youve always wanted to sing
If you have ever met Dr. Valerie Long, youll probably understand
why I believe she can do just about anything she sets her mind
If youve ever heard me sing (and very, very few people
have), youll 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, Ive become an expert lip
syncher. On occasions when I absolutely had to sing (like, say,
my childrens birthdays), Ive 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 thats a matter of ritual. Besides,
shes never heard Golden Slumbers sung by the
Beatles, so she doesnt know how its supposed to sound.
Its 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,
Ive yielded to the joy of the moment and sung out loud,
figuring on being drowned out by a crowd. Im still quite
capable of drawing sidelong glances, and go back to my mouthing
Its a problem. Its a problem made worse by the fact
that I love to sing. Catch me zooming down the highway sometime.
Im the one with the windows rolled up tight, and belting
out Born to be Wild.
So a workshop series called So Youve 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
Id like to say I signed up at the first opportunity, but
thats 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.
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.
Arent you scared to death? I say, hoping for
some kindred spirithood to start.
A chance encounter with Doug Dunsmore in the elevator reassures
me somewhat. I wont have to do any solo singing, he says.
And everybody can sing. Well, unless theres an anatomical
reason, he adds. And thats something like one
in eight gazillion.
I feel special, somehow.
Day 1 (Monday): Were 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 years Grenfell College
Visual Arts graduating class.
In the Hutton Choral Room, there are 65 to 70 people waiting
for the workshop to start. Were of all ages, from all backgrounds,
eying each other a little nervously. We fill out the forms were
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
Shes non-stop action playing, singing, telling stories,
and reassuring us. Everyone can sing. This week, were going
to learn about some of the most common reasons we think (or are
told) we cant 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? Were
discovering our vocal ranges, and learn that there are actually
songs we cant sing at least the way theyre
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 Ive 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 cant sing?
Were 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 Valeries
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 were not mumbling.
Theres a physical feeling you get when youre
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, were 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, were 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. Theyre 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. Its 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): Its our last day together as a group. We
arent a choir, of course, but weve 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.
Were 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 dont know most of the words, but thats
A sheet circulates the room, as we record our contact information.
Maybe well 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 its
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): Im 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.