Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Musical tales from the mists of time

Mists. Of time or otherwise.
Way back in the mists of time – or the beginning of the 1980s, as it is sometimes known – I entertained ideas of a very specific career.

I wanted to be a singer.

My music teachers considered it far from impossible: Noel McKee – probably the best teacher I ever had in any subject, throughout my entire schooling – believed that I had a very “Russian middle register”.

Other teachers and tutors later said that, while I didn’t have perfect pitch, I had perfect tone. Which doesn’t sound bad, really, even viewed through the prism of several intervening decades.

I was a mezzo – which often seemed to me to be something of a neither-here-nor-there sort of voice, but wasn’t.

Unfortunately, despite the extraordinary help and support of Noel over my three years at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School, I couldn’t quite make up the lost ground on theory that had occurred at Fairfield, where my O’ level music lessons had been a dreadful experience – characterised in my memory by a bullying approach from the teacher, that I excluded myself from on mornings by walking (slowly) to school with a claim of bus problems.

It was an approach that, no matter how bad I was at some other subjects, I never extended to any other lesson or course.

Now for clarity, I could never have sung Wagner – or Verdi or Puccini or any other grand opera, for that matter. There was no way that I had that level of voice.

But light opera, operetta, oratorio and lieder were well within my vocal capabilities.

I would love to have sung Gilbert and Sullivan with the D’Oyly Carte.

But hey ho – it wasn’t to be.

It’s not snide to say that parental support was not all it could have been.

My father had paid one of his church organists to teach me some basic piano many years earlier, but it was dire.

Dull lessons that inspired nobody. Indeed, I don’t recall, at that point, being particularly enthused about learning. I suspect the decision that I should be taught was a combination of our having a piano in the house – thanks to my mother’s parents – and some cock-eyed idea of respectably-educated young gals, combined with one of an even more respectable young woman who could play the organ in church.

That I later pretty much taught myself is at least a suggestion that, with a good teacher, I might have prospered more, earlier.

That I taught myself via a piano score of Oliver! is even more of an indication that the parental choice of music was hardly inspirational.

But that was a theme that was to be repeated over and again.

By the second half of the 1970s, I was regularly competing in an annual local festival in Ashton-under-Lyne, in a variety of categories – including singing.

My parents exercised a certain amount of control over what I sang. Hymns were expected – or old songs like Cherry Ripe, which came out of a brown leather-clad tome that almost seemed to take on the status of family heirloom. I think I still have it somewhere.

I combined a lack of inspiration with nerves. Not good.

Later, in Lancaster, I carried on this trend – albeit tempered by Noel accompanying me for rather better pieces (a bit of Mozart, some Rachmaninov, Schubert …).

But looking back, I realise that I had the most extraordinarily limited knowledge of what was possible.

Nor were my parents particularly encouraging in other ways.

When I sang the mezzo/alto solo in an all-female arrangement of Fauré’s magnificent requiem in a big concert at school, they didn’t attend. I remember my mother sniffily noting that it was Catholic music.

It was actually staged at St Martin’s College – beyond, even, the school hall.

Oh goodness, there were nerves. I remember standing there, score in hand, with Noel before me as conductor, coaxing me, encouraging me – because he believed in me and knew I could do it.

But my parents couldn’t put their own beliefs aside to attend such an occasion.

The school was not Catholic. Noel was an Anglican.

But my parents could not set aside their own beliefs aside to support their own daughter.

These days I have no belief left in any god that has been described by any human civilisation.

But it doesn’t mean that I cannot still take great joy in music that was written for religious purposes. Only yesterday, I listened to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis for the first time – wow: simply wow.

Yet my parents could not set aside their most sectarian and puritanical instincts in order to support their own offspring.

Mind, they didn’t attend when I was a soloist when we performed Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols a year or so later either, and Britten was, like us, a Prod.

There are times when I wonder just what they were on.

And do you think I can talk to them about it?


What good would it do? What would be the point?

In so many ways, it would seem so petty; so small-minded and so – arguably – disrespectful of clearly seriously-held beliefs.

Not that I didn’t keep trying, on the singing level, for many years.

Some years later, after I moved south to find work and spent some 18 months living with my parents in Reading and commuting to London every day, we hit a similar situation.

My father was, as that time, minister to a congregation that met at an old – well, ancient really – church in Henley on Thames, shared with the local Anglicans.

A concert was planned, with the Reading Male Voice Choir. They needed a soloist for a couple of interludes. My father volunteered me.

I was still trying to get into the business, and spending money on singing classes with a serious tutor. And I was just starting to understand that there was a whole range of female vocal styles out there that I had hardly even heard of – I’d just, for instance, ‘discovered’, Barbra Streisand.

So, four songs across two interludes.

My parents made it quite clear that they expected hymns or religious songs.

I went down the musicals route. I rehearsed with the conductor/pianist, who was wonderful (and himself, a clergy son).

In the end, the first three songs went – if not badly, then not inspirationally.

But something happened on the fourth. I’d just recently discovered Cole Porter’s Everytime We Say Goodbye (thanks to Mick Hucknell) and amazingly, it came off completely.

It was sung with eyes shut – not as a deliberate choice, but because that was what happened – and I could feel the mood in that ancient building change. For once, I got them and I held them.

I’ve done it again since, a few times – impromptu performances, usually in pubs: Porter again or Gershwin. Getting lost in the music and finding that the audience, in spite of any booze, goes completely quiet and listens.

Like so many other people, my life could have taken all sorts of different directions.

I don’t dislike – never mind hate – where I am now. But I do sometimes wonder about what might have been …

Why has all this come back again right now?

Well, partly because I have had that opportunity – which I’ve explained more than once recently – to listen to music more than usual.

I find myself having a remarkable amount of understanding – but not nearly as much as if I’d carried on with my music studies.

And perhaps rather unusually for me, I find myself regretting that I stopped learning about music for so long. Because going back to it now, with some intensity, reminds me of just how much it means to me.

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