Musical refusenik Richard Walker joins a choir ... and settles an old score with his school music teacher
IT'S July 1964 and the British top 50 is fair bursting at the seams with bands and singers who would later change my life in some great and some terrible ways. But it's not The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker or even The Beatles who would have the greatest direct impact on my future.
That honour belongs to a tune just nudging in to the charts at number 50 on July 23: Happiness by Ken Dodd, a horribly ironic title when me and two pals decide to perform the song at an upcoming church youth club concert.
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To be honest, I thought the audition went well. None of us was born with what Leonard Cohen would much later describe as a golden voice but it seemed to me we pretty much nailed the tune. I mean, we all got to the end at around the same time and everything.
At this distance from the event, memories of the details differ. In my head we auditioned in front of a musical director who would become our teacher when we hit secondary school. I'm told by other performers in the concert that was nonsense.
What no-one disputes is that the man in charge of the concert smiled benignly at my two pals and put his thumbs up. "You two are in," he said happily. "And as for you speccy ... If you insist on taking part you'll just have to stand there and mime."
To be fair, I'm not 100 per cent sure he used the word "speccy". I just threw that in to make you hate him a tiny fraction as much as I did (and shamefully still do, although he's been dead for years).
And so it was that I was relegated to the chorus line, moving my lips noiselessly while my pals stole the show (actually, that's not quite true either) and girls looked at me with eyes full of pity. Or at least those girls not sneering or laughing or worse.
And so it came to pass that I decided never to sing again. Not in the church over the few remaining years my father continued to insist I attend every Sunday. Not at family gatherings when my aunts made everyone cry with Danny Boy and my uncle serenaded his wife with And I Love You So. Not at weddings, or funerals, or drunken work parties. Not at Burns suppers, when I'd time a smoke or a visit to the toilet to coincide with the traditional climax of Auld Lang Syne. I never, ever sang. Eventually the very thought made me want to vomit.
Fast forward 42 years to a meal with a friend at a deli in Glasgow's west end. So what, she asked, are you going to do now that you've left full-time editing at the Sunday Herald and The National? Mmmm, I thought but didn't say – that's a very good question.
What I found myself saying was that actually I'd always wanted to sing but this teacher had put me off for life and now I'd really, really like to prove him wrong.
"Funny you should say that," she replied. "I'm in this choir. I thought I couldn't sing and now I can. You should come. Don't look so pale – you really should. "
When I came back from throwing up in the toilet (metaphorically) she started the real hard sell. "You don't need to be able to sing, or read music. Hell, you don't even need to actually sing if you don't want to. But you will want to. You can do it. You really, really can. Everyone can sing."
And so, a couple of weeks later, I pitch up at The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) for my first rehearsal at the GSA choir, feeling nauseous, sweaty and very apprehensive. But I don't need to sing a note if I don't feel like it. And I don't need to come back. Ever.
It quickly becomes clear that everything my friend said is true ... But it's not the whole truth.
It's true you don't need to audition for the GSA choir. People tell me that's been integral to the whole concept since Jamie Sansbury founded it while was still an art school student more than four years ago.
At my first rehearsal I find out that its true you don't need to sing if you don't want to and that you don't have to read music. Remarkably, no-one ever suggests your voice would be better suited to ... well, anything other than singing.
But within minutes it's obvious how passionately everyone cares about the collective performance. I don't actually know what I expected: maybe a bunch of people singing Johnny Cash songs for an hour a week.
What I didn't expect was to get handed sheet music to a French classical piece with meticulously arranged soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts, each of which has to be delivered correctly for the full, mesmeric effect. Because there's something else that's been integral to the concept of this choir since the start. It's got to be way better than you might expect from an amateur group.
Jamie puts all the choral parts in Dropbox for members to learn at home, and the first time I listen to the tenor section, I pretty much decide never to go back.
But I do go back. And at perhaps my fourth rehearsal, almost magically, the choir takes flight. Although the singing sounds better than I ever thought possible, it's probably still only half as good as Jamie wants. Still, this is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
Pieces in the repertoire that were initially incomprehensible reveal a beauty that proves to be addictive. I even open my mouth and make an actual sound.
I know I am the worst singer in the room. But no choir member ever gives the impression that they have rumbled that painfully obvious fact. These people are so friendly, welcoming and encouraging that you want to do your best.
Jamie goes to ridiculous lengths to never criticise any individual singer, although when a section screws up he's all over it like a particularly annoying rash. He's not happy if the choir sounds anything other than brilliant.
In fact, he's very obviously unhappy. There are choir stories of "black Tuesdays", rehearsal nights when the group performance has fallen so far short of expectations, the result is an almighty strop.
I've really only seen one black Tuesday. I loved it. The following week I felt like a member of a survivors' club. It was the first time I'd felt like a part of the choir. It was the first time I knew I wouldn't be running away.
One small problem remains. After a few months I still have absolutely no clue if I am ever hitting any correct notes. I need extra help.
Isabella Dovaston, I decide when Google introduced me to the Ayrshire-based music teacher, you are going to help me find my voice; undo all that bad stuff from my childhood audition nightmare. No pressure.
When we first meet, in her lovely front room near Ayr beach, Isabella listens to my audition tale and tries to work out a way of getting me to sing in tune.
I'm pretty sure there is a tear in her eye when I first sing to her ... and it isn't one of joy. But if she is shocked or scared she hides it well.
First we sing nursery rhymes, peeling back the years to childhood. ''I'm not sure exactly what that was but it wasn't singing," she says. Not a great first response.
Turns out my vocal chords are completely underdeveloped through lack of use. Like any other muscles, they need exercise to work properly.
So for a while we mainly don't sing at all and concentrate on breathing exercises and balance. Then we get to some notes, then scales. Sometimes I even get part of a tune right.
I get a bit better. Sometimes whole phrases are in tune and in pitch. But something isn't right; I know it and Isabella knows it too.
"You're not singing in your real voice," she tells me. When we try to find it, we seem to have some success.
Isabella subscribes to the CoreSinging system and is qualified to teach the technique. There's a lot to it but briefly, it combines Eastern and Western cultures to help students find their own unique voice and learn how to radically improve their performance.
At one lesson I manage to sing in a voice that actually sounds like me. Of course, this being reality rather than a fairy story, the following session is awful. One step forward, two steps back.
But Isabella tells me I'm actually much better than I was at the beginning. And she says we'll work out a way to make that improvement consistent and teach me to recognise when I've hit a right note and a wrong one. She says I have a good voice locked in there somewhere; it's just a case of getting it out. But we'll do it.
And I believe her. I believe her because, two minutes into one of our first lessons together she told me to stand in front of her .... And when she pushed me back I nearly fell over. We did it again but this time she told me to stand straight and strong, confident and balanced. And when she pushed me that time I didn't move at all. The mind is a mighty thing.
It can also be a dreadful weapon when it turns against you. When I was young and stupid I thought I was the only one who had this voice in my head; a voice dripping with sarcasm and hate. ''You're rubbish at this ... And, indeed, pretty much everything. Don't even try to do this, or anything. You won't do it well. You're rubbish."
So for weeks, I didn't sing a note with the choir. I was sure my voice would break the spell. Whoever I was standing next to would be appalled. They'd be too polite to show it but they'd think it. And that made it even worse.
So no, I'd not be singing that week and not the next either. And nope, I'd not be appearing with the choir alongside the band A New International at the St Luke's music venue. No to joining the recording of the choir's first, 10-song CD and another no to recording Light Through Tall Windows, a choral piece written by Jamie Sansbury with lyrics by GSA chair and choir member Muriel Gray, in the art school's fire-ravaged library to raise money for its restoration fund.
But when you join any group you get to talking to individuals and pretty much every GSA choir member I speak to has heard that same voice I had in my head, telling them they were rubbish too. Some hear it still.
One bad rehearsal stands out. Clearly frustrated, Jamie challenges those members who are reluctant to give their best: "Half the choir are trying really hard, listening to what I'm asking and doing what I ask. The other half aren't. You're just expecting the rest to carry you. What makes you think you shouldn't try and they should?"
The penny drops. Sitting back and not singing because of a stupid voice in my head isn't just lazy, it's arrogant. Those choir members who are working so hard hear that same voice ... they just don't give in to it. If they're making the effort why shouldn't I?
So I start to sing.
At a lesson a couple of weeks later Isabella tells me a story she's never told anyone else. Of how, when she was five, her parents realised she had an excellent voice and encouraged her to perform in public, which she did successfully. But she overheard other people criticising her and being bitchy ... and that was the end of that. She loved music and trained as a pianist but didn't sing in public again until her 30s. At a concert she was convinced she could sing as well as the performer ... So she did and she could. She went on to become a professional opera singer.
Even if I do manage to mute that voice in my head I know I'm never going to be a professional singer. But that really isn't the point. I think I'm making progress, thanks to the choir and to Isabella.
I'm even hoping to take part in a piece at the choir's Christmas concert which will be performed by the male singers.
That voice in my head can go to hell. All I want is to be able to stand up with these people and contribute in some small way to making the glorious sound they make.
And to hold that choir CD when it comes out and scroll down the list of singers on the cover and, despite my initial determination not be involved, find my name.
And to remember a text message the friend who introduced me to the choir sent me after we had recorded it: "Dear moron music teacher. The boy who 'couldn't sing' just recorded a CD of gorgeous choral music. Shove that up your a***.''
The Glasgow School of Art Choir's new season rehearsals begin on Tuesday, September 6 at 7pm – with an open rehearsal on Tuesday, September 20 – in the Reid Auditorium, Reid Building, 167 Renfrew Street. All welcome.
The choir's Christmas concert will take place at 7.30pm at Adelaide's Auditorium, 209 Bath Street, on Saturday, December 10.
The choir's debut CD will be released on September 30, and can be pre-ordered now at gsachoir.com. Light Through Tall Buildings will be released in February. A special fifth anniversary concert will be held on Saturday, May 27