The Times – December 20 2003
– Ginny Dougary

One of the joys of Christmas is the chance to belt out a carol or two. Our correspondent took singing lessons and was transformed from a tuneless novice into a proud, if not perfect, chorister

These are the snatches of songs that I remember my parents singing; some from my childhood, some from much later on. My father would hoist me on to his shoulders, before he became crouched with arthritis, and croon: “A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go, we’ll catch a fox and put him in a box and never let him go.” In the bath, he would hiss a “hot” song when the water was scalding and warble a “cold ” song, with shiver-me-timbers side-effects when it was tepid.
My mother would sway from side to side, her lips pursed in a swooning, romantic pose: “Two lovely black eyes, oh what a surprise . . .” And (making her voice deep and booming) she would sing: “Drink to me only wi-ith thine eye-eyes and I-eye will drink to thee” and, much earlier, the lullaby that her mother sang to her and that I, in turn, would sing to my own children: “Go to sleep my baby, close your little eyes, angels come to greet you, looking at you, darling, from the skies./ If they catch you peeping, o’er their silvery beam, they will tell their darling (substitute name) to go to sleep now.”

At the end of her funeral, four years ago, the elderly congregation was doubtless startled by a raucous, joyful blast of Glenn Miller’s biggest hit. I chose to play it because that’s how I felt my glamorous mother should be remembered — kicking up her heels, sashaying around the room as she sang her own words to her favourite song, “In the mood, da-dah-dee-da-dahhh . . .”

Songs, perhaps even more than music, are a direct heartline to memory. There is something so evocative about the resummoning of someone you love who has died, the aural equivalent of one’s inner-eye replaying precisely the way they would swoop around a note, and poignant, too, because those of us who love to sing tend to agree that, in the act of doing so, we never feel more truly alive.

Although I can remember my parents singing, I have no memories of particularly enjoying singing myself as a child. Like most adults and children, I didn’t mind yodelling away at the old Christmas numbers “Glor-or-or-or-or-or-or . . .” etc, although all that snow-on-snow imagery didn’t really work as I was brought up in the heat and dust of an Arabian desert.

At my boarding school in England, I learnt the words to Jerusalem and I Vow To Thee My Country and Dear Lord and Father of Mankind (heartbreaking then, even as an innocent from grief; almost impossible to sing now) and played around with the descant on O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Come All Ye Faithful — but I was never in the choir; nor was I really cut out to be one, in most respects.

Although I’ve always sung with old friends, given half an opportunity, and sometimes new ones — singing, like death, is not only a great leveller, it can also bring people together — it was only a couple of years ago that I started taking lessons and joined a choir.

I was away from home for three-and-a-half months, attempting to complete a novel. On my own, severed from my family and friends, I decided that it would be healthy to give myself some sort of hobby so that I wouldn’t go crazy pounding away at the keyboard in isolation. On my second weekend, I enrolled on a vocal workshop and found it exposing, challenging, exciting, liberating. It was also exhausting, since controlling your breathing is key to improving your singing technique and I was still recovering from a bout of pneumonia.

In my group, there was a cross-dressing couple of TV executives, a mega-successful thirtysomething producer of musicals, a lovely retired schoolteacher, who took me under her wing, and a retired lawyer. There was also a woman in her late fifties who had, incredibly, never sung before. There were no snatches of remembered songs for her, since she grew up as an only child in a house wreathed in sadness and silence, her mother afflicted with a nervous condition that had rendered her mute. But, by the third day, the woman’s quaking voice already sounded stronger and richer and, most striking of all, this reclaiming of a missing part of herself seemed to transform her even on the outside, so that now, standing tall and proud, she had actually grown in confidence.

The next week, I experienced my own transformation when I joined a non-denominational choir. For those who have not had the pleasure, it is hard to convey how thrilling it is to hear the vibration of your voice in the tumultuous swell of four different parts singing in harmony. It’s like falling in love, eating the most delicious chocolate, catching the perfect wave. And, as I soon discovered, singing can become addictive.

Three years on, I am still singing and have joined two choirs, directed by the inspirational MJ — a vocal powerhouse in Brighton, with residencies at the Ebony Room, the Joogleberry Playhouse and the Sussex Arts Club.

I’ve also become something of an evangelist for the voice, having now thrown a couple of singing parties — and discovered that there are an amazing number of musical people in my circle of friends. This year, my husband played the trumpet and sang — both for the first time in public. And it was lovely to hear so many different parents playing the guitar or piano, as their daughters performed songs by Norah Jones, Christina Aguilera, Bonnie Rait. My sixteen-year-old son Tom — the serious musician in our family — accompanied me on the piano, while I sang My Funny Valentine, and our old friend Tim played the sax. Man, did we swing.

So, do I sing like an angel? No. But the beauty of taking something up in your middle-youth is that it comes with the freedom of knowing that your ambitions can be very limited indeed. In my case, all I want is to get to the stage where I can sing a whole song as sweetly and steadily as I can now manage to sing parts of one. Even my sons, who used to clap their hands over their ears when I struck up, admit that I have improved. I still tend to retreat into a high, little girl’s voice when I have the build to sing like Alison Moyet. And I still find it incredibly challenging to get all the different parts of singing together — holding a note for long enough, giving that note texture and character so it sounds pleasing, performing the song to bring out the meaning of the words. All of this on top of merely holding the tune . . .

What I find quite difficult to deal with are those people who clearly get a kick out of saying they hate singing. To me, that’s like boasting that you don’t have an appetite for food or sex or love. I would go further. To be anti-singing is to be anti-life. But then you only have to scratch the surface of the killjoy and you’ll find that a wife or (more rarely) a husband, has mocked them for their “terrible voice” whenever they have dared to sing.

To the mockers, I would say you are being undermining in ways that you can’t imagine. A person’s voice, after all, is an integral part of them. Being told that what comes out of your mouth is ugly is a pretty offensive insult, and far more personal than saying someone is a crap artist or writer.

So next time you’re tempted to scoff, find your loved one a brilliant singing teacher, such as MJ, and get them to work on improving their voice. Even better, if you think you are such a maestro or diva yourself, why not sign up for a course at the same time? Incidentally, my correct name is Ginette after an apparently celebrated French chanteuse to whom my father was partial. While he was alive, I never got round to asking him more about her, and now that I’m so keen on singing myself, it’s too late. But, thank goodness, it’s never too late to sing.

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For information about voice lessons, vocal workshops, the Spectrum chorus in Epsom or the newly formed Brighton City Singers, contact MJ on 01273 202562 or The Brighton City Singers will be performing the premiere of MJ’s choral work Listen, as part of next year’s Brighton Festival, as well as The Cuckoo Sings by the choir member and composer David Ingledew, on May 22 at St George’s Church, Kemptown.