Monday, April 04, 2005


I did it. And I survived. I sang solo for the first time in my life on stage. What’s more, nothing terrible happened. Actually, as I mentioned in my previous post, it wasn’t a complete solo; it was a duet. But we each sang certain parts individually.

Let me explain how all this came about. For the past five years or so, ever since the chorus in my son B.’s primary school issed a call for adult male voices to “fill the bottom in”, I have been doing choral singing, the past three years with a bona fide adult chorus, singing mostly popular French songs from the 1960s to the present.

This year I decided to supplement that with some individual voice training. There are about ten of us in the workshop, ranging in age from 17 to mid-50s. The range of experience is equally broad (the 17-year-old has had the most voice training). In the first class we each sang a song individually. That was difficult. Stripping naked in front of nine other people would not have been more difficult. But our instructor, J.B., said something very interesting – and encouraging. He said he has almost never met anyone who “can’t sing”, but that in France, people are very self-conscious about singing. He said that in Ireland, for example, singing is a natural part of life. (An Irishman living in France, who reads this blog from time to time, says he almost got kicked out of a concert in Corsica for singing along, so I guess that counts as confirmation.)

Once we got over the hurdle of that first strip scene, momentum began to build. We started concentrating on how to improve our techinque, how to be convincing, how to detach ourselves from the singer who made our chosen song famous (the songs are not our original compositions), how to sing with feeling, how to control our abdominal muscles, etc. J.B. pointed out other little problems along the way, in a way that makes us realize that every budding singer experiences them. He helped us to understand that the problems are not an indication that we “don’t know how to sing”, just that we haven’t learned a particular technique as well as we need to if we are to improve.

Then J.B. gave us the opportunity, together with the participants in three other workshops he leads, to sing individually on stage for an audience of around 100 people (the house capacity). I was hesitant at first, but his description of the event, plus my theater experience convinced me it was possible.

Last Friday, we arrived at 6pm for an 8:30 concert so that we could rehearse with the musicians accompanying us. This was the only rehearsal we had with them. The first thing my duet partner, F. and I noticed was the (high!) quality of the other singers. Here is a brief succession of thoughts: These people are all virtually professionals. I’m out of my depth after all. I’m going to get up there and my voice will crack or I’ll sing flat or I’ll forget lyrics or I’ll come in too soon, or too late.

Most of this happened during our allotted five minutes of dress rehearsal time. So we went off into a corner to rehearse some more. Among other things, we decided to modify the first and second voices, look at each other and forget about counting beats or measures. We would come in whenever we felt was the right moment, and let the (professional) musicians adapt to us. M., one of the other participants in our workshop, came with us into our corner, which was a big help.

Then the concert started. Every person who climbed onto the stage received a thunderous round of applause, largely from the other singers. Our nervous energy was finding an outlet. This was incredibly morale building and frightening at the same time. I’ve had stage fright before, but it was nothing like this. In the theater, if you’re not singing or dancing, you have leeway. So long as you stay in character, you can improvise. Even if someone you’re supposed to talk to misses an entrance, there’s usually some recourse if you think hard enough. In music, though, you haven’t even got the time to think. You’ve just got to just keep on going.

As I usually do in these situations, I started to feel time as an unstoppable force, like a freight train hurtling towards me. In the minutes that remained before our turn, I tried as hard as I could to supplant the feelings of inferiority with the will to put everything I had into my song, to sing as if my life depended on it. I think F. was doing the same thing.

When our time came, we went up there and sang Un Homme Heureux, by William Sheller, as if we had been doing it for years. Afterwards people spontaneously complemented us, saying they liked the interplay of our voices, they felt moved by the song and lots of other nice things.

Now I want more!



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