Just after Christmas last year my community choir began practising songs for this year’s summer concert. My father-in-law had died in October of that year and, when alive, had sometimes threatened to come back and haunt me; usually when I was in a particularly argumentative mood, something in the order of my capacity to argue that the colour black is, in fact, white, until you go blue in the face.
The father-in-law was a fan of spiritualist meetings and we used to have heated discussions about the subject which, now that’s he’s expired, I sort of regret……what’s wrong with clinging on to the hope of a perfect after-life (and being reunited with your wife) whilst you bumble about clueless in this below par one?
Three years before he died I made a 90th birthday album for him. I had the idea to do this just two weeks before the big event and spent every day, all day, frantically working on it; burning the candle at both ends like some loopy Victorian poet in an attic. The album was just a cheap book from Smiths with a metal ring binding. I stuck a picture of an old man on the front (from a greeting card) sitting on a boat, by the edge of the sea, because the father-in-law had led a seafaring life. But, inside, the book began with the father-in-law’s birth, followed by black and white photos of he and his wife in their prime – the father-in-law looking like a movie star (almost a dead ringer for a young Gene Kelly) even if the photos also show his rapidly balding head.
For each stage of his life I found a pertinent poem on the internet, added my own little illustrations and sourced appropriate ancient family photos. In the ‘young love’ section I copied out an ancient native American poem called the Shoshone Love Song (source: Wind River Reservation, the Shoshone nation) in honour of his wife. As you can imagine, ancient native American poems are not exactly prevalent in British society. Here is my page from the father-in-law’s book:
The father-in-law was much taken with this little record of his life and always kept it by the side of his chair, so he could dip into it now and again. It remained at the side of his chair when he went into a nursing home and now it’s back in my safekeeping.
Three years and 10 months later, since the creation of that album (and two months after the father-in-law’s death) I was sitting in the choir’s rehearsal hall going through the new batch of music we’d all been given for the summer concert. I flipped rapidly through choral books entitled ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ ‘You are the Sunshine of my Life,’ ‘Sheep may safely Graze,’ ‘Habanera,’ and a Beatles medley, before a single piece of sheet music fell from the folder, with the title: Shoshone Love Song. Having completely forgotten the title of the poem I’d written (very neatly in black ink) into the father-in-law’s birthday book over three years ago, the sheet music passed me by and I was onto the next one.
Rehearsal began and our leader, C, instructed that we get out the new piece called Shoshone Love Song. I pulled it out and the pianist started picking out a lovely melody. I sight read along, murmuring the words ‘Fair is the white star of twilight,’ before stopping in my tracks. ‘I know this,’ I thought, but where did I know it from? And suddenly the birthday book and the poem came flooding back and I had the strangest, indescribable sensation, along with disbelief that, somehow, the obscure poem I’d given to my father-in-law had found its way into my local choir’s concert programme.
Thereafter, every time we sang the haunting, lyrical Shoshone Love Song at rehearsal, I inevitably thought of the father-in-law. So he found a way to come back, and that’s not a bad way to haunt somebody is it?
The Shoshone Love Song opened our concert last Monday 9th July (a date etched in my brain.) But I was far too flustered, nervous and distracted to think of the father-in-law. Even if his ghost had appeared at my side saying: ‘you should be on the stage you should’ (something he’d say the few times I sang or played the piano in his presence) I’d have taken no notice and besides, this time, I was on a stage.
The church hall was stifling, even with every window open to one side (the other side enclosed in the building) and many electric fans whirring away, strategically placed amongst the choristers and audience. My regimen white blouse was sticking to my back and we hadn’t even started. How was I going to ‘give’ my Never Enough when the heat was sapping my energy and causing my forehead to break out in beads of sweat?
My solo was the sixth item on the programme. Therefore I mimed my way through the five songs that came before it, to save my Voice. Suddenly everything was about THE VOICE. For I had been stricken by Diva-like anxieties, the likes of which Adele, Beyonce et al are probably intimately familiar with. I had spent my solo day avoiding dairy, chocolate, ice cold drinks, meat, bread…..the list was endless. For the YouTube vocal coaches had commanded that I eat nothing which could cause phlegm, or constrict my throat, or bung my nose up. They’d also instructed that I vibrate my lips together whilst humming a scale and that I turn my neck from side to side to loosen the muscles. I tried all this for about 5 minutes before simply lying on my bed for most of the day, in a strange apathetic stupor, trying to stave off the inevitable by escaping into oblivion. A state only interrupted by the eating of a muller rice pot (I forgot to avoid dairy) and occasional trips to the loo.
Three hours before the solo I ate an egg on toast. Google had instructed that I not eat less than 3 hours before the performance, to allow the digestive process to be completed, otherwise I ran the risk of all kinds of gastric distress. I’m the sort of person for whom nerves plays havoc with the digestive system, whether I eat or not, so I reasoned that it was better to get something down my neck rather than go ahead and run on empty.
Four songs in and my heart was pounding. Would I join Mortimer and Whitehouse in their middle-aged heart disease club? The size 14 black skirt I’d bought (£10 on offer) due to the sweltering heat was digging into my waist like a vicious animal trap (there was no size 16 left in M&S, so I’d had to make do.) Seated on stage, I began to get abdominal pain and continually pulled at the skirt’s waist band, thinking that was the cause of the pain. I fanned myself desperately with a piece of sheet music. I began to swallow convulsively. My breathing became erratic. The fifth song began and I gave up even the pretence of miming, instead staring straight ahead like a crazed choral zombie caught in the headlights.
What was the matter with me? This wasn’t life or death. This was actually unimportant in the oh so grand scheme of things. The fifth song ended and I suddenly felt sick. For the first time in my life I experienced a sudden wave of nausea. Was there time to grope my way past my row of choristers and rush off stage to hurl up in the loo? But then I was magically rising from my seat, like an out of body experience; like I was no longer in control.
With no idea how I’d got there, I was suddenly standing at the front of the stage and C was handing me a microphone. I looked up and far away the sound man was motioning to me with a thumbs up. I nodded calmly. Inside there was a fierce battle of wills going on, between me and my nerves. The sound man had signalled that my solo was about to begin but the part of me that runs on instinct was in fight or flight mode, and ‘take off’ was looking like much the better option. I wasn’t ready. The heat was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe. Why was this happening? Why had I agreed to do this?
Suddenly my backing track came on. It wasn’t loud enough. I motioned to the sound man to increase the volume. Somehow I was still in control. And I began to sing.
I conquered the nerves (in that I didn’t collapse on the spot.) I didn’t forget the words; that had been a major worry (other soloists solved this issue by using sheet music.) I didn’t close my eyes (except on the high notes.) I didn’t grip the mic like a maniac. My voice did vibrate with nerves. Some of the top notes came out flat. At times a note would drift into nothingness, as I nervously lacked the control to hold it. It was passable but it wasn’t good. It certainly wasn’t the version I’d practised at home, or the one I’d ‘given’ at the last rehearsal. I know this because the husband filmed it on an iPad, and it turns out there’s nothing worse than watching and hearing yourself performing whilst straitjacketed by nerves. Son no.3 also filmed it on his phone, instructed at the last minute by the husband in case he mucked his recording up. (On the way home son no.3 asked if I’d noticed the young girl sitting next to him, copying my movements, pretending to hold a microphone and miming along in great enjoyment.)
After giving my Never Enough, I climbed back to my seat, my hands trembling uncontrollably. A choral friend grabbed them and said: ‘It’s over, you can relax now!’ And suddenly my size 14 skirt felt like a perfect fit. The abdominal pain disappeared. My heart was no longer lodged in my throat, but beating steadily and quietly just where it should be. I smiled at the husband and son no.3, who were sitting at the back of the hall.
And we were on to the rest of the programme, which I joined in with absolute gusto. Nobody in that church hall could have felt more gustier than I. No more miming for me. I could now let rip with glee.
As we left the concert various people came up to me and made very nice, complimentary noises about my solo. I almost believed their praise; especially the man who came up, lay his hand on my arm and said I’d brought tears to his eyes – he seemed so sincere. And the young woman, who appeared from nowhere demanding to know if my song was from The Greatest Showman? She’d not seen the film but now she must see it. She was a singing teacher; my nerves had been obvious but I had such natural tone, all the while hugging herself and intermittently crying ‘oh, I felt so emotional!’ And a young man from choir who accosted me in the foyer, saying ever since he’d heard me first sing the song he’d been playing the film version on a loop; that I’d introduced him to a song and film he’d previously not heard of. But, after seeing the dreaded iPad recording, I now believe they were all suffering from some sort of kindly delusion.
The following morning I emailed our leader, C, to thank him for giving me an opportunity to be one of the soloists in the summer concert. I told him the husband had filmed it, so I could send it to all my family up north (who, no doubt, had put their lives on hold until the moment they could run their peepers over their daughter’s/sister’s/aunt’s stunning solo.) I apologised for not being very good.
A reply came whizzing through the email ether an hour later, stating that C was so glad I’d still performed, despite the surprising problem of one chorister’s unexpected negative criticism, and that he hopes I will do another solo soon. That scenario is highly unlikely, being there are only two concerts a year and C appears to have forgotten that he had introduced a new, unwritten choir rule stating that people who have done a solo once shouldn’t be chosen again.
Was performing a solo worth the self-inflicted terror, I hear you cry across the internet ether. I think it was. I’m glad I auditioned, and that I went through with it. If nothing else it got me conversing with committee members and choral members I’d previously never said a word to (and likewise.) At least they now know my name and that I exist. J, the young apprentice, paid a visit to our home a couple of days before the concert, to give me some useful singing tips and was astonished to learn that I’d been in the choir for three years. He was under the impression I’d recently joined……so much for the choir’s new policy to be more inclusive and friendly.
And now that it’s over, at least that damned song will hopefully stop reverberating around inside my head.