(Rehearsal Magazine)

Learning to Sing

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 17.12.2017
(Writing)

As a non-singer who has spent a considerable amount of time working with and listening to professional vocalists, I am (perhaps surprisingly) uncomfortable with my own voice. So while I love to attend choir concerts, I’m not so quick to put my hand up to participate. When I found out about the Boite Singers’ Festival, a three-day event full of workshops and performance I was thrilled by the line-up, but not so excited about the participation aspect. While I am an active soloist in my own living room, my confidence stops after belting out “It’s Raining Men” to absolutely nobody in my pyjamas. I was once an excited choir girl, but my days in the Australian Girls’ Choir are long over. So, this weekend presented me with a challenge - turn up and chicken out of actually singing, or give it a shot and learn something about my voice (and myself) in the process. Here are five things I figured out:

You look sillier if you DON’T sing.

Being in a choir is a lot like being part of a sporting team. I’m imagining this, as I haven’t ever been part of a team sport, and believe if I had I would have been put down as the seat warmer from day one, but I digress. Playing a sport and being part of a choir is all about the team that you’re in - how you support them, and how much heart you give it. Luckily for me, this first introduction to choral singing as an adult was not a competition, and there was nothing for me to do but abandon my fears and sing like I meant it. I learnt from experience pretty quickly that being shy and humming through pursed lips was not going to get me far in the Melbourne Georgian Choir, after hanging back in the first song to “‘observe”. Don’t go to choir practise to “observe”. It’s like going to McDonald’s to have a salad. Ain’t no good. You’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing (which you might not, but don’t let this stop you), or you’re not enjoying yourself, which is pretty much impossible when you’re singing, I’ve realised.

It’s more fun singing with other people than singing alone.

Though I’m not averse to singing along with the radio when I’m alone, or with people I’m very comfortable with, singing with a group of strangers is not something I would generally be up for. Not willingly anyway. It’s up there with public speaking; death would be preferable, or at least more comfortable. But there’s nothing like singing slightly out of pitch next to someone you’ve never met before to make a new friend. (Apologies to all the “new friends” I made.) Genuinely though, singing in Andrew Legg’s gospel choir was one of the most uniting experiences I’ve ever had. I got to not only speak but sing with people I would otherwise never even meet. And when I say sing, I mean really sing. And clap. Joy happens when you sing with other people, and it’s not quiet. It’s funny how careful we get about self-expression, and showing how we feel, when really, there’s nothing better or more freeing than singing as loudly as we can.
It doesn’t matter how good you are.

“We riff on life” said Ray Charles, and riff on life is exactly what we do.

Life is messy and complicated, but there’s no need to overcomplicate your singing. You don’t have to be destined to become an opera singer or the next Mariah Carey to explore, use and develop your voice. In fact, it’s the only instrument we all share. Not everyone has the time and patience to conquer the French Horn, but everyone has the capacity to sing a tune. It matters that you put all of your heart into it, and throw away your insecurities. Your nerves about whether or not you sound good can wait for another day. Sing with your truest voice, and you will be greeted with a whole lot of other true voices. There is little time for pretence when you’re singing with people you don’t know - they don’t know anything about you except for how much you’re putting into your singing.

Passion over pitch.

It’s not about how good you sound, or how well you can read the music, which is a tough pill to swallow when you’ve spent your whole life learning about the “correct” way to make music. It turns out, enough voices singing the same thing sound pretty good, even without formal training. There is a special quality about singing in a group of other people who aren’t there because they were paid to be there - a kind of unity that only comes from being in the exact same mindset as the person next to you. No one is ever going to pay me to sing, and the people either side of me aren’t going to be hired for the next big Broadway show either, but we’re all there because we have something we want to express, which makes us sound pretty good regardless of our untrained voices. Not only is our technique based purely on making the happiest sound we can possibly make, we’re also trying as hard as we can to make up for the fact that we’re not award-winning. And the more you sing, the better you get.

Gospel music values the voice you bring to it.

Studying music at university teaches you about right and wrong, and that there is such a thing as a perfect performance and you are not there yet. Well, you may be there. I certainly was not. Singing in a choir with a large group of people from different ethnicities, with different life experiences and different ideas of what is good and what is not, taught me that there is no such thing as a perfect sound in this world. There is a good sound, and it’s your sound.

I left the Boite Singers’ Festival with a bunch of music, some inspiring conversations spinning around my mind and a huge grin plastered on my face. I’m still not a confident vocalist, and won’t be hitting a stage near you anytime soon, but I’m itching to give singing another try. I’m excited about how easy it was to participate when I finally let myself enjoy it, and I’m ready to sign up for a choir (as long as it’s unauditioned…). How’s that for a new years resolution? Sing more, worry less. Will you join me?

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