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(July 12, 2001, Gazette)

So you’ve always wanted to sing

By Jean Graham
If you have ever met Dr. Valerie Long, you’ll probably understand why I believe she can do just about anything she sets her mind to.

If you’ve ever heard me sing (and very, very few people have), you’ll understand why teaching me to carry a tune is an impossible task.

Rock. Hard place. Devil. Deep blue sea. Hercules. Stables.
Some background: I was thrown out of my classroom choir in Grade 2. In the intervening decades, I’ve become an expert lip syncher. On occasions when I absolutely had to sing (like, say, my children’s birthdays), I’ve developed a kind of “whispering” technique, so as to be drowned out by those who can hold a tune. My youngest still allows me to sing a lullaby, but I think that’s a matter of ritual. Besides, she’s never heard “Golden Slumbers” sung by the Beatles, so she doesn’t know how it’s supposed to sound.

It’s hard growing up in Newfoundland with this kind of burden. Music is everywhere. Campfires, parties, school assemblies – on all kinds of occasions, one is invited to “sing along.” Or “mouth along” as the case may be. In a few instances, I’ve yielded to the joy of the moment and sung out loud, figuring on being drowned out by a crowd. I’m still quite capable of drawing sidelong glances, and go back to my mouthing and whispering.

It’s a problem. It’s a problem made worse by the fact that I love to sing. Catch me zooming down the highway sometime. I’m the one with the windows rolled up tight, and belting out “Born to be Wild.”

So a workshop series called So You’ve Always Wanted to Sing sounds like it was made for me. I have always wanted to sing, after all, or at least to sing without offending those around me.
I’d like to say I signed up at the first opportunity, but that’s not quite true. I saw the program advertised some years ago, but found other commitments that held me away. When I found out it was to be part of Festival 500 (and led by the she-can-do-anything Valerie Long), I steeled myself to sign up. Filled out the online registration form. Somehow managed to “forget” to submit it. Phoned Valerie four days before the first day, confident that the course was full.

It wasn’t.

Registered over the phone, and picked up tickets and such the next day. While at the participant centre, I met a couple of other women who planned to take part. They look very relaxed.
“Aren’t you scared to death?” I say, hoping for some kindred spirithood to start.

They aren’t.

A chance encounter with Doug Dunsmore in the elevator reassures me somewhat. I won’t have to do any solo singing, he says. And everybody can sing. “Well, unless there’s an anatomical reason,” he adds. “And that’s something like one in eight gazillion.”

I feel special, somehow.

Day 1 (Monday): We’re to arrive early to pick up our music books. I procrastinate with household chores for as long as is feasible, and get to the Music Building just a few minutes late. Plenty of time to pick up the book and casually stroll around the lobby, admiring the works of this year’s Grenfell College Visual Arts graduating class.

In the Hutton Choral Room, there are 65 to 70 people waiting for the workshop to start. We’re of all ages, from all backgrounds, eying each other a little nervously. We fill out the forms we’re given. “What is your past experience with singing?” “How does music make you feel good?” Some of us converse, comparing past singing horror stories. The ice starts to crack, and shatters completely with two crashing piano chords from Valerie Long.

She’s non-stop action — playing, singing, telling stories, and reassuring us. Everyone can sing. This week, we’re going to learn about some of the most common reasons we think (or are told) we can’t sing.

Today we touch on posture and breathing. We pant like dogs, which actually looks fairly silly, but Valerie has done something with our normal inhibitions.

We do vocal exercises — how high can we sing? How low? We’re discovering our vocal ranges, and learn that there are actually songs we can’t sing — at least the way they’re written. We can sing them lower or higher, but everyone has physical limitations as to what notes they can reach. “Edelweiss” points out some of the pitfalls.

Day 2 (Tuesday): Today is the first day I’ve had to leave work to go to my workshop. Some people are somewhat bemused at the idea of a life without singing. Others say, “Oh, I wish I could do that!” Strangely, there seem to be more of the latter than the former. Are there that many of us who believe we can’t sing?

We’re divided into four groups, roughly along our vocal ranges and gender. I stand with the other women more comfortable with low notes. More songs. More exercises. More of Valerie’s inspirational entertainment. We learn some harmonies. We learn the difference between “chest voice” and “head voice.” We learn to stand up straight (but not stiff!) and open our mouths wide. Interestingly, we actually sound better when we’re not mumbling.

“There’s a physical feeling you get when you’re singing in tune,” says Valerie. “Listen to the people on either side of you.”
She tells us we sound fine. Her trained ear could pick up one bad voice even in a crowd this size, so unless someone is still lip-synching, we’re doing great.

I have to leave before the workshop is over, to pick up my daughter from Guide Camp. As I drive (with the windows rolled up, of course), I practice arpeggios.

Day 3 (Thursday): After a one day break, we’re gathered with anticipation. We talk like old friends about the revelations of the week. We sing a round, we sing some songs with two parts. With the occasional reminder about posture and breathing, we do just fine.

This despite the presence of CBC reporters who have decided, I suppose, to check out the crows gathered amidst the nightingales of Festival 500. They’re not too obtrusive, and we soon forget they are there. Valerie advises those who do not wish to be caught on camera (at least one of us, we discover, is pipping off work) to move to the extreme right of the group.

When the camera operator refers to us as “the choir,” we all laugh aloud.

Today I discover Valerie is right — there is a physical feeling to singing along with a group. It’s similar to the feeling of singing along with the CD player, but much more satisfying. I am noticing some really nice voices in our six dozen people.

Day 4 (Friday): It’s our last day together as a group. We aren’t a choir, of course, but we’ve shared something really special this week. We sing more songs, each with its own challenge: “Over the Rainbow,”“The Erie Canal,” “A Great Big Sea Hove in Long Beach.”

We’re sounding good. Feeling good. The joy of discovery is reflected on every face in the room. “Rock Around the Clock,” which we sing grouped around the piano, turns into a jam. We don’t know most of the words, but that’s okay.

A sheet circulates the room, as we record our contact information. Maybe we’ll get together again. Valerie is presented with flowers on behalf of the group. She starts to mist up a little, but tells us that she is at least as happy as we are to have been part of the workshop. The experience has brought some things back to her — happy memories, mostly, but also it’s been a reminder of why music is important.
We sing “Auld Lang Syne” and “The Ode to Newfoundland,” which has ended each class. We go out to lead our individual lives again, most of us at least carrying a new confidence.

Two days later (Sunday): I’m spending a long weekend at Northern Bay Sands with my kids. We have a campfire and my oldest, Girl Guide that she is, starts a singalong. I join in totally unselfconsciously, even teaching them a harmony part to “Jack was Every Inch a Sailor.” My six-year-old gives me a long, serious look, and says, “Mommy, you do sing better than you used to.”

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