Sunday, August 05, 2007

Whatever you do, don't sing

From the family lore, I know as a child I demanded an entire songbook to be sung to me every night. I have no real memory of this, no inner narrative, no mental footage to prove this is the case. I do, though, inside me have what could be described as a feeling of these evenings with the songbook, from cover to cover, no real memory, just a feeling, and the lore and the feeling are supported by the fact I can still bring up a host of folk songs of my native land as well as half the repertoire of the university choir and unfeasibly many half-remembered songs for a male quartet. I have checked with various friends, and I know or half-know songs people my age by and large won't admit to having heard of, let alone know.

There was singing in my family, my father was quite the music man, quite the singer. My mother wasn’t – “you’ll ruin the child’s ear”, he used to tell her – again, according to family lore, although I can almost remember my father’s voice, his intonations, saying the phrase, my memory can bring it up; but in fairness, it may only be because I know him with the suffocating intimacy one knows close family members, which enables one to script scenes and put words in their mouths and know how they’d say their lines.

There was singing in my family, but the greatest item of proof for its existence, for me, is not that I remember the songs or the singing, but that I remember my refusal to continue with the singing. I remember the anger I felt about the singing, I remember my resentment, I remember the amusement my anger and resentment caused in my parents, I remember them choosing to interpret my anger and resentment as an emerging shyness.

I became angry and resentful, I turned against singing, I turned against my family singing, and first – or most noticeably – under my anti-singing attack was “Happy Birthday to You”, closely followed by Christmas songs. Celebration was pretence, celebration in my family was pretence, celebration was us three sitting together pretending to be happy, pretending to celebrate, pretending to be us three sitting together happily celebrating, because it was only us three and there was no cause for celebration and there was no cause for happiness and all of it, all of it was pretence, and singing was out of the window.

(I really love singing now, although I'm not particularly brilliant.)


Kahless said...

Pnawn da Anna,
Sut dych chi?

Good to see you have posted again. Singing, yes. It can be good for the soul. I can understand you using as a child the refusal to sing as a way to express yourself. I think it is important, although it seems your parents didn’t choose to hear or understand you.

I know I should respect your with-holding of comment on your previous post, ‘when panic hits’, but I just wanted to say what a perfect description I found it to be.

trousers said...

There's much I identify with here (though I'm too tired to go into detail right now), what a thought-provoking post: thank you anna x

Merkin said...

It's never too late to LEARN to sing.

Reading the Signs said...

I have a German children's songbook that I used to love singing from cover to cover. Singing together en famille is a very particular thing, though - and if only 3 of you, a very intense thing, possibly. I haven't thought about the idea of it representing a lie. You have identified something interesting here, Anna.

But Why? said...

I can't sing, but do, regardless. Particularly when I'm stuck in my car in a traffic jam. Not much else to do...

NMJ said...

honey, you have touched on a great truth here, and i would think it also applies to families that are bigger than three.

although i'm sure there was reason to celebrate.

you just didn't feel it at the time.

lovely writing again.


Anna MR said...

Dear all - thank you for lovely commentations and apologies for lateness in replies. Individual ones to follow (I bet you'll all be holding your respective breaths now)...

(there does seem to be something seriously the matter with having a plural for "breaths", when meaning the breaths of several people. Not to worry. Forrin geerl here has never let this stop her before. No)

Anna MR said...

Noswaith dda i ti, Kahless, shwd wyt ti? Rwy'n iawn, diolch yn fawr for asking. Wedi blino, achos mod yn heulog iawn heddiw yn y Finndir. I will have you know, Kahless, that rwy'n hoffi yn nghani nowadays, particularly yng Nghymraeg. Fel this:

Mi welais jac-y-do
yn eistedd ar ben to
het wen ar ei ben
a dwy goes bren
o ho-ho ho-ho ho.

(Having now talked a whole heap of bollocks here, Kahless, I can say thank you for your positive feedback on my earlier post of doom in relative safety, since it seems to me extremely unlikely that anyone would read this far anyway and see me do such a thing of big-headedness. Diolch yn fawr iawn again, and apologies for the utter shiteness of my Cymraeg. It has been eleven years since my last lesson, and for reasons of kitchenocide, too hideous to re-explain here or indeed anywhere, I am currently unable to access my geiriadur, and for entirely unrelated reasons, am too bone-idle to look things up online. Esgysodwch fi, but that's the way I am.)

What startles me, actually, about my refusal to sing as a child, is the extremely young age that this feeling of "our celebrations ergo our togetherness is shite" manifested itself. I'd like to say it was when I was three. It could be a little older, but my serious feeling is three.


Anna MR said...

Lovely housut - I am made to feel quite humble by you finding the post thought-provoking, and you (as a music man) identifying with this experience is an interesting thing, my dear. Should you ever feel like elaborating somewhere, do let me know.

So there, housut, thank you. x

Anna MR said...

Merkin - you are right, it isn't. And it's never too late to discover that actually, you could all along, either, but that you chose to identify with the parent who couldn't, in the Great Battle of the Parents Over the One Member of the Next Generation. Type stuff.

Anna MR said...

Signs, gorgeous Signs - there's something that appeals to me greatly in the idea of you singing your way through a German children's songbook. It has a feeling of a particularly European culturalness (which is a fine word and I shall have no-one sniffing at it, because what forrin geerl says is what she means, okay, everyone? No complaints accepted). I get associations of what our continent would have been like had it not been for your mum's florally-presented friend having to fuss around invading Poland etc. I just do, I cannot explain it. Like bringing back German as a language of poetry and culture.

God, I have no shame in the amount of bollocks I say (and mean!) these days. It was particularly the celebrations, family celebrations, Signsikins, where this horrible feeling of "it's a fake" would lift its ugly head in relation to singing. I could stomach singy evenings around summer bonfires with the neighbours for much longer, in fact till adolescence and the General Shame of Everything overtook me. This earlier refusal thing is really a lot earlier, as I said in my reply to Kahless. I date it to three years old and onwards.

I doubt yours was a lie, somehow. You don't strike me as someone who hails from the land of lies, Signs.


Anna MR said...

But But - that means you can sing, surely. If you have lips, mouth, tongue, (teeth help), larynx, phalanx, other funnily-named body parts, and vocal chords, and you prove your prowess by belting away at traffic jams (God Almighty, I remember the traffic jams in London England already seventeen years ago being pretty fucking dire, plenty time to go through a songbook or two). If you were mute, then yes, I would accept your opening line of "I cannot sing", but what you are saying, is oxymoronic.

Incidentally, an uncontrollable fit of the desire and thirst for knowledge overtakes me as I'm writing and I can't help myself, I must know what it is you sing, Dr Why. Tell me, before I perish.


Anna MR said...

No, lovely NMJ - it really did apply to my family, as the togetherness really was phony.

But singing just is fun, even if everything else is going to pot. So really, my three-year-old self was being unnecessarily po-faced.


(Thank you re the writing. Stop it, girl, you're hurting me. x)

Anna MR said...

And finally, I'd like to say hei to my friend The Elder, who came out of life-long blog comment silence in his truly unique and inimitable style, and sent a beautifully-crafted, fantastic and woundingly lovely email comment to me on the topic aired in this post.

The Elder - the blogging community needs you. Come on, caro mia, you know you want to.


trousers said...

As wonderfully generous as ever with your comments anna - I'll explain why this post had a certain resonance: as a child I used to pick up my dads guitar and pluck the strings and use it to make all sorts of strange, fascinating and (to me) scary type of sounds. I would spend hours with it, absorbed.

At some point I learned how to fret (interpret that how you will) and after a while I learned to strum a few chords gleaned from a book. I was enthusiastic because this was MY discovery, MY own thing, MY little bubble.

I was pleased though when my parents bought me a 3/4 sized guitar for my birthday, and continued with my basic playings and makings of sound - but then I overheard talk of me going to have lessons to pursue my interest: I dropped the guitar like a brick - little did my parents realise this killed the enthusiasm immediately - and I didn't pick a guitar up again for another 7 or 8 years (by which time it was, again, of my own volition).

Your writings evoked much of this for me again in terms of family dynamics, my contrariness and self-consciousness and resentment of something (as I saw it) being imposed on me.

And it makes me think, in some respects, plus ca change...

Anna MR said...

Oh housut - that tale resonates in me as a parent, in a sad guilty sort of way... You see, my younger son was really excited about playing the piano from five onwards, and extremely pleased to be allowed lessons at six. It quickly became clear not only was he very keen, he was also a natural talent, and could really, really have become a pianist (my hands are not right, for starters, and I really am not all that talented musically, but he has absolute ear and pitch, he sings beautifully, and at the piano, his touch just didn't sound like a child's at all), if only I hadn't ruined it by making an increasing issue of how brilliant he was, culminating in trying to bribe him into playing at a family function three years ago. He played (pretty much forced by me) for another year, but hasn't touched the piano in over a year now.

You see - I harp away about my own crappy experiences as a child, but don't learn from them to make the world a better place for my kids. Plus ca change indeed, housut.


trousers said...

The flipside to all this is that I still play guitar (whether despite or because of what I've written above); just as you love singing.

Maybe your gifted son will come back to it, all in his own good time. I hope so x

But Why? said...


Of course, you are correct and I can sing, but the sound I create is not a pleasing one. As for what I sing whilst stuck in traffic, do you remember Jamiroquai and Travelling Without Moving...? Well, I don't sing that. The last time I can recall, Queen put in an appearance with Don't Stop Me Now. A few rounds of Danny Boy later I was strangely calm, but for some reason the people around me seemed less than relaxed. I also found myself singing a rousing chorus of either a) God Save Our Gracious Queen, or b) The Red Flag. I'll leave you to wonder about which one it was.

There were no doubt plenty others, but those are the ones which come to mind. I shall make a note to catalogue carefully my tunes the next time I have occasion to sing at full volume for a hour or so - I suspect it shall be this weekend when I do battle with the M25 on Friday evening....


That's so pants said...

Hi Anna

It skips a generation. I've never even heard my mother's singing voice. She gags at Christmas carols too.



Reading the Signs said...

Anna, I have, I have been holding my breath. Phwoooohhhhh! But now you've come back and graced us with your lovely words I can breathe out again.

Well, there's lies and lies, isn't there? Much of so-called family life was crap when I was a child, but one thing I really could enjoy with my mother was the singing. And I am homesick for German folk songs, in spite of, etc. In my case, the feeling was that singing brought some truth into the situation, in a good-feeling way. And then, with my own kids, even when very ill and that, singing was almost always something I could do with them and I made up a song for everything, even going to the loo (don't ask) or opening a packet of Milupa baby food. But anyway, that's my story, not yours. I can also imagine how it could feel like lying. And there is a time when most children, in any case, withdraw from singing with parents, (being "one voice") while separating and establishing their own identities. Right, well, I've gone on enough now. Breath well and truly out.

Impressed by your Welsh, btw.

Anna MR said...

housut - I seriously hope so too. It is very painful (not to mention cringe-inducing) to acknowledge that with my lack of intuition, sensitivity, and understanding, I have ruined my kid's enjoyment in his music. Ow.

But - an interesting selection. Most of my bravura pieces would be unknown to the non-Finnish world (well, to large swathes of the Finnish world, too, as I noted in the post itself), but since you've been so open about yourself, I'll tell you I have been known to do a riveting rendition of "Summertime", as well as of Tom Waits' "Strange Weather" and Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"...but don't ever tell anybody.

Hmm. Your mum and I-as-a-child should get together and sulk around Christmases and birthdays, methinks, Ms Pants. But you are a woman of music. What stuff do you sing, girl?

Signs - as always, many things to respond to in your comment...but one thing I will note here is how it was the lies, the actual existing but as-yet-undiscovered-or-disclosed lies that the sensitive-perceptive li'l me detected in the family atmosphere that tainted the singing - it wasn't that the singing itself would have been a lie, I think, if the rest of the family emotional dynamics had been on an honest foundation.

xxxx one each, folks - and how's about a round of something we all know the tune to...? Suggestions? How about, let's see, ah yes - Bohemian Rhapsody?

Kahless said...

Hei Anna,
Sut dach chi?

'n chwith chymerodd 'm blwc at ca bacia atat , Fi havent been i mewn 'r dde dendio blwc , namyn Amcana ddealli. Dybia a bydd fel 'n anawdd atat at darllen hon , fel bu ata at darllen 'ch Cymraeg. Namyn ddisgwyl da eh?
Ho Ho Ho.

I am afraid my Welsh is rather poor so goodness knows what I have ACTUALLY said above (with the ittle help of an online dictionary which appears rather random!!) Your Cymraeg appears far superior.

Wow three Anna. I cant remember much of my life below 8 or 9.

Mwynhewch eich diwrnod.

Anna MR said...

Kahless - you have wiped the floor with me with your Cymraeg. There is just no way I can even begin to reply to that before I have access to my geiriadur (think October).

Three - yes. My problem is that I'd probably remember everything, if I really tried, Kahless. That's a bit of a burden, too, although not remembering speaks volumes as well.

Take it easy this weekend, girl