Twenty years ago, nerves stopped me singing in public. Could I get my voice back?

I resolved to do something about the lack of singing in my life two years ago when a friend invited me to a performance of Handel’s Messiah and I found myself replying: “I think it would make me too sad.”

I knew I would be sad, because it happened every time I heard a choir, especially at Christmas. If I caught the Nine Lessons and Carols or heard a snatch of any Messiah chorus, I was gripped by a painful nostalgia for singing and for the feeling of being part of the living, harmonising organism that is a choir. I sounded, I realised, absurd. It was absurd: nothing was stopping me from going back to singing other than my own fears.

I sang throughout my teenage years and early 20s and I was good at it, enjoying choir and solo performances, auditioning and passing grade exams without a flicker of anxiety. Then I had a baby, and another, moved house and country three times in two years, got a bit bruised by life and didn’t sing for a decade. The desire was there – hearing a piece of music I had once sung could catapult me into a reverie of rehearsals in cold chapels and overheated concert halls – but somewhere along the road I lost my nerve. Sometimes – often – I would look up choirs or singing teachers nearby, then find an excuse not to take it further.

By 2018, I was tired of my cowardice and desperate to sing. I found a way to ease myself back in when I discovered, during one of my Googling sessions, that my lovely former teacher was still working. I made contact and booked some lessons. It felt strange and self-indulgent to devote an (expensive) hour a fortnight to singing with no particular goal in mind, but I was immediately glad I had. Seemingly unchanged after 20 years, my teacher was briskly encouraging, cheerleading me through half-remembered exercises and giving me beautiful, unexpected things to sing, from Purcell to Britten.

At the start, I was terrible, my voice tentative and my breathing ropey. On a deeper level, I had completely lost the knack of making a noise; taking up space in a room with my voice. Lessons could be frustrating: I used to be good at this, I would think; why wasn’t I still? My teacher, who remembered me as a blithely confident teenager, was bemused. She encouraged me, again and again, to have faith in my ability to produce a good sound.

What felt impossible gradually became less so. I sang around the house and while walking the dog; I bought a keyboard to help myself practise. It felt like a gift to have music in my life and songs constantly in my head again; I had missed that part of myself. Singing has bolstered my confidence more generally, too: I stand straighter and speak with more assurance. I am more inclined to nudge myself towards things I am unsure of, having seen what can happen when I do.

I finally joined a choir last autumn, in time to sing in my first Christmas concert for 20 years; we even performed part of the Messiah. I am still not where I want to be, vocally, and Covid is making it harder: Zoom choir rehearsals are cheeringly farcical, but they can’t replicate the experience I love of singing shoulder to shoulder with others. I am still taking lessons, though (behind a screen), and even preparing for a diploma exam. I am determined not to let myself lose my voice again.


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