Soprano Margaret Keys was born with a unique talent. But it took an elderly Scottish lady to show her the true value of her gift. Now with a new album, A Winter’s Tale, out in time for Christmas, she explains how she first truly understood the power of music.

“I was studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama,” she says in a soft Northern Irish accent. “Like most students, I needed to make a bit of money to help pay the bills and so I applied for a job with the Council for Music and Hospitals. We had to do an audition and demonstrate that, as well as being able to sing or play an instrument, we had the ability to engage and present the lyrics. Anyway I got the job and, along with a fellow student, who played piano, started touring the hospitals.

"Initially for me, it was just a job. But then, one day, we went to this home for the elderly where I met a lady who had dementia. She couldn’t talk or communicate, nothing, her face was completely blank. I tried holding her hand thinking it might comfort her but it only made her more agitated.

"I didn’t want to push it so I decided to sing instead. I sang, The White Cliffs of Dover and other similar ones, you know, the wee small hours of the morning songs that I thought her generation would recognise. Oh my goodness, the change in that woman was incredible! She began to sing, her whole demeanour altered and she brightened up. I mean, she literally became a different woman. It was truly amazing.

"The experience changed me too. I’ll never forget how I felt as I was leaving that place. I came away thinking, my goodness what that music and those lyrics did for that lady. It was a gift from me to her. From that moment on I understood how important my job was going to be.”

Keys went on to become a primary school teacher but a few years later decided to take a career break and try her luck in the music industry. It proved a wise move. Her CV is an impressive catalogue of television appearances and performances, including a debut at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Carnegie Hall in New York.

In 2015, the singer was among a handful of artists invited to sing at a special concert for Pope Francis during his visit to America. “Yes, meeting the Pope was very special, “ she recalls. “The whole situation felt a little surreal. I remember looking over and seeing Aretha Franklin on one side of me and Andrea Bocelli on the other and asking myself, how on earth did I end up here!”

Now, having performed at St James’ Palace in London for the Royal Concert this week, Margaret can barely contain her excitement. “It’s like an early Christmas present!” she laughs. “I’m so delighted and it’s such an honour.”

So how did a wee girl from Derry-Londonderry become a star? “There are no professionally trained musicians in our family but we all loved music. My grandparents lived next door and they loved all the big musicals. My grandmother was a great singer. I’d go in and find my granda sitting with his ‘wireless’ listening to stars like Doris Day or Mario Lanza. Those were the sounds that influenced me growing up.

"As a teenager, I wasn’t into pop. I loved people like Julie Andrews and sounds like the King and I. Nowadays, I’d have to say one of my favourite songs is, La Vie En Rose (Edith Piaf) But I think it depends on the mood I’m in. I still think about my granda and how he’d sit engrossed in his music, his hands waving in the air. Back then I thought it wonderful that music could give this man so much passion and enjoyment. I want my music to give people that same experience.”

While her sister went on to study medicine, Margaret decided to train as singer. At the same time, she studied for a degree in Musical education and qualified as a teacher.

“I love working with children as well as the elderly,” she explains. “With kids, there’s this lovely innocence and willingness to learn. At the other end of the age spectrum, I find I’m drawn to the wisdom and patience that comes with the passing of the years. But, regardless of age, music has such a positive influence. I want my music to reflect me as a singer and as a person but it’s important to me that I connect with the listener.”

She has many favourite songs but there is one that will always remind her of her father. The late SDLP councillor Bill Keys OBE passed away in 2014.

“My daddy died very suddenly. He’d gone to the shop to buy a pint of milk and simply collapsed. My sister, who is a doctor was working on him in the shop and it was very hard to watch. I sang for him at his funeral. It was very difficult but I wanted to do it for him. Even today, we all miss him terribly.

"Onstage, I feel his spirit with me. Every time I sing Phil Coulter’s Old Man it’s for my daddy. Obviously I have to change a few of the lyrics to make it relevant but the words say it all.

"In the beginning it was very hard for me to sing but now, after a lot of practice, I think I can get through it in public without breaking down.”

She’s come a long way since the days when she and her fellow student performed at the hospitals and nursing homes around Glasgow. Now, she counts celebrities such as Rod Stewart, Anton du Beke, Alfie Boe and Michael Crawford as colleagues and instead of a handful of patients, she sings to audiences of over 35,000.

Yet Margaret has never forgotten the lesson she learned in a Glasgow nursing home – music has power.

“I’ve seen it transform a lady affected by dementia. But everyone can benefit from music. As a teacher I found it helped children in many ways, even in a social aspect or if they were particularly anxious about something. Learning through rote, is simply giving something a beat or rhythm and, for many children it makes it easier.

"In fact I learned a word recently that I’d never heard before but it seems very appropriate, it’s called ‘educain.’ I think it means to educate and entertain at the same time. To me that’s a good way to teach. That’s how I’d describe my involvement with the Sick Children Trust. I engage with a lot of sick kids through music. Music helps kids who are ill. It transports them to another world where, for a little while, they can forget their worries.”

Thanks to the internet, music is readily available but many artists believe it comes with a price. I wondered whether Margaret agrees that today’s generation are losing out on the quality of sound.

“I think it’s great that children are so exposed to music. Yes, of course the live scene will always sound better. I enjoy recording but onstage, in live performances, you get the whole package. I love to see an audience’s reaction to my songs, hear their stories and understand why a particular song makes them sad or happy. The difference is that, performing live, you get to the very soul of music.”

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