This is one of those posts I might not actually post. I’m paranoid that it’ll sound weird, or self-serving, or something. But I’m going to write it anyway, because writing is good.
It’s about singing.
Singing is the one thing in my life about which I have been consistently confident.
While I have struggled with low self-esteem on various other subjects – pretty much all other subjects, in fact – I have always known I could sing. From the time I stood in the kitchen of our tower block flat on a shitty Scottish scheme and sang along to Always: The Timeless Music Collection, I’ve known singing was a thing I could do.
When I was eleven, Charlotte Church released Just Wave Hello and somehow it got into the charts. Crouched over the radio on the floor of my bedroom in a different Glaswegian tower block, I listened to these beautiful sounds coming out of the speakers and wondered if I could do the same thing.
Well, it turned out I could. But it also turned out that classical soprano isn’t the kind of music that tends to be encouraged when you have a background like mine.
I was living on a council estate. We moved to England shortly afterwards, to a new council estate, but still the neighbours weren’t exactly thrilled at listening to a twelve-year-old screeching high notes all evening after school.
My mother’s religion also prohibited singing any religious songs other than their own. This meant I couldn’t really explore singing very easily, because things like Pie Jesu and Panis Angelicus and Laudate Dominum and basically most classical songs were forbidden.
At one point I did join my local singing group. We did Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. They were fun, but not quite what I’d been looking for.
Also, in those days we didn’t have YouTube or Spotify, and we also didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t find any of the songs I might have liked singing.
Luckily, in the meantime I’d discovered Barbra Streisand, whose massive notes are almost as fun to hit as the ones that scale the top end of the piano. Almost.
And then I sort of ditched singing for about ten years, for a variety of reasons: I was too ill for a couple of years, then I didn’t follow this advice, and by the time I’d fixed all that I had far less confidence in my ability to sing soprano.
But in February I joined a local choir, and I honestly think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
I discovered I can still sing soprano. My voice is a bit thin, a bit untrained, but it has potential, I thought. So I booked some lessons with the guy who teaches some of my fellow choir attendees. Because singing has been the one constant love of my life, and this would give me the opportunity to explore it more.
Throughout the course of our lessons, I’m discovering lots of things I never knew. Because I’m untrained, I don’t really understand how the voice works. This means that sometimes I get it wrong, but it also means sometimes I fluke and get it right. Because I can’t read music, I have to learn everything by ear. I always thought this meant I was massively inferior to all the music readers around me, until my singing teacher pointed out that singing by ear is a skill in itself.
And then Friday happened.
I went for my lesson. We did some exercises. They went higher and higher up the piano. When we were done, I asked the teacher which note I’d hit. He told me. It was really quite high.
And apparently vocal range extends with training, so perhaps at some point it’ll go higher.
The teacher told me the names of some songs to learn. Panis Angelicus and Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem.
I went to the music shop and bought the sheet music, because I’m trying to sort of backwards-teach myself to read music.
But while I was in the music shop, I had a confusing conversation with the man behind the till, who seemed to be saying that he could only make the highest note in the piece a G, when I wanted it to be a bit higher. I settled in the end, took it home and practised.
Then I thought, I wonder what the different voice types are? I mean, I’ve always known I’m a soprano – or at least, whenever I’ve sung in groups they’ve always put me with the sopranos – but are there different ranges within soprano?
So I did some googling. And that was when I found out that I might have a bit of an unusual voice.
You see, because I’d never been trained, I had no idea what was normal. I just assumed that if I could do something without training, everyone else who could sing would probably be able to do the same thing, and that they’d definitely be able to do it (and more) with training.
But apparently that’s not the case.
Apparently most people sit comfortably within one vocal range and find it really difficult to sing outside it.
According to Wikipedia, these are the vocal range classifications.
The thing is, I can sing all the female ones, plus a few notes either side, without any difficulty.
And I’d just assumed that was the case with everyone: that everyone could sing each voice part, but just enjoyed one of them more. To me, the alto parts are definitely possible to sing, but there’s no feeling quite like soaring over the high notes, so I’m a soprano.
I reflected back on some of the conversations I’d had at choir and it all became clear.
Fellow soprano: “This piece goes really high!”
Me: “Nah, it just goes up to a G! That’s quite low.”
Fellow soprano: *looks confused*
But apparently a lot of sopranos only sing up to an A, or a C at the top end of their range. Which would mean a G would be (comparatively) high, if it’s nearly the top note you can sing.
And another conversation:
Fellow soprano: “There aren’t many altos here today. They’re a bit thin on the ground, I feel sorry for them.”
Me: “Well, why don’t we just sing the alto part with them until we have to come in?”
Fellow soprano, giving me a weird look: “We can’t sing the alto part!”
I always assumed my fellow sopranos meant “We shouldn’t sing the alto part, that is not our designated line.” And I get that, so I went along with it. But at the weekend I realised they might mean they can’t sing the alto part.
All of these revelations came to me in a rush and then suddenly I was left with this huge overwhelming feeling that I might actually be really quite good at this singing thing.
The thing I love the most in the world – the thing I do when I’m feeling a sudden rush of emotion because it’s the only thing that can calm me down.
The thing I love so much that I can’t even describe the feeling I get while I’m doing it.
The thing I’ve happily chopped my budget significantly for so that I can afford lessons with a really amazing teacher, because it means more to me than almost anything else in the world.
I’m untrained. My vowels still aren’t right, my breath control’s pretty awful, as is my control in general, and I need to do a lot of work.
But I think I might actually be good. I mean, really quite good.
And somehow that terrifies me.
And also excites me.
I still haven’t quite gotten over the shock. So I’m writing about it on here, even though I’m terrified of sounding really up myself, even though I’m sure people (if they read it at all), will read it and think What the fuck is she on about?
Because I want to write this down. I want to look back on this in the future as the time I realised that the thing I love beyond anything else in the world might also be the thing I’m best at. And that my best might be really good.
I’m scared. And excited. And hopeful.
And now I’m off to do some vocal exercises.