Sing up!

Well, we’ve reached December once again, and that means ʼtis the season for irritating Christmas compilations in the supermarket, a brass band on every street corner… and carols. Lots and lots of carols.

Last week, I was present at two events which were scheduled to feature festive singing for one and all. The first was an office party at which my presence (new this year) had prompted the suggestion that we might have a little sing around the piano before heading off for dinner. The majority were not convinced, and in the event the carols were avoided altogether – people felt a bit awkward about singing with their workmates, and after only a single glass of prosecco, and I suspect also that school associations didn’t help. (If any of my colleagues are reading this: you won’t get out of it next year! Oh no. I have plans…)

The second event, which I attended mostly because I was offered a free ticket and was faintly curious, was John Rutter’s Christmas spectacular at the Royal Albert Hall. Leaving aside the astonishing spectacle of coachloads and coachloads of people arriving from all over the country to attend – and shelving temporarily the deep concern I felt for the vaguely suicidal-looking percussionist who had ended up with the sleigh bells, poor man – this was a very different beast indeed. Because within the line-up of festive favourites and faintly baffling programme fillers, this was a room full of people who wanted to sing. Who were desperate to sing. Who were almost certainly mostly choral society members from around the UK. And we were therefore presented with song sheets for a little collection of congregation-style carols, to which we could proudly add the Rutter/Willcocks harmonisations that we all have drilled into our heads from Christmases past.

Choristers singing in cathedral choir stalls

Bearing in mind that I have also been part of an organisation at which the staff party carol singing was so much part of the fabric of the place that you were handed the sheet music, told who was doing the solo, and off you all went, I feel as if I’ve run the gamut of reactions to Christmas singalongs. And they are, and remain, fascinating to me. Because song is an inherent part of our culture – pretty much all our cultures, from those who love Schubert to those who prefer Andrew Lloyd Webber; from One Direction fans to Beatles aficionados; Amy Winehouse and David Bowie to Clean Bandit and Bruno Mars, and on and on. Heck, I’m constantly having to explain to my undergrads why not all piece of music can be described as a ‘song’, since so many media and streaming platforms insist on that assignment for every single track they play. There’s a reason karaoke bars and The X Factor are so popular. People like to sing.

Except we all go a bit funny when we’re asked to sing something that makes us feel exposed somehow. Things beyond our comfort zone, or things in zones (above all, school) that we feel we’ve left behind or escaped. Things like, say, carols. And the reluctance of my colleagues last week brought back memories of my own terror of singing when I was little, which seems now to defy logic. Stand on a stage and sing a hymn on my own to a crowd of people? Fine. Sing back aural tests to my piano teacher? No way. No WAY! Impossible. Shan’t. It was the heady days when you were allowed to whistle back melodies in Associated Board exams and by God, I whistled. For several grades, in fact. Anything but sing them. Awful.

And then choir. And then musicals. And then wanting a part so badly in one of them that I was forced by my own desperation into a solo audition. And then university, more singing, an increasing confidence that whilst I’m certainly no professional (never had a singing lesson in my life, in fact, though I hope to change that some day), I could sing and the sky wouldn’t fall in. No one would point and laugh. It would be alright. These days I sing at my students all the time. They probably think I’m a bit barking for it, but I’m fairly sure they think that anyway.

And the point of all this rambling is quite simply to say: have a good sing. Go on. Why not? Usually the reason we panic at the thought of it is either bad memories of when we last did, or fear that others will leave us in the lurch to sing alone and judge us for it. If it’s ghosts that are holding you back, see if you can exorcise them – it’s an amazing feeling when you do. And if it’s that other people won’t sing… risk it. Because they will. If you start, and you look them in the eye with a ‘come on, get on with it!’ look, and smile, and bang the table or play the piano, they will sing. That’s how amateur choirs work, though they might not tell you so: there’ll be one or two brave souls per section who always go ahead, loudly and confidently even if they don’t feel it, and start… and then everyone else, seeing those first pioneers setting off, stride out beside them. The delay is tiny – so tiny, you probably don’t even notice it. But it’s there. Promise.

So if you feel a bit of Hark the Herald or Once in Royal or even Jingle Bells coming on, have a go. There are free music and wordsheets all over the internet, so your mates will have no excuse. Stick on a CD, or get a piano or guitar-playing friend to help out, and sing. Sing loud, and be wrong, and marvel at how completely and utterly it doesn’t matter. Have fun! Music is nothing without it.

P.S. If you were ever told when you were little that you can’t sing, whoever told you is FIRED. You can. Everyone can. I know people who specialise in helping people who ‘can’t sing’ prove to themselves that it’s possible. Don’t let that memory, above all, ruin your chance to enjoy your voice now.

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