Learning to sing


There is something quite extraordinary about discovering your voice.    Although…  to be fair, my journey of discovery has only just begun.   For years I have sung my heart out, but always with the knowledge that I was out of tune, “flat”, unable to match pitch.     I didn’t know it was called matching pitch, until last weekend.     I didn’t even know what a major scale was … perhaps it is no wonder I couldn’t always match pitch.

Well, what joy I had at the Reclaim your Voice workshop with the help of Nikki Berry and Gary Easterbrook, and seventeen other extraordinarily courageous women over a weekend at Turnbull House in Wellington.    We were warned on the Friday night that it would be an interesting journey and that perhaps there would be tears.   Well, I thought to myself, tears there may be, but not from me, because I don’t do ‘crying in public’ unless of course, it is a funeral.   And this was no funeral.  I had booked to reclaim my voice.   I’d been assured that this was definitely a workshop for people who couldn’t sing and not as happened when I tried to learn French and the people in the Beginners class all turned out to have studied French at school, or university.

As it turned out, some of the people in my singing workshop, actually sing in choirs, and on hearing this during the obligatory personal introductions, I felt the terror rising.    But, it turned out we all had a level of terror, even the most beautiful of our voices was constrained by some inner critic, childhood memory, grief, or embarrassment.   I was quite shocked to hear women who to me sang like nightingales, who didn’t believe they could sing.   At least my terror was somewhat more warranted.   But then too, some of my own fears were manufactured, as it turned out to my great surprise and delight, on the first round, solo, I matched pitch.  I got the thumbs up from Nikki.   I was taken aback, but found very quickly that Nikki Berry doesn’t do thumbs up when it’s not warranted.

Over and over, throughout the weekend, we sang solo in front of strangers, who became friends, shed tears (sobs sometimes), as our voices emerged, tested new styles and we sang, belt, twang, sob, falsetto… mostly new terms to me but the sounds were amazing.    People surprised themselves first and then the rest of us.  I was filled with admiration for the women who took courage in hand and wanted more, even when their voices sounded beautiful to me, they wanted more.    They stood alone in the room, encouraged by Nikki, took risks and we applauded with our laughter, and often our tears of joy for their achievement.

Don’t go away.   This isn’t therapy.   Hubby was puzzled when I told him how much I had cried.   He enquired was it singing lessons I had enrolled for?    Yes, before this weekend, I might too have looked a little askance at someone telling me how much they had cried learning to sing.     Well, as it turns out, laughing and crying are a great start for the vocal folds, and once you’ve released all that air and emotion, something beautiful happens (eventually, and after a few false starts and horrible noises), music happens, clarity occurs, voices surprise their owners.

I thought about what happened over the weekend, and it reminded me of skiing.  I learned to ski as a young adult in Norway  on a working holiday in the early seventies, in the Haukeli Mountains on what was then called the E.76 highway between Oslo and Bergen at the Vagslid Høgfjellshotell .   I had no fear of failure back then because I was so excited to have this opportunity.   Falling was just part of skiing and the snow was metres deep and the world was at my feet.    Then I returned to New Zealand and had a family in the late seventies and began learning downhill skiing, so very different from cross-country.   My fears began, I didn’t want to fall, my technique was wrong, and I was self-conscious.   My progress at downhill was so much slower than my first foray into skiing as a young woman on her OE, unencumbered by expectations and fear of failure.

But too, something else about skiing and singing…  If you’ve ever been on a crowded ski field and stopped to listen, you will know what I mean.  People don’t compete (perhaps some do), but the average family skier is just so thrilled to make it down the hill trying out a few new turns, tackling a slightly trickier track.   Over and over you hear people saying ‘did you see me’…. with joy, as much as pride… did you see me … they’re not looking at the other skiers, they’re so excited at their own unexpected progress and their families and friends are happy to applaud, agree, be delighted with and for them.

It felt like skiing a little, when I learned to sing this weekend.   Everyone seemed as happy for me as I was for me, when I sang on one note, then two notes, oh my goodness, I can sing on five notes… we were all engaged with each other and our progress was not in comparison to one other, but simply about each person’s individual progress, in comparison to their expectations (whether just meeting them, or going beyond).

Turnbull House in Wellington, lends itself to the intimacy needed for this sort of workshop.  It was here, back in the late nineties that I read my very first poem in public.  I’d just finished the undergraduate Poetry Course run by Greg O’Brien at Victoria University, and our class was invited by the Poetry Society to read.   I turned up with my whanau (husband and two sons), and the rest of my class just turned up and I recall one of my sons, who is now a builder, told me that he endured the boredom of the poetry readings by counting the ceiling panels or some such detail.  It seemed fitting that my first solo public singing, was also within these walls.

And so, I am writing to thank the extraordinary women who shared my singing journey this weekend, for their tears, for their laughter, for their courage, for their beautiful voices.   Of course, none of this could have occurred without the insightful, grounded, guidance of Nikki Berry, a talented teacher and singer.   Nikki generated an environment that was completely safe for all emotions and enabled us to take risks with our voices and our hearts.    I felt at times for Gary (the only male) who so expertly accompanied us on guitar and piano, exposed to so much joy and grief and laughter among so many women, but he didn’t seem to mind.   Evidently there are usually men too in these singing groups but for some reason, our group was all women.   Maybe this allowed more emotion, who’s to say, but it is true, that the emotions propelled the singing and made our journey all the more valuable.

If like me, you think (or know) you can’t sing, take a risk, enroll in one of these workshops and be surprised.    Oh I won’t kid you, I’m still singing out of tune, but now I know how to find that voice, how to match pitch and I am practising.  I have a song to sing to my granddaughter, and it goes like this.