I used to love singing as a child. As a small child that is. I used to happily hum away to myself in the back of the car, so much so that if I was quiet my parents tell me they had to turn to look to make sure I was still there! When I got to school I found out (was told!) that I couldn’t sing at all. And as I got older I realised my voice was deeper than most of the other girls, which made me sound different even aside from my out of tune-ness. So in school choir I was given the unglamorous, less tuneful (and therefore more difficult) alto part. Music exams (I played flute) were a total nightmare — standing beside the piano squeaking out my best guess at a third or a fifth above the note given to me, or singing hateful arpeggios. It was torture — for me and my teacher, and no doubt for the examiners too! I really enjoyed the idea of singing still, but in music class the reality was always much less pleasurable. So for several decades after school I left singing alone and deemed it something just not for me.
And then yoga happened. And I ended up with a teacher who seems to share some of my experiences of singing and using one’s voice — and yet he does it anyway. He guides us through asana practice, talking virtually non-stop for 90 minutes at a time, using his voice to energise, reassure, stabilise, educate and amuse us. And he starts and closes class with a short chant with the harmonium. He jokes about his lack of singing skills, but he does this for us anyway. Inspired by this, I’m finding my voice again. I’m re-discovering the pleasure of singing. Or ‘chanting’ as I prefer, since this allows me focus on something other than sounding beautifully harmonic and musical, allows me to keep it simple and begin to rewrite some of the past narratives that feel full of shame and failure. In chanting (not singing!), I have no past history, I’m only discovering it now for the first time. So it can be just as I find it now.
I thought of this personal history of singing recently as I belted out a Greek pop song at full volume in a downtown music club the other night. I’d got tickets for us to see one of our favourite Greek musicians, someone I’d introduced my husband to in our early courtship days so that her music seems the soundtrack to our relationship. I was so excited to be here! And as I sang my heart out through my favourite song, surrounded by the Greek audience all singing enthusiastically too, my husband turned to stare at me a few times in slight surprise. Because I knew all the Greek words? Because I was suddenly unabashed at singing in public? To check how much alcohol I’d drunk…? 🙂 But in this moment I was simply too happy not to sing.
And last night I went to a kirtan I’d stumbled across on Facebook. This time definitely chanting, not singing! It was so wonderful. Shoes off, cushions arranged, we settled down as the musicians tuned up. It was such a warm group of people, relaxed and open, unselfconscious in their participation. A simple, repeating chant in Sanskrit is loads easier than a Greek pop song for me, musically and linguistically(!), so I jumped right in without worrying about anything too much. Some of the chants I knew the words to, some I didn’t, some of the melodies were familiar, some new. But it felt so perfectly right to be there, to have gathered with this group of strangers and be accepted among them, to chant together, to clap wildly, to sway and lean against one another (no British inhibitions about personal space!); some danced, we all laughed. And then we were silent, easy and light together in this moment. A closing prayer and we drifted away into the night…
And the Greek pop song? It was kind of like this: