Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Day The Music Died: 13 Years Of Silence

The Brownies are practising for the carol service. I am eight and I am in heaven. I LOVE singing. I sing with my granny in the choir. I sing for anyone who will ask me. I sing to my dolls. When I’m not reading or writing, I’m singing. I sing confidently and loudly, as I speak. Today it’s the carol that goes We will rock you, rock you, rock you… which I consider exquisite. I am giving it everything in the back row. Little Jesus sweetly…Brown Owl comes along to listen; I can feel her behind me and I sing even more strongly. I’m not one of those wimpy Brownies who mumbles and blushes and has to be told to sing up! Brown Owl places her hand on my shoulder. ‘Just you stop singing and mouth the words for now,’ she says.


The words scramble in my throat. Tears well behind my eyes and I tilt my chin up so they can’t fall. I don’t mouth the words. I keep my lips tight shut. 

 For thirteen years.

Oh, I talk. I’m a leading light of the school debating society and often told off for chatting in class. But don’t ask me to sing. Don’t ask me to humiliate myself. In P5, aged nine, in singing class, we all have to sing a phrase alone. I remember the phrase now: Hop-sa-la-tra-la-la-la-la. Mrs Reid is very strict. She can’t believe it when I seal my lips and refuse to sing. I have to write fifty lines: When I am told to sing, I will sing. But she can’t make me sing.

In Form One at grammar school, we have choral singing classes. Mrs O’Callaghan is merry and enthusiastic and there are many of us, so I let myself sing, just quietly, so she won’t notice me. She goes around the class listening, as Brown Owl did. She stops behind me. ‘Would you like to join the Junior Choir?’ she asks.
chatty but not singy 

I shudder. She can’t have been listening! She must be so desperate for choir members that she is prepared to overlook the fact that I can’t sing. I shake my head. ‘I’m not really interested,’ I say.

This is a Lie. I would LOVE to be in the choir. But how can I take the risk?

I am always chosen to read one of the Nine Lessons at the school carol services. I am proud of this, but jealous of the girls in the choir. 

I go to university. I audition for a part in Oh! What A Lovely War! The director reassures me I’ll never have to sing alone. One rehearsal we get to the solo ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’. I love this song; I sing it in the bath when I am sure nobody is listening. Nobody at the rehearsal is quite sure of it. ‘I’ll show you,’ I say. I’m 21 now, and feeling brave. I open my mouth and sing. All the notes fall into place, even the high ones. Nobody laughs or winces. ‘Would you mind taking that solo?’ the director asks. Like this is not a Big Deal.
‘Me? I can’t really sing!’
the play that changed it 

 ‘Says who?’

‘Um – Brown Owl? When I was eight?’

‘Well, you can certainly sing now.’

And I can. I learn some folk songs. Actually, I don’t need to learn them – I have always loved these songs. But I start to think of actually singing them. Out loud. In front of people. I go to the folk club. I sing. People clap. I go to other folk clubs. I learn more songs. People always clap.

Performing with Melanie
I come home. I enter singing competitions. Sometimes I win. I sing in bands, in folk clubs and bars. I find a friend, Melanie, whose voice blends well with mine, and we do a lot of singing together. I sing at weddings and funerals. I sing the solo in the choir at Midnight Mass. Singing is My Thing. It was always meant to be.

I stopped singing for thirteen years, but I’ve been making up for it ever since. And now, for the first time, I’ve written about singing in my new novel Street Song. It’s dedicated to ‘everyone I’ve sung and made music with over the years, but especially Melanie Stone, who still remembers all the harmonies.’

What did Brown Owl hear, that day in 1976? Was I out of tune? It seems unlikely now. Maybe I was just a bit loud, a bit over-confident, and she wanted to hear the quieter girls. I wish she’d said that. As for Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, it’s now my least favourite carol.


Helen Larder said...

Lovely! My daughter had a Brown Owl like that. She told Hayden that her drawing would only be put on the wall if she went to the church parade. She left the brownies and wrote a complaint! Some people just don't like us to show our joy and talents. That's their problem. Keep singing! xxxx

Joan Lennon said...

I HATE that Brownie woman. And all of her ilk. Please put her in a book and give her a very sticky end. But I'm so glad you're singing now. (We'll ignore the fact that I first typed that as sinning ...)

Penny Dolan said...

I've heard your lovely voice and songs, Sheena, and am very glad you started singing again. It's so easy to dent a child's confidence in their own voice, whether talking, singing or writing - and all good wishes for your STREET SONG book.

Lynne Benton said...

Hear hear - that Brown Owl must have been tone-deaf! You have a lovely voice, Sheena, and this should be a salutary lesson to all teachers not to blight children's lives with such inane criticisms. Go girl!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Oh, I'm glad that real story had a happy ending! I want to read that book.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks everyone!

catdownunder said...

"Cat is not musical. She can't sing in tune." I'd be rich if I had 1p for every time I heard that. It's the sort of thing that does children untold harm. (No, I can't sing in tune - but I am musical.)

samia hussain said...

nice post

Stroppy Author said...

I hope Brown Owl reads this and is duly ashamed. People do untold harm to children with thoughtless words. I'm sorry for your lost 13 years, but so glad you have your voice again! xx