Hearing the Voice

I used to work with students on their fears about writing, fears that underlay “writing block”. Such fears can be overwhelming, causing immense struggles, leading to mental ill-health. One of the issues we used to work on was “finding your voice”, a term I used to describe the process of battling through the fears about criticism (from that devilish internal editor sitting on your shoulder, saying “what a load of rubbish” as soon as you write your first word), to arriving at a place where you can actually start to work out what you want to say.


Nowadays it’s the singing voice that interests me. Finding your voice in singing; now there’s a challenge if you’ve been told, as so many people have, “please don’t sing in the school choir, you can’t sing” or “stop that horrible noise!” when you’re chirping merrily in the shower. It’s terrifying for someone who’s had that experience to be heard singing by another person; the editor on their shoulder is expressing disgust and hate. It’s like being undressed in public – a nightmare, all your imperfections literally laid bare.


I’ve been lucky; apparently I have a “lovely voice”. I was told that when singing with my mum at a service in Winchester Cathedral when I was a small child, and I’ve heard it many times since. But just to write those words “I have a lovely voice” is horribly difficult; that bastard on the shoulder is sneering “You didn’t believe them, did you? Who do you think you are, you stuck-up git?”.


So for most of my life, I sang only in choirs. Paradoxically, you’re relatively safe from being heard there, although if the person you sit next to moves away, you interpret it as bad news about your voice. Then one day, I started having singing lessons. Terrifying. That voice, hidden for so many years, was going to be heard by another person who would judge it. But I went home from that lesson, released at last from that fear – I’d learned that I wanted my voice to be heard and that it was OK.


Other fears are still there, of course. Even today, I’m having to be brave because I’m staying in an apartment where other people are living who might be listening. It makes me sympathise with people who haven’t got somewhere to practise, a place where they can make noises unheard. But I need to practise and so I’m doing it anyway; OK, do it, it’s fine, they haven’t yet banged on the door to shut me up.


But I also need to work on the fear that sometimes wobbles my legs and shakes my voice when I do perform. One aspect of this is that you can’t hear your own voice. It’s difficult to be objective about one’s own achievements even when those are outside you – baking a cake, writing a book, painting a picture – but when you’re part of the performing – presenting the voice, or face, or body – it’s even harder, and it makes one vulnerable to that nasty editor’s mutterings.


There’s a simple trick that you’ve probably thought of already – why not record your voice? Good idea! More learning, this time of technology, downloading the app “Voice Recorder”. What I’m finding is that it is giving me another weapon against the b******. It’s not that all misgivings are eliminated but it focuses attention on the job – and that seems to be the key to it. Now I can hear things that I need to work on, which I suppose is a sort of editing but it’s the sort of editing we do need, once the first draft is written.





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Acquiring the Knowledge

Why is it that community choirs often don’t use musical scores to sing from? I’ve been musing on this and its implications since watching the choirs of “Personas mayores” in Granada; I saw that they had folders as we might in choirs I’m in, but theirs contained only words, no music. They presumably learn their songs by ear, not by sight. Now, it’s true that much of so-called sight-reading is actually done by ear, but at least when singing by following other people and following a score, you get some idea of what the notes are doing – they go up and down on the stave, they have different shapes that apparently are linked to how long you sing them for.


Even in my first school choir we were given the scores, but I don’t remember ever being taught to read them, and since I didn’t have music lessons or theory, I only had a vague idea of what was intended. Then over years of being in choirs, nearly always using scores, I suppose I learned quite a bit but more by accident than design; a conductor would refer to a time signature 4/4 or how long to hold a note and I could match that with what note I could see written and what he was beating. Sometimes a conductor would try to help us pitch a certain note by referring to “a dominant 7th chord”, or “now we’re in G major” – but he might as well have been talking in Swahili for all it meant to me. And even after years of that, I had to confess to a better-educated bass in that choir that I never looked at the key signature of the music as I didn’t know why one would bother with it.


It was really only more recently when I began to have lessons in music theory that some of these things made sense. And then, crucially, in singing lessons it became humiliatingly apparent that I was not reading music by sight but was simply watching the score and matching it to what I heard – singing by ear. But at least I then understood what was needed; a lot of work to be able to translate the blobs on the page using that strange hieroglyph at the beginning of the line into an interval – a major third, a sixth, a minor second – that I can sing without the help of a piano.


I sometimes wonder if musicians, people who’ve been taught and for whom musical knowledge comes more easily anyway, actually know what the rest of us are doing when we sing in their choirs. This came home to me when someone who had been with me in a small choir for several years finally told me she didn’t even know which line she should be singing, she just followed other people, the music just serving to give her the words. It’s like being illiterate and having ways of coping – you get other people to navigate if you can’t read the road signs.


Why does it matter? After all, we can cope by using our ears to learn a melody and even a harmony, and millions of brilliant musicians just do it naturally, so why should we become musically literate? One answer occurred to me last night at rehearsal with a very small choir where I was the only alto and there was new music to prepare for Sunday. It was no problem – because I could read it. True, it’s the sort of church music I’m very familiar with, so the harmonies come naturally, and we’ve got organ accompanying so in fact I’m using my ears, but training my eyes as well was a very useful thing to do. And more – I feel proud of it, and perhaps that feeling of pride in gaining literacy is the reason to help people become readers.



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Viva la musica

Viva la Musica


I’m in Spain for a couple of weeks, and just come back from the town hall square in Granada, joining in a jolly event for older people – five different choirs performing their own things then all together with audience singing Viva España.   Now I’m trying to think what song could you have in England that everyone could join in (no, not the birdy song) – Jerusalem? Land of Hope and Glory? Must be something more cheerful but I can’t think of one.


Spain’s good at music for ordinary people. They’ll join in at the drop of a hat or sound of a chord. I’ve enjoyed some wonderful spontaneous musical experiences here over the years – inevitably with guitars playing and people clapping strange rhythms, but also lots of singing – a wondrous moment last year over Sunday lunch in a café, singing with a lovely tenor, songs from West Side Story and even Cherubino’s song from Figaro! Not to mention leading 100 Spanish psychologists in song after a conference dinner – incredible.


I think these joining in moments are somehow related to the experience I’ve had in speaking Spanish, which from the start has always felt like real communication; it’s made me realise that in learning a foreign language, one is simply trying to connect with other people in the world. Very different from my experience of learning French. OK, that was at school with no actual need to communicate with anyone other than an examiner, who clearly thought I was rubbish, but then so did the French waiter when I finally got to France a few years later. I’ve hardly been back and certainly never tried again to speak the language. Coming to Spain has been a revelation – trying to communicate is more important than getting the grammar right. And indeed, getting it wrong can get everyone laughing with you, as when I got the wrong word in the market and asked for some chicken to use in a Spanish light opera (zarzuela, seemed the same as casserole, cazuela).


Maybe there’s a lesson here in encouraging people to try to make music. The emphasis in teaching is often on perfection, which is OK if you want to breed Young Musicians of the Year etc but the downside is that people give up if they feel humiliated in their early attempts; I often hear people say “I was told at school not to sing and so I never do”. Let’s instead encourage and welcome, and remember what the purpose of music is. ¡Viva España!



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I talked last time about birdsong as the best form of music outdoors. Last summer I walked the Wolds Way in summer, and one of the great delights was hearing birds singing – they really do give us notes along the road. Curlews, larks ascending – beautiful; who needs Vaughan Williams when you’ve got nature’s own musicians.

I think it’s not the melody or sound in itself that’s important (a failing in me? Messiaen and Lumsdaine heard music in it); indeed, the sound is often quite squeaky (remember those little toys that makes the sound of birds by twisting a screw in a tube of wood, they’re quite realistic…..……) No, bird-song lifts the spirits because of what it means – the associations with being outdoors, being part of something bigger, of seasons changing. Recently, I was lying awake, everything seeming grim, when a robin sang; just those few notes were enough to change everything. And this morning, I heard larks in the field – actually, I think they might be a bit early, aerial equivalent of cowslip that I saw yesterday, but the sound was of lighter days, of hope.

The sound of swallows arriving is very special; you’re outside getting on with stuff in the garden, and you suddenly get a sense that something is different, summer’s in the air – literally, because then you realise what’s happening is the unmistakeable little twittering of the first swallows. One swallow may not make a summer but he’s enough to make my heart leap.

There’s a very sad book, Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, that talks similarly about hearing the first cuckoo; people tend to feel it’s a very important moment (so they write to The Times, or tweet) because it reassures us that summer’s come, the earth’s still turning and all is well. So when we don’t hear the cuckoo – and many don’t, now, – there’s a terrible hole in our lives.



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Music outdoors

 I’m planning the music for a picnic we’re holding at the Yorkshire Arboretum as part of Musical Milestones. Music outdoors seems a nice idea – look at all those “Proms in the Park” things, including a spectacular one at Castle Howard itself (where the Arb is). Indeed, I went to a Blondie gig in Thetford Forest a couple of years ago; it was great. Looking at the photos since, I realise however there’s a major drawback to outdoor music in this country; we don’t have the weather for it.


OK if you’re the one with the beer, but huddled under blankets not so much fun.

Another drawback – summed up by a choir leader when we were rehearsing in York Minster; as she said “there’s only one acoustic worse than the Minster, and that’s Outdoors”. Of course, Outdoors = open air! Sound disappears into the sky. That must be why as a child and wanting somewhere to sing, I used to cycle off into the country, but it was to a bridge, not a field. It was a perfect acoustic, presumably because the sound was constrained in some way; maybe it should be Proms Under the Bridge.

There’s another niggle at the back of my mind about putting on music to go with the picnic in June. A major reason people visit the Arboretum is for peace and tranquillity, and when they hear the bands playing, they’ll run away. Maybe music and nature don’t go together and it’s only because I like both that I think they will. On the other hand, doesn’t nature herself do music? There was a lovely event last May at the Arboretum, with fantastic music in the beautiful trees – we were listening to the Dawn Chorus. Not really a chorus, more a bunch of proud soloist songsters; but lovely anyway.



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Warming Up

8 December

Music’s not like gardening. I need to steam my throat before I sing – recommended by my teacher, and confirmed by a celebrity who, I happen to have read in the paper, says she’s doing it every day, so it must be useful. For gardening I might have a hot bath after doing it, but don’t really need to warm up before.

I mention the comparison because for the last two years I’ve been writing about gardening and now I seem to be starting on music. Led into that (down the garden path you might say) by my last garden piece, called “In tune with Nature” that was littered with phrases invoking musical references like “ground bass” referring to compost, and “singing the praises”. Thought maybe I’d give music a turn.

So I’m warming up for musical writing (la la). Back to the steaming – the problem is ageing larynx and steam maybe moisturises it – and while it’s at it, might soothe the ageing face as well; it’s certainly quite a relaxing activity. After that, I have to make a series of silly sounds that we call warming-up (a teacher I had in Australia got me to sing like a cockatoo – and sometimes we do “sad puppy” and me-ows).

Then have to practise singing “Stille Nacht”; everyone’s doing it this year in carol services; I’m doing the first verse as a solo. I’ve worked on it a lot, and have got to the stage of really feeling the lilt of a lullaby (it’s in 3/4) and I’m in the cold starry night, both at a stable in a field and that night in the trenches; I wonder what it was like? What did the German soldier sound like? If they can sing together with English soldiers, why the need to kill each other? A bit more “Himmlischer ruh” would be good – but I have to find the breath control to make it heavenly.



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What’s the road and where am I going?

I’m engaged in a project called Musical Milestones as a Trustee of the North Yorkshire Music Therapy Centre, in which we’re celebrating passing one milestone – 25 years of work as a charity improving people’s lives through music – and taking the next steps to the next milestones of our future. An early step in the project was to involve a very talented young artist, Natasha Murphy who painted this wonderful picture for us. It’s been quite inspirational, helping us to get the show on the road.

For the last two years, I’ve been writing a blog, Caroline’s Garden Diaries, but Tash’s lovely image has called me out of the garden gate and onto a different path. As well as gardening all my life, I’ve also sung in choirs. but it’s only fairly recently I’ve begun to form choirs. So in this blog, I want to write about what it’s like going along this new road – my personal travels with music in my heart.

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