Why I stopped singing (and started again)

Something that keeps coming up with my podcast guests is the unexpected healing power of unschooling. Many parents talk of how it has helped to heal their wounds with their children, from earlier more pressured times. But equally, and almost without exception, these parents have spoken of their own healing. By accepting their children just as they are and by not attempting to mould or shape them, they have had to confront unresolved stories from their own childhoods and attempt to re-embrace all the bits of themselves that they had learned should be suppressed. Because how can you role model being unashamedly whole if you still feel that there are parts of yourself that are not acceptable? So, right now, and with much gratitude to my children, I am dealing with some surprisingly deep healing around the topic of singing.

When I was about seven or eight years old, a choir was started in my primary school. I can’t remember why or if it was for a particular performance, but every child in my year had to audition for it, whether they liked it or not. At school, I was shy and introverted and I didn’t have a gift for singing, although I would sing happily to myself at home. On the day of this audition, we were called, one by one, to the classroom at the end of the corridor. I didn’t want to go but had no choice, so I did what I always did at school, which was to gather up every bit of courage I could muster and get on with whatever was being asked of me. I have a visceral memory of walking into that classroom, and finding to my horror that every child who had passed the audition already would be watching. There seemed to me to be a hundred of them, standing in formation on benches behind the teacher and the pianist. All staring down at me. I felt impossibly small and hopeless, and rigid with tension. The teacher, who was clearly in a mean mood, barely looked up at me. She summoned the pianist to strike up a tune then snapped at me to sing. I opened my mouth and made all the sound I could. She immediately gestured to the pianist to stop, looked profoundly irritated by my presence in the classroom and said something along the lines of, “Oh no, definitely not you’. And that was it. I stood there in front of all those people, utterly ashamed and embarrassed that my voice could inspire such hostility. That my voice was so bad it needed to be immediately shut down. I don’t remember leaving the room. I do remember that no one offered any kind words. I guess I just headed home and pretended all was well, because who could really confess to something so terrible as having a voice that shouldn’t be heard. From then on, I did what any sensible child would do to save themselves from potential shame and humiliation. I avoided singing at all costs and, when necessary, I just mimed. Over time, I found that I could no longer sing. I couldn’t get beyond this mean voice that shut me down every time. The fear I had around the sound of my voice also made it harder for me to speak up when I needed to and compounded my discomfort at school. Ironically, though, I think this is also the source of my enjoyment of public speaking as an adult. Having people listening to my every last word is essentially pure joy for me.

As I went through life, not singing just became a part of who I was. I knew plenty of people who said they couldn’t sing. I didn’t really think about that incident any more, and it was no longer particularly alive in any conscious way, but I felt it every time I tried to sing. A rising heat, tension in the chest, a tightening of the throat—my whole body rejecting the very possibility. Some years ago, in my 30s, I went to a singing workshop for some weeks. The workshop was beautifully held by a gentle and encouraging teacher, and I gained some confidence, but I still couldn’t really connect with my voice.

And so, back to the healing nature of unschooling. My children sing. They sing constantly. They sing in tune and out of tune, songs I like and songs I don’t like. They sing K-pop, Irish folksongs, political revolutionary songs, Argentine tangos.. If it has a good tune, it is welcome in our house. They sing because they want to and it makes them happy – I don’t think they care much how they sound. And, some of their songs are so infectious and joyful that every part of me wants to sing along. More than that, I wonder what my silence would say. That people must sing perfectly or not at all? That if someone else tells you something is wrong about you, you should believe that and act that way for your whole life? Silence feels like collusion with that miserable teacher. So, I’ve been doing my best and joining in, trying to keep that critical voice as quiet as I can, and enjoying my children’s absolute lack of disapproval. But, the more I’ve been singing along, the more that incident keeps popping up in my mind.

Yesterday, I dropped D and E off at their activities, and was driving home by myself. A song I liked came on the radio, and as I began to sing along, that primary school memory swept through my body like a wave of emotion. I suddenly felt furious that even there, by myself, in my car, over 40 years and some singing workshops later, this still had such a hold over me. And I realised that, whenever this scene has appeared in my mind, the overriding sensation is that I am extremely small and helpless. That I have no agency. Today, for the first time, rather than pity for my younger self, I felt anger at that teacher. I spent the journey home wildly reconstructing the memory in my mind. I was big and strong. I shouted back. I swore at the teacher and I stormed out of her classroom. And then, I went home to my mum to tell her how someone had tried to silence me. And my mother hugged me and told me that my voice was beautiful and deserved to always be heard.

Alone in my car, my mind savouring the images of this reconstructed memory, I cursed that teacher some more, and sang loudly and freely all the way home, still not entirely comfortable with my perfectly imperfect voice, but certainly many steps further down the path to healing.

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