The first time I sang solo still strikes a moment of quiet awe in me. I was immediately addicted to the silence of three hundred pairs of eyes in jubilant expectation of Christmas, the arrival of the baby Jesus, Santa Claus, presents, feasting and in that moment – my voice and the opening verse of Adeste, Fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful) in Latin. I remember hearing my voice echo through the speakers; remember the scared shallow breaths I took; the clarity of my childhood voice. When I hear children sing now – I admire their courage, talent, innocence and potential. It is exciting to see them do with such ease and gentle grace what so many of us struggle to attempt as adults – or daftly proclaim “Yeah yeah, after a few drinks, take me to karaoke” as though lubricant is needed for the simple act of expressing oneself through song.
The most powerful occasion I have sung to date, was at my Grandad’s funeral. I thought Amazing Grace would be difficult as it was a special request from my family, but nothing could have prepared me for that final moment as they followed his coffin out of the church and I remained at the microphone, singing for him, for my family; my own special goodbye. I crumpled afterwards. In tears and pain, I was completely overcome. He used to sing. Wherever he went he was always humming or whistling. He was deaf for most of his life, but he loved to sing to himself.
My parents have always been supportive. But it was easier for them to understand the final product than the process of learning. Having the neighbour’s kids run up and down the street mimicking the “Opera Lady” in Number 12 singing scales was not exactly a highlight. Telling friends and family, the local community, and random people on their tour of Europe that I had gone back to study and achieved my AMusA at age 26? Yeah – that made them proud. Years of lessons paid for, eisteddfods attended, tears mopped up, concerts applauded and recorded – all for something.
The choice of singing over other musical endeavours was an easy one. I could cite numerous reasons: it didn’t require an instrument; I could do it in the street; the diva in me that I often try to humble loves the attention a soprano gets; I was terrible at the piano and worse at the violin; why not? But the simplest reason is that I had a voice with ‘potential’ and I liked to use it. That word ‘potential’ was a double-edged blade, encouraging me to pursue singing whilst always demanding something more than what I offered on the day.
That is not to say that everyone liked my voice. My peers often described it as too choir-y, too operatic and I was warned against warbling too much. A leader in a choir I was in for a couple of years once took me and four other choristers aside. They thought we were off-pitch and wondered if could they save us? I was so embarrassed. Over and again that blush has crawled across my face, like ants pouring into their anthill and I hide a little bit more each time.
It’s odd to think that the layers of critique could be felt so harshly – when there were so many other opportunities to shine. I blundered my fair share of performances, yes, lost the words, was a bit pitchy; but a lot of the time I sang I did well. I did really well. I got plenty of chances at high school. Large scale musicals were every 6 months and nearly every time I got to sing solo, I had a starring role. Yet still I struggled internally. Every bung note was like a hammer, every whisper in the stage corridor was about me. I was blinded by ego and fear; an adolescent.
I am unable to pinpoint the precise moment when I thought “I can’t” when it came to the AMusA examinations. All I know is the closer I got, the more I u-turned, the more I ran. I switched from the AMEB examinations to the IMEB examinations, and then later, back again. I broadened my scope from classical to musical theatre, film songs and jazz, and back again. I stopped learning altogether. There were other factors. There always are. External factors that are easy to blame, but at the end of the day, I just took it all too much to heart and stopped believing in me. I gave up trying. I believed the lie “I can’t sing AMusA grade pieces. I’m not that good” and I did other things instead.
But it always nagged me, and when I started learning again, through the most unexpected avenue, the dream returned as well. It wasn’t easy. It was hours of practice and facing fears and critique at Eisteddfods. It was tears and it was frustration. It was ravaging self-help books to rebuild my confidence and teach me new tricks for performing with ease. It was the support of my teacher, my family, my friends, my fellow singers and my work colleagues who listened to me perform on their lunch break and rave about this composer or that lieder and struggle with multiple languages for months on end. It was one of the most courageous and fulfilling things I will ever do for myself. Ever.
I can’t, was not the answer.