Saturday, February 01, 2014

Musings on... why I sing

I love to sing!
Why do I sing? This is something I've been reflecting on recently. What is it about singing that brings me so much pleasure? It's definitely something that I feel wells up from deep inside of me, something hard-wired right at my core. The older I get (and when you find yourself saying things like that, you know you're reaching a certain point), the more I think that singing is something, maybe, that helps me express my "me"-ness - a core expression of who I am.

Music has always profoundly affected me. My mum says I used to happily sing hymns in my pushchair as a toddler. And there are times, certain pieces of music, I can't quite put my finger on quite which ones and when, but times still when the deep emotion expressed in music stops me dead in my tracks, and the tears well up from that place in me that's lost in music. 
"Music has always profoundly affected me"
I feel lots of things deeply. My wife will confirm that I cry at most films I watch - but it's music that is often what stirs those deep emotional waters. Most recently it was the film of Les Mis - the powerful music, the rich redemptive story, that primal emotion - that churned me up. How I'd love to sing a part of that story!

I was a choirboy at school, not the best treble in the choir (I never got the main solo in Once in Royal David's City), but passable, and I certainly enjoyed singing. I distinctly remember the first time I sang with the senior choir, in four part harmony, with the tenors and basses joining us - I was filled with wonderment, not quite believing that we were making this amazing sound. I'm almost certain we were singing Christmas carols, and even now I love those rich harmonies in the traditional arrangements I grew up with.

I fell out of the choir when my voice broke, but it wasn't long before I was back in the choir after a road-to-Damascus moment one summer day led me to abruptly change my GCSE choices to include music.. and the deal was that those (few) of us studying music had to sing. 

Singing in South Africa... in an empty pool!
This time I was an enthusiastic bass (!), relishing this time the bass parts of those beloved carols, even belting them out on my bike as I cycled home from school on dark winter evenings after choir practice. 

With my studies I also joined a barbershop quartet with Mr Knights and fellow music students - painfully learning the value and necessity of attentively listening to my fellow singers.. even if we were only singing "Toot, toot, tootsie" and other barbershop classics!

It's funny how there are certain accidental nodes, compass points around which our lives turn - waypoints that we observe upon looking back over time. One sticks in my mind, when as a self-conscious fourteen year old I was embarrassed to sing too loudly in our seats at church. 

I can't remember whether it was in the car on the way home, and I'm certain that it was just a well meaning but essentially trivial comment, when my mum said to me something along the lines that there was a lovely voice inside me waiting to get out. I think this was probably the Speech Therapist in her saying something reassuring to a teenager suffering the trauma of his voice breaking (not that mine broke all that dramatically anyway, just suddenly went down a few octaves!) and the general awkwardness the teenage years bring. 
"It's funny how there are certain accidental nodes, compass points around which our lives turn..."
Regardless of the intention, the words lodged in my heart and released in me a new found confidence to sing, which led to me singing more.. which has, in time, released that inner voice, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I'm glad and grateful for that offhand comment - and it shows what simple words of encouragement can lead to.

My big sister is an exceptionally talented artist, and with a strong sense of compassion (she also feels things very deeply). When I was a gaunt university student and she could see how much singing meant to me, out of her meagre teacher's salary she generously paid for me to have singing lessons. 

My singing teacher, Angela, wasn't your run of the mill, sing scales at a piano type teacher. She was all about the mechanics of the voice ("I want to give you your instrument"), and her lessons were unconventional - singing while bouncing on physiotherapy balls, singing crawling like a cat, singing while stretching giant rubber bands, singing with a toothbrush in your mouth - but the more I look back the more I realise this period was one of the most significant events in my life because she really did teach me how to use my voice as an instrument. Studying Engineering (in a pretty loose sense for my first couple of years at Uni) I really "got" her approach to the mechanics of the voice.

Singing with my daughter...
I'll never forget the first time I went to see her. I sang her a song I knew and she just walked around me looking and listening. After I finished she sat down, looked me in the eye and asked me how many teeth I'd had out (lots.. apparently it was obvious because my tongue was slumped in the bottom of my mouth!). After that she challenged me on my posture, how I walked, how I breathed.. all kinds of seemingly minor things. 

To be honest, I think at some point in their life everyone needs someone neutral with a critical eye to point out bad habits, slouches, feet dragging, missing teeth! 

And for Angela's direction I am also profoundly grateful. As a by product I've also worked hard since then not to have any more teeth out (it significantly affects vocal tone)... enduring hours of uncomfortable dentistry over the years as a result!

It's been well over a decade since then, and in that time I feel I have grown into my voice as it's matured. My range has extended, my tone has improved, my power increased. In a real way, my singing lessons connected up my voice with my body, but also helped my voice express my "me"-ness. When I sing, all of me comes out. The tone and timbre of my voice is an expression of all I've ever been through, an extension of my heart. That's what I hope anyway. I sing with joy, pain, anger, frustration, peace.. the whole spectrum of human emotion is there in some proportion.
"When I sing, all of me comes out"
When I was four I started to learn the piano. When I was fourteen I picked up the guitar. I play a number of instruments (it's my learner theme), but these days when people ask me what my main instrument is there's no hesitation. It's my voice. I'm a singer. It's me. I can't seem to help it, but it's deeply, profoundly, fundamentally an expression of who I am.

I hope I can sing long into old age. It's been over a decade since my first album, but I hope I can sing more songs from my own heart. I hope I can sing more with my children, and their children, maybe even their children's children. More than that, I hope, somehow, that my singing encourages others to reach inside themselves and draw out those things that are uniquely them.. those precious talents and gifts bestowed on us by a loving God. Those are things we're made for.

So when I sing, I sing out the song inside me, the song of all I have been, all I am, and all I'm made to be. 

And that, for me, is why I sing.


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