The most dispiriting aspect of growing older is the loss of that once taken-for-granted luxury of getting better at things. Sport, memory, eyesight – even tiddlywinks will become a challenge in the end. Adapting with grace is of course the way forward. My late father managed this brilliantly, moving, as the years passed, from being a keen, cunning tennis player, to a competitor of equal guile on the croquet lawn, followed by the bowling green and, eventually, in his last decade, the local pub dartboard, where blind instinct compensated brilliantly (and often dangerously) for lack of actual eyesight.
With a ‘milestone’ birthday (fifty, if you must know) on the horizon, I therefore found myself casting about for some pursuit at which I could, with a little application, improve as opposed to worsen. Dusting off my lacrosse stick (I was once rather good) was clearly not a sensible option. Dancing held more appeal, but I have a bad back and feared the effects of careering round in high heels.
So I decided to have singing lessons. For even a fifty-year-old voice could be improved, couldn’t it? Given a little determination, the correct guidance? Some years ago a friend had persuaded me to join a local choir, so I already knew it was something I enjoyed.
I found a wonderful opera singer prepared to include me in her small batch of private students. I was thrilled, apprehensive and then - when the day of my first lesson arrived - terrified. What had I been thinking, agreeing to sing – alone – out loud – in front of a professional? Compared to being in a choir – one thread in a tapestry of sound - it would be like stripping off my clothes. In fact, standing outside my teacher’s house that dank February afternoon, puffing on a Silk Cut to steady my nerves, the stripping naked option held far greater appeal.
My terror must have showed. Instead of being asked to sing, I was led into the kitchen. She put the kettle on. We drank tea. We talked. At least I talked - babbling about liking singing, about wanting to do it well, do it justice. And then other things began to pour out too – the death of a friend, the fragility of life, the traumas of motherhood, wifehood. And she, wonderful creature, listened and nodded as if she had never expected the lesson to bring anything other than a teary-eyed stranger to her kitchen table.
I did get a song out in the end – a favourite hymn. It went okay: a solid soprano. In tune. Presentable. Safe. I began to relax. A few more lessons – a few handy hints – and I might even get to be quite good. But my teacher said only that I was using my throat instead of my lungs, squeezing out a sound that was false and lacked oxygen. Basic coaching in inhaling and exhaling followed. I felt stupid - the most elementary biological function and I had forgotten how to do it. ‘Let go,’ she kept instructing, ‘just let go.’ And when at last I did, an entirely different noise emerged from my throat: louder, looser, higher - generally embarrassing, in fact. And it seemed to emanate from a deep belly-space I didn’t know I had, somewhere between my hips and my diaphragm.
It didn’t like it much, to be honest. It was like being introduced to a stranger, one I would never have picked for a friend. Afterwards I sat in the car, light-headed, drained, my naïve aim of ‘self-betterment’ in tatters. Unwittingly, I had embarked on something far more fundamental and complicated.
Turning points aren’t always obvious, but that day I knew I had reached one. Back at my desk, the words of my new novel began to pour out of me, as if more than my singing voice had been unleashed. Several months later I stopped smoking. Now I sing in two choirs. My long-suffering family come to some of the concerts and say warm things afterwards. I love them for doing so, but the real joy is in a private place inside. Not because I am suddenly a ‘good’ singer – happily there’s vast potential for improvement on that score, (that was the point, after all). No, I think it is because singing does what many happiness gurus advise: it forces concentration on breathing and sound, on living in the moment, on letting one’s inner voice speak…I saw off the milestone birthday with a wild night of Karaoke.