For someone who is a busker, a songwriter, arts company owner, and a theatre performer, I guess you wouldn’t expect me to say I am scared of singing. But I am.
Growing up, I used to sing a lot. I went to church every Sunday, so song and harmony was in my blood. I took part in folk lessons whilst at Junior School, where each session tended to end with an unruly rendition of The Beatles ‘Yellow Submarine’, played on pennywhistles and sung by twenty or so children. As soon as I walked through the door at home, or my grandparents, or aunt’s, the radio would be on loud and clear, and so would commence after school dancing and singing in the kitchen.
However much I sang as a child, I never thought I was very good. I was always relegated to Backing Dancer Number 2 in the playground, something which upset me, but I was accustomed to. I always wanted to be chosen upon to sing a song in assembly, or have a vocal solo at the Eisteddfod (that’s the St David’s Day festival for those of you not born of the land of dragons). I had my fair share of playing ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ squeakily on the flute, and focusing so hard on playing the mandolin in group performances that I looked miserable. I always enjoyed those performances, but the green eyed monster would creep out when it came to singing.
When I moved on to secondary school, the jealousy was something that increased and I carried with me at all times. For such a small, adorable looking eleven year old, I managed to hold a lot of bitterness; mainly for the people who got to sing the opening solo of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ at Christmas (not going to lie, I’m still a bit bitter. But let’s move on). However, there was a problem; I never said anything. No-one knew that I felt this way, no-one knew that I wanted to sing. I was scared to let people know that I wanted to sing, because I was so concerned with the idea that I would actually be awful at it! People in church told me that I had a lovely voice, but I felt I was hiding amongst them – they might have mistaken my voice for someone else in the crowd.
As a teenager, my confidence grew as my hips did, and I started to take a stand. I sang a little bit louder in folk group. I joined my school choir. I joined my childhood church band as rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist (despite the fact I could only play four chords and would shake each time I had to sing something on my own). The biggest thing that helped to shape my confidence was that I asked for singing lessons. One of the mottos my family has is ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’. So, we swapped out my flute lessons for singing lessons, and I jumped straight into Grade 3. There was no stopping my confidence from them on in – I learnt to control my breathing and use the adrenaline that I had as a positive tool; I sang at lunchtimes in the music room and in drama classes; I started to love performing in my church band. I finally felt like I was okay at singing – no, not okay – I felt like I was good.
However, this wouldn’t be a blog worthy story if there wasn’t a story arc. I had just turned seventeen, was preparing for my Grade 8 in singing, and arranging auditions for drama schools. I started school, ready for my final year, and then fell ill. We thought it was just a cold, the flu, a chest infection, something I could handle. But, it was laryngitis. It completely destroyed my voice and my vocal chords. Even after the rest period, my voice didn’t return to normal. I couldn’t talk without my voice catching, I was coughing constantly, and there was no chance I could sustain any kind of note. I used to have a high and clear soprano voice, but my range was swiftly reduced to a few notes at the bottom of my range, where the chest voice lay. I was devastated. Like the stubborn child that I was, I tried to ignore it and pushed through. I tried to do everything that I had before, which only worsened it. At Christmas that year, I remember singing in front of my home church. When practicing by myself, everything sounded fine. But, practicing by yourself is not the same as singing in front of others. So, I sang, but with the added projection, nerves, and talking all day, the high notes did not come out. They caught in my throat, I could feel them building and burning as I continued the song. When it was over, I sat down, hot, angry tears welling in my eyes. In hindsight, I don’t think anyone actually cared. These were people who knew me, had watched me grow, they would not have cared if a few notes failed to come out in a song. But for me, it was complete and utter failure. I didn’t want to sing after that. I was both ashamed and scared that it would happen again.
For the rest of that year, I was in and out of various hospitals and clinics, as doctors were concerned with how long it was taking my voice to heal. They considered I had vocal nodes, polyps, scarring, and even cancer. However, I had simply done the damage myself. I had pushed through the remaining laryngitis that lay in my voice by singing and talking as normal, ignoring the strain and pain that came with it. My vocal chords had started to lean on themselves for support, slowing down the healing process, and adding more issues like a constant clearing of throat and tension in my head, neck, and shoulders. This was an immense learning curve for me. I had been the one to do this damage to my voice, so I was going to be the one to fix it. I took on board everything that the doctors said, which included prescribed stretches twice a day, and no singing.
The summer came and went, I left home and started my first year at University. Old habits die hard, so I found myself joining all of the choirs I could. But, I found that I simply could not keep up with the other vocalists. My range had diminished incredibly, and I could not longer project. I found myself feeling like that bitter eleven year old, upset at everyone around me, but this time, totally helpless. So, I quit. I had, however, joined the Busking Society, and started hiding behind my mandolin. It gave me comfort; I was still involved in the music and song, but without hurting myself. I started to sing along very quietly, so quiet that no-one else could hear. But, as in the way of busking, it’s very hard not to join in. I was singing again, but this time amongst so many other voices, I could just blend in. I didn’t have to push myself, I didn’t have any expectations for myself, and in time, I could expand my range, I could project. My voice was incredibly different now. It was no longer operatic or soaring; if I had any dreams of playing playing Christine in Phantom of the Opera, they were long gone (just to clarify, I never had those dreams). Instead, my voice was much more folky (think Cerys Matthews rather than Catherine Jenkins), and more importantly, safe.
Outside of the Busking Society, I started to sing with my boyfriend, Rory. In our first few months of dating, I realised I had an immense problem. He would sit and play guitar, and I would listen to him sing, so enthralled by his voice. And then, he’d ask if I would join in. It’s then, that the excuses would roll in – ‘oh no, you sound great on your own! My throat is a little sore. I’m too busy. I don’t know the words!’. Each time he’d ask, I would start to cry; it was like a knee-jerk reaction. I’d go red in the face, my eyes would burn, I’d feel sick and I would feel scared. Why? Why could I sing on a busy street surrounded by other people, but not sing in front of the man I love and trust? My mind would cast itself back to that Christmas. I’d think of my voice cracking in conversation. I’d think of those words an out-of-school drama tutor said – ‘can your voice stop doing that thing? That thing where it cracks?”. I had no confidence left in my voice. Surrounded and masked by other people, I could grow and sing, but on my own or a small group, I had never felt fear like it. However, Rory was patient, incredibly so. We would start songs together, I would break down, and he’d hold me as I sobbed, fear taking over. He would humour my stubbornness, and coax out the joy I had for singing. He’d push me and my range to help me grow, he’d teach me to have confidence in my harmonies again. Sat in his tiny bedroom, just him, me and a guitar, I started to find confidence in my voice again.
It’s been nearly five years since I joined the Busking Society whilst at University. In that time, I have sang solos on the streets of Winchester, and performed in Shakespeare plays. I have started writing songs with Rory, and have performed at festivals. I have been leads in shows and musicals, and delivered tens of presentations. My voice has grown to be stronger and more vibrant than ever before. My range has expanded beyond my wildest dreams, and I can sit comfortably as an alto and as a soprano. My voice no longer cracks under pressure or stress or illness. But I am still scared.
I may no longer breakdown when someone I know asks me to sing in front of them, but I still get those feelings. You may know the ones I mean. The drop in the stomach. The dryness of throat. The tight shoulders, and sweaty palms. The rolling of sickness. The butterflies that work their way up into your chest. The heartbeat quickening and quickening and quickening. But, I welcome those feelings. When I feel those reactions before I sing, I know I am focused and ready. It makes me work harder, but without hurting myself. It makes me want to impress others. It makes me know that I am about to do something that I love. It also reminds me of how far I have come, and how far I can still go in the future. I’m thankful for the fear, and all that it has done for me.