I do some community singing

March 14, 2015 at 9:35 am | Posted in mental health, music | Leave a comment
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‘It’s all about having fun!’ my teacher said. ‘Not pitch, or timing, or accuracy.’ Then, pointedly: ‘It would be really good for you.’

The previous week, I’d reclined on her figurative couch and rambled on about my musical upbringing, while she tried not to look too shocked. Apparently there’s more to making music than Getting It Right. Some people find it enjoyable! Who knew?

Despite my conviction that rabid anxiety is all that’s holding me together, she insists I need to loosen up. Enjoying singing, it turns out, is not just about hitting that high F on your own in the kitchen, to the freezer’s baritone thrum. It involves OTHER PEOPLE. So there I was in the Town Hall bar, waiting for the Women’s Community Singing Group to show up. Efficient types tried to recruit me to the Arts Festival volunteer posse. I may have agreed. I’m not sure what to.

I’ll admit I was PETRIFIED. There’s a whole lot of community in our town, and it mostly freaks me RIGHT out. While I’ll happily wave at people from the safety of the other side of the square, I feel like an alien interloper among all these people Gaily Mucking In.

There was no time to worry about the strange local customs, though, as we were OFF with the fiendish warmups. Hannah, looking in through the window, was appalled:Screenshot (91)

My kung fu background helped, here: I am no stranger to waving my limbs around and looking a bit daft in public. The verbal exercises were a different story. Try this. Count out loud, singing up and down the scale as you go. One. One two one. One two three two one*. Go up to five, then six, then seven. Quicker. Now replace every ‘three’ with a clap. Now do it in French. The teacher was laughing openly at me by the end.

no parking no music

Notation? Pah!

OK, first song. Four parts. I nipped round to join the basses. Wise decision, as it was an easy part with lots of repetition. It’s all taught by ear, so no music to read; instead, the teacher goes through each part in turn and you’re supposed to remember yours. Then you all sing together. I was smugly confident**, but it was more difficult than I expected, mostly because a) I realised halfway through that I was trying to remember everyone else’s parts as well as mine, and b) it was all in Swahili, FGS.

A cup of tea, and then a different song, with harder words. Happily, my section were mainly going, ‘Hum, bum, KULE!’ Well, I think we were. I’ve done some group singing before, but this was weirder than I remember. Maybe it was the room; I couldn’t hear myself, and I couldn’t really hear anyone else. Singing turned into a leap of faith. (I explained this to the boyf later; he said, darkly, ‘You can hear yourself if you’re doing it wrong.’) Every time I tried to listen to what everyone else was doing, I screwed my bit up. A couple of times, I was so busy watching for the cue I completely forgot to sing at all.

The next day, I tried to teach the boiz ‘Hum, bum, KULE!/ Sha-la, la, la!’ in three parts over breakfast. We got as far as the 6yo going, ‘Hum, BUM! You HUM. Out of your BUM!’ and the two of them collapsing. Boyf [horrified look]: ‘You were doing WORLD MUSIC?’

But it was fun. No, it really was. I had fun. Me, Little Miss Don’t­-Make-Me-Leave-The-House. The basses were a jolly bunch, cracking jokes and making up dance steps and coming in in the wrong places and cackling. People kept introducing themselves to me, even though I forgot all their names instantly out of shock. (I decided just to call everyone Sarah or Cathy.) It was bewilderingly friendly. ‘Are you new? Are you going to come again?’ Yes. And yes. ‘Good!’

* do, do re do, do re mi re do…

** I got 94% on a musical memory test for the Goldsmith’s earworm project. That’s NINETY-FOUR PER CENT. You’re DAMN right I’m proud.

Man! I feel like a… Oh

September 19, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Posted in mental health, music | Leave a comment
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Singing, rather than being merely a delightful thing to do while washing up, continues to be all about excavating mental skeletons. It’s getting a bit irritating. After all that enthusiasm over singing up HIGH (which is totally new to me, and feels terribly STUNT) and LOADS of practice, I develop a searing headache that lasts a week and stops me doing anything other than peering, mole-like, at the kettle for just long enough to make a cup of tea.

I run, trying to visualise my head floating lightly above my shoulders. (In the dappled dusk, this is one of the most cosmic experiences of my life, by the way. I keep expecting unicorns to leap out of bushes.) I sing lying on the floor, noticing when I’m pushing my chin forward and my head up, and trying to stop. The bottom end still sounds fine; the middle of my range sounds better; but my newly-discovered top end is basically gone.

I arrive at my teacher’s house and immediately burst into tears. Her: It’s all right. You have to take a step back sometimes and re-learn something. Me: I know, I know. But, BWAAAA.

gorple pic

Teacher’s house, by that clump of trees. In space, no-one can hear you blub

We reach an agreement. I spend an hour happily splashing around in the octave below middle C. Her: It sounds lovely. I always wanted to be able to sing down there. Let’s do it a bit lower.

And I recognise this. All right, it’s a bit of a theme for me. Ignore the stuff you can already do, the things that feel natural and unforced, in favour of busting a gut trying to do whatever you find difficult. It can’t have any worth if you find it easy, can it?

UoL SU card

London-era me. Definitely NOT compensating with the earrings

But there’s something else going on, too. I’m six feet tall and beanpolesque. I’ve got what women’s magazines euphemistically call strong features, and a laugh like Sid James. I don’t really get why anyone would go to a spa or have a pedicure or get their eyebrows threaded. When I used to cycle around London with cropped hair and a tracksuit on, people called me ‘mate’.

Mostly, I manage to ignore my ineptitude at girliness, or subvert it. Salsa, for example, favours short, cute, curvy chicks. (Oddly, male salsa enthusiasts are rarely over 5’6”.) Standing out got boring, so I learned to lead. It IS fun, and you get a LOT of compliments even if you’re not very good, but sometimes, you know, I just wanted to be whirled around the dancefloor, like a Proper Girl.

Now, I’m googling around, trying to find out what voice type I might be. This post suggests contralto, which sounds like a gorgeous, pulchritudinous thing to be, but all the clips are of women singing around an octave higher than me. This chap sings Dowland at the same pitch as me (though I’ll admit I lack his richness of tone, not to mention his sharpness of suit). And he’s a BARITONE. Gulp.

As someone whose ideal day is spent lying on the carpet with a countertenor cranked up to 11, the irony is not lost on me. Just as some people’s reactions to a countertenor are ‘Ooh no! He sounds like a GIRL!’*, I imagine people listening to me and giggling ‘Eh! You a BLOKE?’ Sigh. I’m not sure I’m ready to be an individual AGAIN.

So, I challenge you. Find me some role models. Ideally, they’ll sing happily right down to the D below middle C. My teacher suggested Nico, though that didn’t end too well, did it. Dagmar Krause (the boyfriend’s idea) is fabulous but decidedly idiosyncratic. That one off the Communards, praps? Help me out. Please. I’ll be girlishly grateful.


* these were @jenlovescycling‘s actual words. Don’t look at me like that.

Why I’m not admitting I have anxiety

September 12, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Posted in mental health | 16 Comments
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This tweet from @wjohngalloway made me smile:

john galloway MH tweet

I love this attitude. Mental health problems are just, well, health problems. We shouldn’t be embarrassed by them, or worried about admitting them.

I wish I felt like this. I really do. But I still find it incredibly tough to admit I’ve got any kind of mental health problem.

My name is Alison, and I am anxious. I don’t have a diagnosis; I don’t have medication; I don’t go to a support group. I just have a kind of free-floating anxiety. Sometimes it’s over something realistic, like the worry that the six-year-old will dash out in front of a car; but generally it’s over something daft. (I lay awake from 2-4 a.m. recently, unable to stop my brain obsessively picking apart everything I’d said in a conversation with someone important, highlighting the bits where I’d made an idiot of myself, and playing Venti, turbini in the background.)

Having fought with it all my life, telling myself I was Just Being Silly, and everyone felt like this, and I just needed to pull my socks up, putting a label to it last year was a massive relief*. But I still hate saying it. It feels like some kind of moral failure.

To go off on a tangent for a sec, there’s a bit of a campaign going at the moment to rehabilitate introversion, and see it as part of life’s rich tapestry, instead of Mr Hyde to extroversion’s Dr Jekyll. Introverts say being an introvert is fine, thanks very much, and all you noisy extroverts should stop expecting everyone to play by your rules. I recognise some traits of introversion in myself, even though I’m the one who’s getting ridiculously overexcited about stuff and trying to make everyone laugh and marching up to people introducing myself. I love people, but they tire me out. I fear crowds. Noisy places make me want to cry. I need a little lie down after the school run. And I’m absentminded, forgetful, because I spend such a lot of time in my own head (mostly lost in daydreams about winning cyclocross races and writing bestsellers and seducing opera singers) that I forget how to interact with actual people.

walshaw reservoir

Hold on. Is that a countertenor down there?

I might be able to learn to live with introversion: to think of it as something that makes me Pale and Interesting, perhaps, or Bookish, which seems like quite a nice thing to be. At any rate, it’s an excellent excuse to never, ever go to Glastonbury. But anxiety? Do I have to accept that’s Just How I Am? Like introversion, there’s not much sign of it going away. And while I might be learning to manage it, this is cold comfort, because it’s SUCH a right royal pain in the arse.

Anxiety’s why I eventually quit my career, after years of vague unhappiness escalated into weeping with fear on the commute every day. I don’t have to go there any more, and I’m a lot happier as a result, but anxiety’s still in my way. It’s why I drag my feet over doing lovely things, like going for bike rides and writing blogposts and ringing up friends. It’s why I cancel things I really, really want to do, with people I really, really like, at the last minute. It’s why I fear committing myself to things, agreeing to stuff, volunteering, putting my hand up.

And, of course, in that greatest of ironies, I’m anxious about my anxiety. How should I manage it? Do I have to force myself to do the stuff I’m scared of, in the hope that it’ll help, in some kind of aversion-therapy way? Or can I get away with just avoiding everything that makes me anxious? Would it be OK never to leave the house again, except maybe to go to the opera?

And, most scary of all, is it going to stop me doing all the things I want to do?

I don’t have any answers to all this, and so it still seems safest just not to tell anyone about it**. Maybe, then, it’ll just go away, and I’ll wake up one day and be FINE.


* I filled out the Anxiety & Depression scale at Occupational Health, thinking ‘I’m just writing normal stuff. I’ll look like I’m malingering. Everyone feels like this.’ The nurse said ‘Well, I’m seeing a lot of anxiety here.’ Ah.

** Apart from the internet, which doesn’t count

Listen. No, shush. Listen*

May 13, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Posted in mental health | 8 Comments
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For Mental Health Awareness Week.

We’re used to having this kind of conversation with friends:

  • Topsy: How are you?
  • Tim: Oh, I don’t know. Not too good, if I’m honest. I just feel worn out.
  • Topsy: Ooh, I know what you mean! I haven’t slept properly for ages.
  • Tim: Mmm. I’m just feeling really down about everything.
  • Topsy: Oh, dear. I know loads of people who are stressed out at the moment.
  • Tim: I think it might be more than just stress.
  • Topsy: It’s hard when your kids are little. Maybe getting out on your bike would help?
  • Tim: I can’t really seem to get motivated to do anything.
  • Topsy: Oh no! Have you been to the doctor?

This is fine, right? Topsy’s making suggestions, giving advice, trying to make Tim feel better. So why does Tim come away from this conversation feeling wretched? He knows Topsy was trying to help, but he feels that his problems were being minimised, that he was being jollied along, that Topsy wasn’t really taking him seriously.

Here’s an alternative.

  • Topsy: How are you?
  • Tim: Oh, I don’t know. Not too good, if I’m honest. I just feel worn out.
  • Topsy: That sounds hard.
  • Tim: Mmm. I’m just feeling really down about everything.
  • Topsy: Oh, dear.
  • Tim: I think it might be more than just stress.
  • Topsy: Oh, really?
  • Tim: I can’t really seem to get motivated to do anything.
  • Topsy: That must be tough.

We fear this kind of conversation because we think: what if I make it worse? What if Tim starts to feel REALLY bad, because I haven’t managed to cheer him up? In fact, the opposite might be true.

Siegfried Neuenhausen Künstlerwand Bertramstraße 1991 Gerd Winner stop-look-listen cautionJust listening to someone is enormously powerful. Giving them all your attention. Putting your own ideas and opinions and concerns to one side, and just listening while they talk. Without:

  • interrupting
  • saying ‘I know what you mean’ (you can’t be sure of this)
  • giving anecdotes from your own life, or those of others you know (this takes the focus away from the person you’re talking to)
  • giving advice
  • making suggestions
  • trying to cheer them up or distract them
  • trying to make them feel their problems aren’t really so bad

It’s hard to do. It’s really hard. We’re not used to it. But it’s worth a try. You won’t make it worse, and you might even help.

* (aka: what I’ve learned from a year of counselling training)

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