Updated: Feb 28, 2021
I grew up in a house with no television, no computer and no mobile phones. While this might have been normal in the seventies, I made my way through primary school in the nineties as if from another era, desperately trying to understand phrases without meaning, zoning out of the “Did you see … last night?” chats and always searching for a valid-sounding answer to “What do you do?” asked incredulously ad nauseum.
With hindsight, one of the main things we did was to play music. My sisters played flute and violin and of course we all played the recorder. Apparently I hummed Twinkle Twinkle before I could talk.
Singing, at our primary school, was taken seriously. There were daily assemblies that included a song (or two), as well as weekly hymn practice, weekly music lessons (on top of the recorder lessons) and fortnightly church services; if we didn’t put in the effort, we would be back at playtime. Different year groups frequently took different parts, singing in harmony or in rounds. I remember the focus and determination it took to hold my tune while hearing one different to my own. At that age it often became competitive: rather than my tune harmonising with your tune, it became my tune against your tune, each getting louder and louder – who would break first? The biggest thrill came when the parts reached an equilibrium. Then the hall filled with two hundred children’s voices full of simultaneous happiness and concentration.
Although my sisters had already left the school when I started, the songs were still the same so we all knew them off by heart. One particular memory I have is of my sister and I in beds at our granny’s house. I was about 14 and we were sharing a cosy, sky-blue bedroom with soft mattresses and heavy blankets. Each of us took turns to sing a song repeatedly until they got tired, while the other practised different harmonies, and then we’d switch over. It never occurred to me that this was not something that everyone did. For us, it was normal.
I don’t think schools sing as much any more; there is too much else to do. And yet, singing in harmony with others is one of life’s many joys. It requires boldness; the ability to have confidence in one’s voice and to hold onto one’s tune like Truth. It requires trust; to know that making mistakes in front of others will not diminish one’s worth, but is a necessary part of creativity. Finally, it is an expression of difference, where each person’s part is important but together something is created that transcends the individual contribution. These are valuable lessons to learn.