Saturday, 29 December 2018

Number 2 of 'Five Things I'm Proud of in 2018' (Courage)

I have sung throughout my life. When I was two, my oldest brother became a chorister and was closely followed by my other brother, so I spent most of my early childhood at the cathedral for their services. At that time, girl choristers in cathedrals were exceptionally rare, and there was no opportunity for female choristers where my brothers sang.
I spent many, many hours gazing at the ceiling and finding the deliberate mistake!
I was always insanely jealous of every aspect of what they did (although, truth be told, I wouldn't have been too happy about giving up my Sunday mornings at the stables). Fortunately, my school was a choir school and we all sang daily. In Years 5 and 6 we could audition for the 'Senior Choir', which sang at concerts but also at occasional evensongs at the cathedral. I loved it!

When I was 13, the cathedral decided to expand its new girls' choir which, until then, had been a very small group of mostly sixth-form students. The minimum age was 13 so it was a sign from God! I went and auditioned and, to my surprise, was offered a place in the choir. At the time I wasn't very good at singing - I was fine in a group, but terribly nervous on my own, and had only very rarely been confident enough to sing solos with other choirs. I'm fairly sure that I only got in on the basis of my sight singing and aural tests, both of which, for someone with 'perfect pitch', I found easy.
I think I was 16 when this was taken :)
Anyway, ever since then I have sung all over the place, and in some really high-profile ensembles. I really love singing liturgical music because it feels as if the music has a real purpose to it, but most of all, I love the fact that we are always doing 'performances' and that each of these needs new music - so we rehearse something, sing it for a service, then learn something new.

When I was at Cambridge I started having singing lessons for the first time in my life, which were compulsory. At first I hated the prospect because I didn't want somebody to keep listening to me sing on my own week after week. Fortunately, my teacher turned out to be just what I needed. He didn't care what I thought about how I sounded. He taught me that singers can rarely trust their own ears and that you should just learn the best technique that you can and put it into play. I realised that all I needed to be a more confident singer was to be a better one! Ian, my teacher, gave me the knowledge, skills, practice and (frequent!) criticism to help me learn how to be better.

It seems obvious, doesn't it? Be better at something; be more confident. It was thanks to Ian that I am now able to sing confidently by myself in front of lots of people. I go wrong sometimes, and sometimes I still get nervous for big, important things. Sometimes (/often) I don't sound quite as good as I should, or would like to... But hey - I'm still doing it, and - as most people experience when they sing - I usually sound better than I think!
One year I sang in London and, for Christmas, one of the basses decorated a tree with mini choristers. This was me - we all looked rather worried!

This year I have made myself heard a lot, some of which has felt quite scary. Starting at the very end of 2017 was my first solo with my new choir, St Mary's, Saffron Walden. I'd only been in the choir a couple of months so I didn't really know anyone very well. For me, this was extremely helpful - if I'm doing something a bit nerve-wracking I prefer to do it in front of people I don't know well rather than those I do know well. Getting that first solo over and done with when I didn't know them well means that I can now sing happily even though I do know them. It's funny how the mind works, isn't it?

Anyway, that first solo was a Welsh piece called Suo Gan. There was a brief organ introduction, then I sang the first couple of phrases by myself - nothing else. At all. There were various other bits for the rest of the piece, with or without lower voices and/or organ. It was exposed, and it would be obvious if I choked. It was at the Christmas Carol Service, aka one of the most well-attended services of the year. It was also IN WELSH.

I was a bit nervous but I gave myself a strict talking to, along these lines:
  1. You know the notes and the words. Those are fine.
  2. The phrases are short so you won't run out of breath.
  3. You have been taught how to do this. You have worked hard over many years to develop the skills. There's no reason why you should suddenly lose the ability to do it now.
Well, it was fine.

Since then I've done quite a few more solos, including singing an aria from Handel's 'Messiah' with a (very) chamber orchestra as part of a Remembrance Sunday service/concert ('devotional offering'). The scariest part of that was having to stand on a block at the front of everyone to sing so that people could see me properly - I was more nervous about falling over on the way up or down, or just falling off it, than singing. There wasn't anywhere handy to hang my crutch either! The second scariest thing was that this was in the days of the Great Rib Dislocation, so breathing was tricky.

But...I survived again. (Anyway, there were more important things to be thinking about.)
A few days ago, I sang Suo Gan again. I wasn't the slightest bit nervous. I knew I could do it really well. I enjoyed it.

The only time I've had to 'wimp out' of a solo was a few weeks ago when I had basically no voice (I'd have made a good tenor). I found it interesting and quite reassuring that I was disappointed by this rather than relieved!

What I've realised is that it's really important to go out of your comfort zone as much as possible. I am often outside my comfort zone when training or competing, both physically and mentally, but it's not until you try something completely different that you realise there are terrors(ish!) to which you are never normally exposed. It's then that you realise that if you push yourself out of one comfort zone regularly, you get used to that and to the discomfort you experience.

As an example, when I push myself to learn a new skill in vaulting that is breaking a comfort zone, but it's a type of break that I'm used to. If I pushed myself to go to China and engage the locals in my best Mandarin (which amounts to zero) then that would be an entirely different 'outside the comfort zone'. They're both out of comfort zones, but one is significantly more uncomfortable to me than the other.
Like playing for your friend's/brother's wedding when your left hand doesn't really work...
Something which is beyond my comfort zone and which I do infrequently is flying. I HATE IT. I'm really claustrophobic so I hate being shut in a tin tube hurtling through space. Recently I was on a flight with my mum and we were going through a thunderstorm in the dark - my two least favourite situations when up in the air. I didn't think anything dreadful was going to happen, but I did just want it to stop. NOW!

That not being an option, I did some mind games. I reasoned that I survived the British Championships 2018, so I could survive the flight. I told myself that, having survived jumping Danny at Hartpury, I could survive the flight. I was so, so far out of my comfort zone, but that wasn't anything new really. I was grateful for having a few things I could think back on to remind myself that I hadn't died yet. Mind you, I was even more grateful when we left the storm behind, and especially so when we finally landed!

Practising getting out of one comfort zone helps us to slam through other comfort zones. Ultimately it comes down to courage - which, as many have noted, isn't the absence of fear but your behaviour in the face of fear.

This year, I'm proud of myself for being able to do more singing, for surviving Hartpury and the British, and for having the courage to make a few other important but uninteresting decisions. 
People sometimes think that courage is something that you have allotted to you at birth - either you have lots or you don't. It isn't like that - courage is surely dependent on our personalities, our preferences, our hobbies, our experiences and on one final thing - how well we practise it.

So, practise courage!

Try new things, and make them things that scare you! Go looking for challenges! Be comfortable with being uncomfortable!

Finally remember this: most of the time, whatever it is, it's always alright in the end. Don't overthink - just go for it.

And maybe pack a pharmacy of anti-emetics and tranquillisers for the scarier moments.

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