There were 90 of us, chorale singers all, and we had just learned the “Jai guru deva” section of the beautiful old Beatles’ song Across the Universe. We repeated it one more time, finishing with the “ohmmmmmm” that concludes the phrase. I swear electricity was zigzagging wildly across the room as we hit note after perfect note. There was a radiant smile on every face and eyes were lit up with the sheer joy of a profound accomplishment.
It was one of those moments that you live for. For some delicious morsel of suspended time, there was only the present. All the “Inner Critics” in the room, everyone’s nagging little voice that offers its opinion about how badly we’re doing, were gobsmacked into silence. There were only harmonies—and harmony.
A choral weekend workshop like Spring into Song is a strong experience for me. On one hand, the harmonies are skin tingling, and when I’m right there in the middle of things, making music as well as listening, it’s so powerful that I am nearly swamped by it. Those of you who sing in choirs will know what I mean.
But on the other hand there is my own rather fierce Inner Critic, who loves it best when I’m engaged in something I’m not especially skilled at. He liberally reprimands me for my shortage of expertise. “You got that phrase wrong for the 50th time,” he tells me. “Good grief, you’re slow.” Or his recent favourite: “You’re too old to learn this.”
So at a workshop like the one I’ve just been on, I have to deal with the swings between ecstasy and the Inner Critic having his heyday. “This has impossible timing,” he said more than once. “Swahili? You must be kidding. You’ll never learn this rabble of sounds.” (One of his characteristics is that he deals in Absolutes. You will NEVER be able to sing this. You will NEVER manage syncopation. You will NEVER be good enough for an audition choir.)
I come from a musical family. Regard this lovely old photo—it’s of my mother (on the left) and her family. She is the drummer, at age 13; the piano player is her father and the rest are her siblings. They played in rural Saskatchewan during the Great Depression and, as exceptionally popular entertainment, made a good deal more money in dance halls than from my grandfather’s farm. The gene pool is strong. I have
cousins who sing like larks, who play piano and other instruments with virtuosity, even one who leads a highly-regarded jazz band. But unfortunately I landed closer to the shallow end of the pool. I can hold a note (if I’m not standing too close to the tenors) and can sight-read at snail’s pace—but I’m sorely lacking my mother’s sense of rhythm, cousin Chris’ perfect voice and Uncle Jack’s ability to pick up any instrument and play it. However, I DO love to be surrounded by music, and you’d think that would be talent enough (though my Inner Critic begs to differ).
I used to enjoy singing very much. I crooned along with my guitar in my twenties, belting out House of the Rising Sun, Sounds of Silence and a good many folk songs that I probably should have been embarrassed about. I could hold a note and find harmonies. But I grew up, got sensible and took on more serious concerns. Even when housemate Daniel pressed me to join his choir while we were all living in Sydney, I declined. Fear of incompetence, like lurking shadows in a darkened corner, silenced me.
However, when I retired and left the corporate world (where there wasn’t much room for incompetence), I began to give myself more permission to do things simply for pleasure. I joined Wingsong, a local community choir, where I remembered I had the great gift of loving to sing. My Inner Critic and I share the floor on a regular basis, but here’s the thing:
My Inner Critic is getting quieter all the time. His heart just isn’t in it like it used to be. Surely there are many reasons for that, as experience erodes his credibility—but one direct link I can see is to the mindfulness practices I’ve been taking on. Mindfulness means I’m listening to my choir-mates, I’m intent on the director, I’m listening for my own accuracy, I’m correcting as required. There just isn’t room in there for the steely-eyed judge delivering his usual sentences (“10 years for that wrong note!” Smash of gavel. “5 years for the missed beat—to be served consecutively!” Smash). When mindful, I live in the land of satisfaction and desire to learn.
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As if the three day musical workshop weren’t enough, I had another moving experience when I arrived home Sunday night. I walked in the door to a houseful of friends, as sometimes happen when you live in a cooperative household. We had guests from America, two of whom are talented musicians. We had good friends from Sydney, who sing joyously in a choir. So after dinner Eve, who can always call the perfect shot, said, “How about we have a musical evening?” One of the American guests immediately stood behind her chair and broke into a rendition of Funny Valentine that was as smoky, jazzy, and beautiful as any I’ve ever heard. Her son dazzled us with a couple of guitar pieces he is preparing for audition. And then we all enthusiastically dived into old favourite tunes and songs we’re learning in choir. There was lively discussion about what note we should start on, which didn’t seem to help much as we ended up all over the map anyway.
But we had such a good time! We were singing, we were listening to music, we were plugged into something primal. There must have been an evening some millions of years ago when we humans were sitting around the campfire and suddenly discovered a whole new purpose for our voices—something beyond hunting calls and spousal brow-beating, something that was there for pure pleasure. It was the moment when grunt turned into song.
For me, singing is now a gift provided by an intermingling of pleasing influences in my life—the time that retirement gives me, the presence that mindfulness practice provides, and the courage that my chosen community inspires.
Why didn’t I do this earlier? Damn, I missed a lot of great harmonies and rollicking times.
But I’m here now. The Inner Critic takes its pound of flesh, but the vocal chords—and the mindful voice—are getting stronger every day. The old critic may never admit he’s wrong, and that I’m plenty good enough, but events like those of this weekend are silencing his cynical voice. How refreshing it is.
[God, this post is confusing and contradictory and boring… … …HEY, quiet, you. That’s enough of that. Let’s press Publish and go make a cup of tea.]
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By the way, have you seen the Swedish film, As It Is In Heaven (longest-ever running movie at the Cremorne Orpheum in Sydney)? If not, get it this weekend, with subtitles, of course; make popcorn and set out the tissues. It’s the definitive choir movie. You have a treat in store.