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Jo Clifford - Thoughts on .... - Teatro do Mundo
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Thoughts on: Singing Journal

September 25th 2001

The first lesson. I'm tense as all hell and hoping Marion has forgotten. But she hasn't. I've lost my music. But she photocopies it. And we begin.

It mostly feels terrible. I feel I can't do anything right. I do absurd things: searching for notes with my chin. M asks me to hit a note softly and then make it louder. And then, worse still, hit a note loud and then make it softer.

I feel intensely self-conscious about making any sound at all; I am sure people are listening and laughing at me. Making a loud sound absolutely terrifies me. I am amazed at how frightening it is. Partly, I imagine, because I went through this very British thing of being taught not to make a noise; partly because, feeling an outcast, I learnt early on it's safer not to make a sound, not to draw attention to yourself. Partly the experience of those early singing lessons: of hitting the wrong note and feeling humiliated in front of everybody.

I notice I censor myself: if I get it right, I tend to shut myself up.

Also I notice how embodied I have to be to do this singing stuff. This involves reversing very old habits: how terrified I used to be of my body. How much I disliked it: my boy's body was weak and thin and puny and I hated other people seeing it. And I wanted it to be a girl's body, anyway, and that terrified and shamed me even more.

So I detached myself. As if I became a stranger to my own body.

So M keeps talking about my soft palate. Soft palate? Never knew I had one. Cheek muscles? Where are they?

And I keep making these strange noises. I feel like I am entering an utterly unknown country.

M has the immensely powerful knack of being able both to accept me utterly where I am and yet always encouraging and pushing and apparently convinced that I can do more.

26th September

I have a tape of the exercises of the class. I go out with the dog, first thing in the morning, on Arthur's seat, and try to do them. Of course I stop every time anyone comes within half a mile of me. I am on the tape too. This is difficult to hear: but I discover if I sing out aloud I don't have to hear myself. This spurs me on.

2nd October

Lesson two. This time we are out of the College, which is a great improvement. There are whole areas in and around my nose which I never knew existed: it seems they can resonate. Humming is becoming quite fun: last week I had felt a bit gagged and choked by it.

In lesson 1 M had ended playing by "Around the world" for me to practice to. I had listened with tears in my eyes, convinced I'd never be able to sing it. But out on the hill some days, in fact every day, at least a part of it was a real pleasure. Not in class though. As if the ghost of that first utterly disastrous relationship with a singing teacher - Mr. Fowler - is still present in my relationship with this infinitely nicer and utterly different singing teacher. A board on the whole advises me to think of nice things. Wise advice.

9th October

Lesson three.

Towards the end of lesson two, the next pupil had turned up and sat in her car. Her presence had filled me with intensest anxiety. I was convinced she could hear me, and had real difficulty thinking of anything else. But today the hour passed in a flash; and I never even noticed the next pupil arriving and sitting in the hall as I left.

M has started to teach me a new song. 'Let us love in peace' from Lloyd Webber's 'The Beautiful Game'. I've never heard it before; M proceeds with a crazy kind of calm confidence telling me where all the breathing bits are, and I feel like telling her, you poor deluded woman, I can't do this. But actually I can. This is profoundly profoundly moving. This is magical.

18th October

10 days, every morning, and now I can measure where I am on the hill by where I am on the tape. There's a bit where this song goes into 5/8 time, very weird, and I kind of stop singing there and try to make the words fit the tune.

I keep singing other things in my spare moments. This evening, going up the zig zag path behind our house at night with the dog, I find myself singing hymn tunes. 'Onward Christian Soldiers', 'We plough the fields and scatter', 'All things bright and beautiful'. They are so lovely. Singing them fills me with amazing energy.

19th October

A modern dance performance has a singer. She is fantastic. Frances Lynch. Also I think: I could do that. There's a bit of the tape I keep fast forwarding: the bit where I am supposed to start soft and get louder, and vice versa. But cycling back home in the rain and I am singing notes at the top of my voice.

High notes. There's an area of my voice that I really want to reach and yet scares me to bits. M had me enter this in lesson 3, I think: my whole body went tense at once. But on the bike, in the rain, startling passers by, these are the notes that give me the greatest pleasure.


Lesson four.

Something amazing happens today. There are all kinds of people in the house and I don't really mind. The pupil before me is singing Mozart's Alleluia. This achievement seems superhuman. And when it's my turn, I can actually feel my diaphragm working. Working as I sing. It's as if its kind of rippling, like one of those fishes, a giant ray, rippling in the most beautiful way. The pleasure of it. The delight. M says: "You see? You can do it. Concentrate on your diaphragm, on down there, and your pitch is perfect".

I feel a huge panic welling up inside of me. I understand how incredibly important this is to me; I have discovered something mind-blowing and wonderful and, utterly irrationally, I'm afraid to lose it.

It becomes really hard to concentrate. The board in front of my eyes is still telling me to think of nice things, and I clutch onto it like a drowning man. I know I can sing the song better; and yet I can't.

Later at home I'm thinking about it and start crying bitterly.

It's as if we do a kind of trade off: sometimes the pain of not doing something seems less painful than the pain of doing it. Because doing it leads me into this grief: grief of all the lost years.


I'm starting with a new tape. I breathe, I push my diaphragm in and out, I hum. I do all kinds of extraordinary things. Then its the song. It's the high note in the 5/8 bit. It's a high note M has pointed out to me I can actually do, I do it in the exercises. But thinking of doing it and I start to cry again. Well, I tell myself, if that's what happens, then that's what happens.

22 October, 2001

this time I get to the end of the exercises. I'm doing them in the loo; the dog's away with his other people, so I'm not out on the hill any more. Yesterday I did it in the room upstairs; worried about disturbing Susie. worried about the neighbours. It's amazing what I catch myself thinking. I imagine Susie thinking thoughts along the lines of 'how hopeless. how silly. pathetic really. he's got an awful voice. he'll never get to sing." Paranoid or WHAT???

Go to the shop to buy breakfast. trying to sing the phrase in my head "get down on my knees and PRAY..." It's like some weird emotional/physical/eight dimensional crossword puzzle clue.

On the bike riding along deserted railway lines to the room I write in. Trying to cycle with my hands off the handlebars. Trying to do the arpeggios etc.in a high voice. Remember M saying, in the first lesson: it's natural. there's no need to strain or force it. These difficulties: like clouds which cover the sun. the sky may be grey, but the sun is still there. and will, eventually, emerge

23 October, 2001

I feel as if there is a hidden voice in there somewhere that I have to keep looking for but which will eventually perhaps be found.

30 October 2001

all this week I've been singing in the loo. (the dog's with his other owners) Singing in the loo, and trying to overcome self-consciousness of knowing other people may hear. Doing the exercises on the new side of the tape: as 'ungs' and mmms and nnn's and then going through all the vowels, sometimes in falsetto, and then trying to relax and listen to the breath and try to see what happens and what 'head voice' might emerge in the high bit of the football song.

The class today in a different place: an old cinema, with a stage. Instruments everywhere. M said "John Clifford on a stage" and something about "Singing and dancing" and I felt invaded with a real bitterness. An old bitterness, from childhood: a sense of this is where I really want to be. But I can't. This sin't for me, because "people like us don't do this kind of thing". Which they believed my family, even though it actually wasn't true (Remember discovering an old theatre programme, in Cheadle Church Hall? A comedy written by, directed and starring by aunt Josephine. With my Dad doing the technical help. And what happened to that? Was it so great a disaster? I didn't find this until I was about 40, having lived for years with the idea that as far as my family was concerned I was a total freak. Obviously not true).

The hall was fantastic. Reminded again how much I love being on a stage. How at home I feel there (What energy, what effort to submerge all this talent and love when I was younger) Voice doing extraordinary things: it is, so much, like a voyage of discovery, and how did I get there? And can I get back again?

We did a scale. M says: Imagine 8 notes. Made me laugh, because I couldn't. Pleasure in all this: sensual pleasure in all these extraordinary physical/vocal sensations.

Yeaterday, in the writing class, a student asked: but I want to produce GOOD stuff. I can't shut off my critical facultyƉ and in the middle of the night I found myself wide awake and saying to her: of course we need the critical faculty. But we also need the letting go and just go for it what the hell kind of faculty. They're like thre two legs you walk with. Only your problem is that the critical faculty is INCREDIBLY over-developed. One leg is 6 feet long, the other one only six inches. So my job is to silence the critical faculty and just get you going and it's as if that advice I need to give myself, too.

We did the song from Man of la mancha. Love that song. Didn't trust my eyes - sometimes the voice seemed to be higher(or lower) than it looked on the page. Change of key apparently. Mind boggling language, music. I must trust my ear.

28 November 2001

noticed my 'lungs' are going further up and inside my face.

M has me performing a song, acting it. 'Use this chair' she says. 'OK Marion' I say in a 'humour Marion' kind of voice. But find I am. Acting the song. And it seems so natural.