of life-cards.
My fear and dislike of judgement is so deep, I have to walk out of the room during those TV talent shows when the judges make their comments. I can’t even bear it for a total stranger.
So how was it that on Friday 21st June, I found myself standing in front of an examiner about to try and prove myself in a Grade 5 Modern Singing exam?
Another very good question.
How did I get here?
Last year, when the opportunity was offered via email from the leader of my singing group to sign up for preparing for an exam in March this year, I declined the offer on the basis that I would be away at that time. Devastated, I was. [cough]
Then, one night I messaged to confirm my participation in a singing technique workshop the next day only to find out that my booking had been misplaced and the workshop had in fact been cancelled with only one other participant having signed up. I was informed that, however, there was the first workshop for the Grade 3 exam candidates. Maybe I’d like to come? I could always do the exam at a later date if I was going to be away. Or, I suggested, maybe I could come with the agreement that I didn’t have to actually do the exam.
This is my ideal situation – a chance to learn but no commitment to prove it.
It was agreed.
But you did the exam. What happened?
To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out. My singing leader, also a dear friend, is a champion button pusher and she knows exactly which buttons to push and when. At some point – I think when I was in the middle of solving a problem on her laptop – she suggested that really I could do the Grade 5 exam.
Firstly, it turned out the exam would actually be in May or June, it was just the deadline to sign up was in March. So I didn’t have my absence as an excuse.
Secondly, I am both pathologically obsessed with knowing everything about a situation and chronically dedicated to ‘doing the right thing’. So, about to head overseas and out of reach of any sort of contact, I was aware from my research that the closing date for exam applications would come while I was in the Himalayas of Nepal. Of course it was tempting to disappear overseas and then return to the online world with a ‘oh shucks, sorry’ but my need to always do the right thing meant that I pointed out before I left that I would need to answer the question of doing the exam before I left.
Okay, so my other failing is a weakness for pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
In the way of the universe, this quote had also floated across my online vision a few days before:
“Are you happy for me to enrol you while you are away?” I was asked.
“Do it,” I replied. Then I flew away to Nepal.
Did I wonder what I was thinking? You bet.
Even more so when I got back and headed straight into final training for Oxfam Trailwalker and after that the Great Ocean Road Marathon. Seriously, what was I thinking? Did I plan to permanently live outside my comfort zone??
Of course, the addition of a blood clot in my lung that made breathing painful (let alone the deep breaths needed for some of my singing exercises) was a complication I didn’t expect. I suppose I was grateful that when the exam date came it was some weeks afterwards when I was on the mend but my preparation was definitely compromised.
I prepared as best I could. On days I was stressed, I would undertake more ‘academic’ work – I would write out all my general knowledge answers or research all the musical terms in my sheet music for my songs. It was calming for me.
Exam day came. My exam wasn’t until 3.20pm which was somewhat painful. Then, when I arrived, they were running late and so I had to wait even longer. Here’s me trying to be cool about it (while a jelly of nerves inside).
If you’re thinking the person I’m talking to looks calm that’s because she’s already done her exam. Lucky duck.
I think I should point out that this exam was like a Sara Lee dessert of all the worst things for me – layer upon layer upon layer. I had to:
- be the centre of attention
- sing solo
- sing solo to a total stranger
- be judged on that singing
I thought the worst thing was having to sing to a stranger but in fact, I found it easier. I wrapped myself in my invisible theatre cloak and put on the act. And, somehow, pulled it off. My singing leader/teacher/friend came in to accompany me for my last song (the previous three songs being performed to a backing track) and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up as she came in.
Even now, with the results in my hand, I can’t believe I did what I did.
And? What were the results??
It was an anxious wait for the results but not as fraught as you might think. In order to help me try and stay calm in the lead up to the exam, I had decided to put it into marathon terms. I was, I decided, happy to just cross the finish line. For the exam, this meant just completing the exam to the best of my ability. After all, I’d never done a music exam. Just going through the process was an achievement of which to be proud. A ‘respectable time’ or in this case, a pass was just a bonus. A PB was an unimaginable flight of fancy.
And after the exam that’s how I felt. I was proud of myself for going through the exam and completing it to the best of my ability. Obviously, a pass would be appreciated but I had no ambitions beyond that.
Oh, for Pete’s sake! What was the result?!?
I achieved Honours. A score of 89%. (Embarrassingly, I will confess that the over-achiever in me was a bit annoyed I didn’t crack the 90. Some people are hopeless….)
It was interesting to note in the report that most marks were lost because of tension in my chest, neck and jaw. Well, let’s see. I am in the process of recovering from a pulmonary embolism and I was undertaking my first ever music exam. Imagine what I could have achieved without those….
And so there you have it. I not only undertook a challenge I had not intended to entertain but achieved a grade unimaginable.
Will I do another?
Not on your life.
As part of preparing for my exam, I did some music theory study. I found it fascinating and helpful in so many ways. So that is my next challenge. I’d like to tackle a music theory exam. How’s the weather out there in that Uncomfortable Zone?
Some people are hopeless…
The wash-up from this exam – not only for me but for the other six candidates – has left me thinking about the value of external validation. To be honest, some of the impetus for signing up for the exam was yearning for proof that I can sing. I guess I got that. I guess that maybe I can start rehearsing the line “I am a singer”.
In the end, however, the judgement of someone’s singing ability is subjective. It sits in narrow parameters and disallows the additional factors that make a singer’s contribution to the world that represents true musicality and impact.
I now possess a piece of paper that says I can pass a Grade 5 Modern Singing exam but does it show that I can work as a team member of a group and support my fellow singers to produce the most pleasing sound? Does it really represent the emotion – the joy, the sorrow, the frustration, the confusion – that I can experience in the act of singing? Does a piece of paper truly represent the hurdles that each of us has had to overcome? More importantly, does the lack of a piece of paper dictate the lack of value of a singer?
No, it does not.
I am incredibly blessed to be tutored by some immensely talented and generous singers. Would a professional organisation value the skill and love these singers impart to we lesser mortals to the extent they deserve? No, they wouldn’t. The reality is that exams are a narrow qualification of skill and talent. For me, the selfless sharing of talent, knowledge, care and support is unassessable. Someone out there ought to create a qualification that evaluates the impact someone has in terms of fostering a love of singing, especially in those who have been told for too many years that they should not sing. There are beautiful singers out there just waiting to be discovered by the right spirit. It’s an incredible gift to give the world and too unappreciated by the ‘powers that be’. I have personally witnessed the awakening of amazing singers who have hidden away since being told as a shy twelve-year-old to just ‘mime the words’. I have also witnessed the encouragement of an incredible teacher reveal those reluctant singers to be powerhouses of talent.
I would not be where I am without those incredible people. They are talented and knowledgeable singers but more importantly, generous sharers of that talent and knowledge.
I am a singer.
But only because I have been blessed by knowing such talented people as my singing teacher friends. You people rock and are the rock of my singing life.