I’ve had three singing lessons so far since I moved to London. During the course of these sessions I have discovered the following:
- My posture is dreadful;
- My breath control is also dreadful;
- I do actually have a top range (after a substantial warm-up I can comfortably hit a high E flat – the Queen of the Night sings an eardrum-piercing high F in comparison).
So, once again, I am going through a sort of identity crisis with regards to my singing ‘category’. I was always a soprano; my former childhood duet partner used to accurately say I sounded like a boy chorister. Then, when I went to university, I was suddenly unable to sing above a top A, and this continued until… well, until last Wednesday. A combination of lower stress levels, a desire to get my money’s worth out of my tuition (unlike at university, sorry I was always hungover Elaine) and a substantial kick up the backside from N. M. have completely transformed my vocal tone and range in the space of three hours. I’m really quite pleased with myself, but I know I still have a long way to go in terms of correcting bad habits (habits which are entirely my fault for being complacent).
On Wednesday night, after my lesson, I went to the Leicester Square Theatre to see one of my all-time vocal heroes Audra McDonald in conversation with Seth Rudetsky. I knew what to expect, because I’ve also been fortunate enough to see Seth ‘in conversation with…’ another singing idol of mine, Mandy Gonzalez, when they both came up to French Woods in 2015. It’s a very informal setup, with anecdotes and biographical musings interspersed with songs. Seth hosts a radio show and is au fait with just about every Broadway performer because he’s a cracking pianist and writer and has been around for yonks.
Seeing Audra singing live was worth every penny of my very reasonably priced ticket. The venue was small enough that even from right at the back of the auditorium one felt as if they were involved in every note and word of her performance. When she sings her voice lights up the entire room and every ounce of emotion is transferred to the audience. It was really quite special and something I’ll remember for years to come.
The anecdote that I took a lot of comfort from was the fact that when she auditioned for Juilliard, Audra applied as a mezzo and was quickly shut down by the admissions tutors – “they thought I was such a mess”, she said, to the appreciative crowd of (mostly) middle-aged men. This happened to me too when I auditioned for music college. I won’t mention which ones, because nobody likes a bitter Betty. The reception I got from the panel at each respective entry audition was not pleasant. I didn’t know what voice type I had; they said the songs I had chosen were too high for me. I hadn’t had intensive training to prepare for my sight-reading exercise; I fumbled my words and began to panic when I couldn’t keep up. They looked at me with raised eyebrows like I had just wandered in off the street.
Audra is now in her forties, and sounds better than ever. If I want the kind of longevity in my singing career Audra has had – if not the awards and movie roles, then at least some professional recognition – I can take comfort in the fact that despite being a record-breaking vocal powerhouse, Audra also had a shaky beginning. She didn’t fit in with the largely white, wealthy Juilliard crowd, and had to work extra hard to prove herself. After graduation, she excelled as Bess in ‘Porgy & Bess’ and Sarah in ‘Ragtime’, winning Tony after Tony and breaking records and shattering glass ceilings for women of colour. I’m fairly vocal about being state school educated and tangibly ‘other’ (read: Manx), and try not to link this too heavily to my lack of understanding about how the higher education system in the UK works. You can only blame so much on naivety.
I’m unlikely to audition for music college again any time soon, not least because I enjoy my job in PR and have zero desire to get into even more student debt, particularly as for the next three years I’m still ‘international’. For now, I’ll keep going to my singing lessons and feeling good that at the age of twenty six I can still improve myself – despite what society would have everyone think, I’m not actually ‘past it’ just yet.
PS. Before anyone starts kicking off to the Guild committee and trying to take my mezzo-medals off me, kindly get a grip, and also remember that voices change, particularly through periods of excessive drinking and partying like my early twenties.