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Eight or nine years ago, my son announced he wanted to use his birthday money to buy a ukulele. This was something of a surprise to me, as we’d never exposed him to the films of George Formby nor to any music not from my extensive collection or 90s indie rock. His school had started a ukulele club, and he wanted to join. We bought one. I helped him out tuning it, and strummed a few chords. “This is fun,” I thought to myself, and ordered myself a cheap uke (this is how ukuleles spread, like a cheerful disease). I found a local pub jam, Ukejam, where I would take him for the first half (it was always on a school night, so we had to get home early). Ukejam is a large amount of people sitting in a pub, strumming ukuleles and singing to popular songs. I would sit there mouthing the words.
“Why don’t you sing, mum?”
“No one wants to hear me sing,” I told him.
Last Thursday, I drove with a friend to a pub in south London, and sang. On my own. With people listening. It’s not the first time I’ve done that, but it’s been the first time I’ve felt truly comfortable doing so. This is the story of how I found my voice.
Song has always been a part of my life. Like many things, I didn’t realise this until it wasn’t. As a young child, the world is full of song. When you are 5, the wheels on the bus go round and round whether or not your pitch is perfect. At junior school (for ages 7 to 11) song was a huge part of the school day. We were a Church of England state school, in industrial West Yorkshire, run by a Methodist headmaster (Methodist churches are renowned for their singing). Most state schools in the UK are required to have a daily act of worship “of a broadly Christian nature.” In our school this was singing hymns. After assembly, we would have hymn practise, which was yet more hymns. We’d sing the school song (a rousing march full of weaving metaphors), and on Commonwealth Day we’d sing God Save the Queen. On Sundays, I went to Sunday School (I was then still a child of a broadly Christian nature) where we’d sing some more. I formed a little band with a friend and both our little sisters. We would write (in retrospect quite complex, if derivative) songs around my friend’s Casio keyboard, even though none of us would have known a chord progression if it bought us an ice cream.
Children have the enviable ability to enjoy things, regardless of how good they are at them. The fall from this grace comes when someone (usually a grown-up) starts to measure ability. And so it was for me. One of the teachers formed a choir, entered a competition, and had auditions. I was 5th reserve, or more accurately, literally the worst child to try out. It would take a miracle for me to get to the choir competition.
The week of the competition food poisoning swept the school. I would be going on the school bus to the competition!
If this were a TV movie, I’d have sung like an angel, and we’d have won the competition, and this would be the end of the article. Luckily for my word count, life doesn’t happen like that. We were rubbish. Really bad. The other choirs were from private (paid for) schools, turned out immaculately in crisp, expensive uniform. At the time, most state junior schools didn’t have uniforms and ours were no exception, so we wore whatever each individual child’s mum thought was appropriate. We looked rag-tag and we sounded it too. Our teacher ushered us back to the bus before the results were announced; she’d probably had the driver keep the engine running. I had found out that some people are good at singing, and I wasn’t one of them.
I left junior school and God behind me and found a new place for my voice. Elland Road, home of Leeds United Football Club. I love soccer, I love the game, the crackle of potential violence in the air on a match day, the camaraderie with 35,000 other people all stuffed into a chilly stadium. But I also loved the singing. English soccer has a long tradition of terrace chants. Back in the 90s, before Twitter and club-led jollity, the way to start a chant was to think some words up, put them to an existing tune, and belt it out in a quiet moment of the match with enough confidence that others would pick it up. I was late enough in football’s career to miss the awful racism of the 80s, and while there’s a few things I’m not proud of singing along with, a lot of it was good, if slightly bawdy (and often libellous) fun. The only pitch anyone was worried about was the one the players were running around on, and the delivery could be anything between singing and yelling. Being part of the swell of noise that fills a stadium is something special. It’s like church, but bigger, and without the guilt. No-one there is there for the singing, but take that away and a match is far less fun. Singing “If you hate Man United clap your hands” may look like a less spiritual experience than “The Lord’s My Shepherd” on paper, but I can assure you it isn’t.
I left Yorkshire for Liverpool, where my only foray into song was drunkenly attempting “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” on karaoke in a sandpaper-rough pub, with a very camp male housemate. I discovered I liked the crackle of violence in the air far less when I didn’t have another 35,000 people on my side, and we exited that pub faster than my junior school choir left that competition.
I settled in Surrey and, as you now know, started taking my 10-year-old to the pub to play ukulele. Ukejam is fun. Enough people together sound great, regardless of the sum of the parts (although we do have some very talented singers there). It was an environment where I could mess up a chord and no one could hear me. And with no one to hear me, I started to sing again. My son moved on to bass guitar and became far too cool to go to the pub with his mum. I kept going, although I didn’t know anyone very well. Ukejam is a friendly bunch of people, and no one is on their own for very long, not even the hopelessly introverted, like me. Rather like how at the football I could park my worries and anxieties for 90 minutes, singing in a group lets me forget myself for a bit. Music and communal singing are increasingly being used in semi-clinical settings for mental wellbeing, dementia and stress.
One day a local community group, Phoenix Cultural Centre, put a message on Facebook asking for new musicians to perform. I shared it to the Ukejam group, which somehow got interpreted as my volunteering to arrange something. I had landed myself with a band. Our first performance was pretty dreadful, but we have got ourselves into the position of being a decent ukulele cover band. I was still shy of the mic. There are far fewer hiding places in a band of six than of 50. I was eventually coaxed into singing solo. A mournful version of Bruce Springsteen’s "Dancing in the Dark" is my favourite thing to sing with the band, it suits my limited range. I’d still stand as far away from the microphone as I could, though.
I do not pretend to be Shirley Bassey (well I sometimes do, but unsuccessfully). My voice is small, quiet, and reedy. My vowels are northern and flat. My range is limited. But that’s fine. I can pick the songs that work with that. On Thursday, what I sang was “The Little Piecer,” a gentle folk song, written in Yorkshire dialect, about waking up a young lad so he can start his work at the woolen mill. It’s a song that I feel comfortable in, like going home for a few minutes. I sang that, and a few others with one of my band mates at an open mic night. We got some lovely compliments. I was able to stand up and sing only because of the confidence I’ve built up over the years, singing along with my little ukulele in my hand. That confidence and (to use a well-worn cliché) the friends I’ve made along the way are a greater gift than being able to pitch a note somewhere in the vicinity of where it should be. One of the acts after us at the open mic night sang traditional cockney pub songs: “Knees Up Mother Brown,” “The Old Bull and Bush.” Everyone sang, and danced, and I smiled until my cheeks ached.
Now everywhere I look I see choirs, jam nights, and sing-a-longs. I wouldn’t have joined any of them, without the spur of my son (who is now in a band of his own) because I was convinced I couldn’t sing. I was wrong. Pretty much everyone can sing a bit. And everyone should. I love performing in the band and as a duo. There’s a thrill in quieting a chatty pub with a song, even if you are not sure if the silence is admiration or horror. But music isn’t just there to be good at. It’s there for the soul. Pay no heed to TV singing competitions, to five-octave-per-syllable divas, or even to dreams of rock and roll stardom. Just find a group of people and sing.