Fighting the Fear and Finding ‘I am’

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.

Why not?

Good question and one I’ve had to ask myself a bit over the past several months.

And?

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.

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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:

Neil Gaiman quote

 

“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).

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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:

  1. be the centre of attention
  2. sing solo
  3. sing solo to a total stranger
  4. 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?!?

Okay. Okay.

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….)

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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.

However.

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…

Addendum

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.

 

The Emotional Memory of Music

You’re standing in a shop and a song comes on the radio that makes your heart do a little dance and you smile. Perhaps it reminds you of a happy wedding, a joyous celebration or a ridiculously fun weekend with friends.

 

“No Life Without Wife” from the movie “Bride and Prejudice”, once performed (with costumes) at a raucous girls’ weekend away. Still makes me laugh.

You’re sitting in the car and a song comes on the radio that makes your heart skip a beat and tears appear in your eyes. Perhaps it reminds you of a significant loss, a painful goodbye or difficult time in your life.

 

“Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds, played and movingly danced to at the funeral of my sister and niece.

Music has memories. The most potent of these are emotional memories.

 

“Deep Peace” by Bill Douglas from the album “Celtic Twilight”. I compiled a playlist of Celtic music as a ‘birthing tape’ for when my boys were born. This song always makes me think of them. (Unfortunately, I actually forgot I had the tape when I gave birth to my first child. With the second one, he arrived so fast the tape didn’t make it out of the bag. It was only with the third child, who took his sweet time coming, that I got to enjoy the whole playlist. Many, many times…..)

Songs can be the most likely to bring up memories, as we connect not only to the music but also to the lyrics. Words can have power.

oscar-wilde-music-quote

Sometimes it may even take you a while to realise why a song or piece of music is making you feel the way it is because the emotional memory of it remains strong while the mental memory has faded with time.

The emotional memory of music can also linger for much longer than the situation that created the emotion. A song may have triggered a strong reaction because of the space you found yourself in at the time and the connection you made to the lyrics. Years later, you may no longer be in that space in your life but hearing the song can still elicit the same reaction as the first time you heard it.

 

“Here We Are” by Belinda McArdle. This is written and sung by the amazing woman who runs the community singing group I attend. When she first introduced this song, I was at a stage in my life when I didn’t know what I was doing, what I was supposed to be doing or where I was going with my life and I felt I was wasting the gifts I’d been given. This song made me cry. That was four years ago and until very recently, if it came on my playlist in the car, it would still make me teary. This despite the fact that I have now found my way and I am happy and fulfilled in my life. I am no longer in the place I was but the emotional memory holds tight.

I do believe it’s possible to change the emotional memory of music. If the new connection is stronger than the previous, it is possible to change one type of memory for another.

I recently attended a vocal workshop facilitated by Belinda and it was an amazing experience of finding newfound confidence and trust in my own voice. After the workshop, we sang the chorus of Here We Are together and it was a powerfully emotional experience for me. And thus, the emotional memory of this song rewrites itself to a new one. This song now reminds me of what my voice can do if only I trust in it.

stevie-wonder-quote

What song or piece of music holds strong emotional memories for you?

 

 

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When A Bad Day Turns Good

The other day I had to speak to a group of kids about maintaining hope when things aren’t going so well. We talked about bad days. Here’s what they contributed.

“So, how would a bad day start?”

“When you have to get up early.”   “When you get out of bed and bump your head.”   “When you don’t want to get out of bed so you bump your head.”

“So, you’re up and you have to get dressed. Then you find out you don’t have any clean socks. Or worse, no clean underpants.”

“Or no clean pants or tops or anything and you have to go out in the nicky-nicky-nude.”

“It’s breakfast time. You pour the cereal into your bowl, you go to the fridge, open the door and…”

“There’s no milk.”   “There’s nothing there at all.”   “You have toast.”

“Then you go to school (probably hungry) and the teacher says, ‘I hope you have your excursion permission slip today. You won’t be able to go if you don’t.’ Of course you don’t have it.”

“I don’t want to go on the excursion anyway.”

“It’s the end of the day and you’re waiting for your mum or dad to pick you up…”

“And they FORGET!” “AGAIN! And look surprised when you walk in the door having walked home! On a hot day!” “That’s happened to me!” (This generated a fair bit of passionate discussion almost exclusively from my own children. So I told them, “Every child has to be forgotten to be picked up at least once in their life. It’s a rite of passage.”)

“So you get home (somehow), sit down to do your homework and…”

“You’ve forgotten your homework book.”   “You’ve forgotten your textbook.”   “You forgot your school bag.” (I’m a bit worried about some of these children.)

“Dinner time. What would dinner time be like on a bad day?”

“You drop your plate on the floor.”   “It’s food you don’t like.”

“What sort of food would that be? What don’t you like?”

“Chocolate cake with pumpkin.” (The mother of the child who said this stood up and announced loudly, “I’ve never served that!”)

“So by this time you probably just want to go to bed, right?”

“No.”

A Bad Day

A Bad Day

I love talking to kids about stuff. They are small conduits of innocent perspective and transparent wisdom. And often hilariously funny.

Having dissected the components of a bad day, we then spoke about what might help to make it a better day and we agreed talking to someone could help. (Someone said, “Talk to your mother” to which one joker responded, “Unless it’s your mother that’s giving you the bad day.” Predictably, the joker was one of mine.)

We talked about prayer and how it can help to send a silent call for help and know that even if there’s no magic to make the bad day just disappear, it can make a difference to know you’ve been heard and someone cares you’re having a bad day.

I’ve written previously about the remarkable singing group I attend every Friday. I’d had a tough week and by the time I walked in the door for singing last Friday morning I didn’t know if I wanted to burst into tears or punch a wall. Over the course of the next hour a beautiful thing happened.

Occasionally we are given the opportunity to volunteer to sing a verse solo during a song. The rest of the group joins in with the chorus. At these times I usually become incredibly fascinated with my shoes. It was always something I was never going to do. But on this day, I felt a metaphorical prod in my back and to everyone’s surprise (certainly mine), I slowly raised a quivering hand and said, “I’ll do it.”

When it came to my turn, I was terrified. My hands shook so much I looked like I was fanning myself and I wondered how anyone could possibly hear my voice over the loud thumping of my heart. But I did it. And survived. And I knew I was fully supported by the group.

Afterwards, people made sensitive, encouraging comments and I felt uplifted. Soon, I came to realise that my bad day had come good. When I had cried in the car on my way there, “How am I going to get through today?” I could not have known that help was on its way in the most unlikely of occurrences.

A Good Day

A Good Day

For me, it’s God. For you it may be the Universe, your own inner voice, or someone else’s voice in your head. Whatever it is for you, when the bad days come, send out an SOS and be prepared to watch and listen, and then to respond to the help that will come, sometimes in a way you might never imagine possible.

 

 

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Hope is a Beautiful Dream

I sang these words this morning at a community singing group I attend every Friday morning. It was a repetitive refrain, sung in three parts, haunting and beautiful in its simplicity.

And in my case, a timely lyric. Our family has recently been destabilised by a worst diagnosis. In a family previously untouched by The Big C, we are now faced with one of the nastiest and, historically, most unnecessary illnesses making itself known progressively throughout the world – Mesothelioma.

It is the ultimate insult for a man who has lived a healthy and active life, hospitalised only twice in his life – once for appendicitis, once for a cut tendon in his finger. A man who only did what most other men of his generation did – a bit of home handyman, work in an office, commuting on the train – and all the while unwittingly exposed to the diabolical. We have, however, come to realise that analysis of the exact cause of exposure is pointless. We cannot change anything, he cannot go back and undo his actions to bring about a different ending. We must accept the truth and ‘go from here’.

But I started this post with a comment about hope which is indeed a beautiful dream. It is well to be reminded of the hope that lies in the life that we have Here and Now. The past is gone, the future is unknown, today is all we have for certain.

Sometimes I turn up to singing having had a good week and it is the icing on my cake. Sometimes I turn up having had a nightmare week and it brings me solace, peace and a lift to my spirits. Sometimes I think I can’t face it, go anyway, and never regret it. It alternately challenges or consoles me but it always inspires.

Put some singing in your life.

hope

 

 

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