In the words of Barry White, ‘I love to sing the songs I sing’.
I don’t come from a musical family, and we tend towards the tone deaf end of the spectrum when it comes to singing. Apparently as a baby, my dad used to bounce me up and down on his knee, whilst singing ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ or ‘Blaydon Races’, and I inevitably cried until he stopped. I don’t remember that, but I do have memories of small children turning round to try and identify the location of the cat that was being strangled, and smirking as he sang hymns with relish at Sunday mass, oblivious to the audience – or the music.
My mum, who never knew the words or the tune, was no better, as she half hummed, half la la’d along to songs on the radio. Her uncle Ulleac though was a renowned singer, and could belt out renditions of ‘Danny Boy’, ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ or ‘The fields of Athenry, at Christmas, christenings or funerals, until all vestiges of sentiment had been wrung out, and not a dry eye remained. It wasn’t that he’d inherited the family’s only musical gene, rather he was one of the group of unrelated people who qualified as aunts and uncles, just because they happened to live on the same street.
The night before musical instruments were due to be allocated at primary school, I crossed my fingers and prayed to St Cecelia, the patron saint of musicians, that I’d be allowed to play the violin. St Cecelia didn’t come up trumps, but I was still excited rushing home that day to tell my mum I’d been chosen to play the triangle – a ‘very special, very important responsibility’ according to Sister Hyacinthia, who had probably noted my crestfallen face. My best friend Geraldine got a violin to play. I tried not to be envious.
We moved up to grammar school together and auditioned for the school choir. The chosen song was ‘Early One Morning’, a piece of music not known for its appeal to eleven year old girls. Mr Devlin, his black beard barely covering a huge birthmark, played the introduction on the piano, and Geraldine’s voice soared, she was the young maiden singing in the valley – even if the school was on a hill. She was definitely in the choir. I stepped eagerly up to the piano, but even I realised I had some difficulty with the high notes – and the low ones – and I remember Mr Devlin smiled as I came to a faltering close. He said there had been a lot of pupils wanting to join the choir but I would be on a sort of waiting list, that meant I could attend lunchtime practices – but only if it was raining. I didn’t really understand the logic but my mum and dad did.
If you are tonally disabled you rarely get a chance to sing out loud. Singing solo in the shower or the car doesn’t really count, it’s the singing with others that makes it special. So, over the years, I’ve generally kept my voice and head down, not wanting to draw attention to my lack of skill. Of course, there have been occasions, usually after nights of too much alcohol, when I’ve given it my all, joined enthusiastically in group renditions of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Climbed every Mountain’ dressed as a nun at Sing-a-long-a-Sound of Music. I have watched Gareth Malone coax reluctant participants into uplifting choirs on TV, envying the visible growth of camaraderie and confidence, but never thinking that could be me.
Not me that is, until I discovered and joined The Tuneless Choir, a growing movement of choirs for people who can’t, or think they can’t sing. Who sing for the joy and health benefits of ‘singing like no one is listening’, and laugh when things go wrong – as they so often do. We sing our hearts out from Abba to Wham, by way of Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Queen. My choir might not have learnt the complexities of Handel’s Messiah or Verdi’s Requiem, but we smile more and have sung ‘Downtown’ outside the Royal Festival Hall and the Sage, inspiring strangers to dance together in the street.
So up yours St Cecelia, Mr Devlin, Geraldine and all the others, Tuneless Bridget sings in a choir.
Bridget Cuthbertson is a member of Newcastle upon Tyne Tuneless Choir.
If you’d like to share your own Tuneless Tale then email it to us at TunelessHQ@tunelesschoir.com