Today I finally took my grade 6 classical singing exam. I think it fair to say that this has been a long time coming.
This could turn out to be a bit of a ramble as it’s 12:30 at night and I’m feeling somewhat reflective, so please click away now if you’d rather not read a self-indulgent piece!
During my last year at primary school, a new teacher came who was the son of my then piano teacher who at the time seemed a complete tyrant. I suspect he was just a little brusque and not entirely at ease with the ways of kids who didn’t always apply themselves! The son however seemed to have bags of enthusiasm and decided to teach myself and a friend to sing madrigals. My friend sang soprano, I sang alto and he sang tenor. He then drafted in another music teacher to sing bass. We learnt two madrigals, “April is in my mistress’ face” and “Fair Phyllis”. We sang them at the end of term concert and loved it.
We then went off to secondary school where we learnt, to our dismay, that first years were not allowed to join the choir. Unperturbed, we went to the head of music and asked if we could sing her something. Having practised and practised in the evenings , much to the annoyance of other children in our dormitory who branded us as “posh southern snobs who think they can sing”, we gave a pretty good rendition of April. After a few seconds of stunned silence at the end, I said, “Now can we join the choir?” and we were reluctantly told that we could. I remember little of what we sang that year and initially we were on catch up as we’d missed a few weeks due to not having been allowed to join.
A lot of the material we sang was difficult and challenging, we had to work hard, but we got some excellent results at the end of it and were much admired. However, in our second year, not only were first years allowed to join, but the auditioning was dropped and anyone could join. The standard dropped significantly and choir became a free for all for anyone who fancied a bit of a sing. Some would argue that this was a great opportunity for everyone and I would agree, but this approach did not suit the perfectionist within me. By the following year my teenage bolshiness got the better of me and I left the choir.
Not long after that, a girl in my form started having private singing tuition and the improvement in her singing was amazing. I decided that this was what I wanted to do, so I asked my parents if I too could have lessons. I was met with a resounding no. No because I already had piano lessons and didn’t really practise that hard so why should they pay for more music lessons? And after all, I wasn’t even in the choir any more so I obviously didn’t want to do it that badly. So I drifted off with a couple of older girls who taught me to play the guitar and sing folk songs.
In my late twenties I joined a second rate covers band who played in pubs as a third rate keyboard player. My main reason for joining though was because they needed a backing vocalist and I managed to persuade them that I could do it. After a while we included one or two songs for which I sang lead, but the lead singer’s ego found this very difficult to deal with. Gradually people came and went and the band went its separate ways.
After that I drifted round several singing for pleasure groups. Some I enjoyed more than others. In September 2008 I joined the Digby Singers, led by Christine Smith. I was shocked in the following January to receive an Email from Christine suggesting that I sang in the Derby festival that May. Christine said she’d been listening to me at Digby and thought I was up to it. So bang went my theory that you could hide in the altos and not be noticed. Not in Christine’s groups you can’t! I’ll never forget that first performance, standing up in front of a small audience singing “Don’t cry for me Argentina” in the novice class at Derby. When I finished singing I was shaking so much that I burst into tears when I sat back down. To my astonishment, I won it! The following year I won the female vocal soloist class with “Send in the clowns” and earlier this year I won the recital class with the three songs I sang for my exam today.
For a couple of years Christine and I have talked about me taking an exam and it was eventually settled on that I would take grade 6 classical. It has felt a long time in coming and I still can’t quite believe that I have done it! I sang Foxgloves by Michael Head, O Rest in the Lord by Mendelssohn and Five Eyes by Cecil Armstrong Gibb. I was also required to sing an unaccompanied folk song of my choice for which I sang Bonny at Morn. Also included in the exam was a short Viva Voce which I found easier than I imagined, aural tests which were as I expected them to be, and a memory test, in place of the sight reading test which was virtually impossible!
I’ve been very nervous leading up to this exam and some of my friends have been baffled as to why I would put myself through this as an adult with free choice! My reasons are, I guess, that I still have this need to prove myself, to compete and to win. I also get so tired and frustrated with so many people who have such low expectations of me as a blind person and put up barriers because of their pre-conceived ideas. I also have a younger sister who had many more opportunities to sing at school and beyond. A few years ago a family member was talking to me about how sorry she felt for her oldest child who isn’t as musically gifted as her younger son and saying how difficult this must be for her. She then turned to me and said, “but of course, you must know how that feels yourself”. So, if I pass this exam, it’ll be one to brag about at family gatherings if required.
Above all, it’s thanks to Christine for believing in me.