A new theatre show helps audience members get over their fear of singing by celebrating former failures in a warbling group therapy session. Can it help Kirsty Blake Knox overcome a past singing trauma?
When I was in fifth class, we were told the annual Christmas show was going to be different that year. The nativity was out and so was anything overly festive. No baby Jesus, mangers, or men in red suits. Instead, we were paying tribute to the so-called land of the free — a celebration of Americana. The show would feature Disney melodies, children dancing frantically to country and western rootin’-tootin’ show tunes, and characters from beloved TV programmes. Speculation over the cast list was fierce, and discussed at length in the school playground.
Then, one day, after small break, I was called to the principal’s office. She told me I was to take on an important role in the show. “We have decided that you shall play the part of,” she paused dramatically, peering over her glasses, “Big Bird.” My heart sank. Big Bird. I had been hoping to play Belle from Beauty and the Beast, not a muppet.
Things got worse when I saw the costume, a homemade, felt bodysuit covered in feathers with a peaked hood and sewn-in beak.
On top of that, I had to sing the alphabet. Not the regular alphabet, mind, as Big Bird has limited literacy levels (he is a bird after all) and mistakenly presumes the list of letters make up one gigantic word. Through the medium of song, he wonders what this colossal word — pronounced ‘abca-defgi-jeckle-mi-nop-kwer-stoov-wix-iz’ — could mean.
I remember straining to hit the high notes during the performance and looking into the audience to see a look of confused horror etched on my father’s face. Since that moment, I have, by and large, veered away from singing in public. Until I was invited to take part in performer Louise White and singer and vocal coach Michelle O’Rourke’s new theatre show, Sing Your Failures. The genesis of the show is to overcome a fear of failure or past trauma from singing, through… singing.
“We want to celebrate failure, warble through fear, and give performance anxiety the stiff middle finger with an impromptu choir,” White says.
White is known for creating theatre with an emphasis on audience involvement, and aims to “cultivate original collective experiences”. She tells me this show will create “a magical, unexpected communion”.
“So, it’s basically a big singing group therapy session then?” I ask. “I mean, I wouldn’t be offended if you called it that,” she says.
Three years ago, White started vocal lessons as she had to sing as part of another show. She turned to O’Rourke for help. She made solid progress, but soon, other, bigger things started to bubble to the surface. White remembered being a tween and being asked to lead her school assembly in song. She began to sing, but rather than her classmates’ voices swelling around her, there was silence. With each passing note, she grew more self-conscious, until eventually the school principal halted proceedings and asked others to join in. They did, but the humiliation of that day lingered. During one of her lessons with O’Rourke, she broke down in tears.
“[Learning to sing] was really traumatic in a way I didn’t think it would be… because I was being so hard on myself,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, okay, I have perfectionist tendencies.’ I want to be really good at everything and I won’t let myself learn, or be, or feel in a way,” she says. According to O’Rourke, many of her students have these breakthrough moments.
As they talk, they place clipboards on the ground for the 20 participants who will be taking part in the show. “Singing is votive,” White says. “The show is about trying to draw on the feeling that comes from self-expression… but let it happen in a group in a safe way. So, there can be a sense of achievement at the end. Like we got from there to here, and it was all a bit of craic.”
Clipboards in place and O’Rourke in situ at the piano, the audience starts to file in. We all stand in a circle facing each other, and after running through a few noise exercises, White starts singing about her school assembly shame. Then O’Rourke recalls a moment she felt abject humiliation — when she walked away from the very last stages of completing her PhD. After this, we are invited to write down a moment we felt embarrassed/ like a total gombeen.
I write about Big Bird and the felt bodysuit; others write about late-night baking fiascos, or break-ups. But most write about childhood things — playground taunts, or first swimming lessons, or forgetting words in the middle of a song.
So much of our singing voice seems tied into what happened when we were still children, but then, I suppose that applies to so much. Unless you remain musical throughout your life, it’s a stage of your life where singing — both as a group and an individual — has such an active and important role. In creche and primary schools, it is used as a tool to teach, comfort, entertain, distract, tell a story, or express feelings.
According to O’Rourke, many of us start to become self-conscious of our singing voice between the ages of eight and 10. We start comparing ourselves to others, and with that comes a degree of self-criticism and self-judgment. This may explain why, as teenagers and adults, our own singing voice seems to quieten down and is replaced by a kind of self-imposed silence.
White tells O’Rourke what memories we have shared and O’Rourke sings them out with gusto — throwing her head back and closing her eyes. She gives the memories a vocal gravitas, and asks us to join in the chorus wailing out, It Huuuuurtssssss.
And then a weird thing happens. My Big Bird story was meant to be funny, but suddenly, with the piano keys echoing around the hall, I start to get that hot, prickling sensation behind my eyes. And, oh my god, am I going to cry? In front of all these strangers? And the photographer? Wait, is he filming this? He is filming this! Why am I having all these big feelings? This is supposed to be fun for goodness sake! Just keep smiling.
I focus on the breathing and the familiarity of the rhythm starts to calm me down. The song draws to a close and we move on to another exercise, one that’s more about singing as a collective. Afterwards, I asked O’Rourke why I felt that way. It turns out it happens to most people and it is more scientific than you may think.
First off, O’Rourke constructs the melody using the pentatonic scale, which has five notes per octave. It is a powerful scale, and familiar to us all. In 2009, at the World Science Festival, musician Bobby McFerrin used audience participation to show that everyone automatically understands this scale, and prove that we all have a universal appreciation of music.
“The pentatonic scale is emotive,” O’Rourke says. “And because of natural tuning systems, it occurs in wind chimes and Aeolian harps, so you will naturally know it. We are also working with a standard set of rotations that are in pop songs — Hey Jude or Titanium. They are in culture, they are embedded, and they have a semiotic meaning.”
She also says the phrase ‘it hurts’ is loaded, and acknowledging past upset can be cathartic. Finally, she says, using your singing voice will always be emotional, regardless of whether you can hit the high notes or not. “There is so much muscle tissue,” she says gesturing toward her neck, “and memory of how you express yourself. There are layers of life with your voice.”
The formative incidents touched on in the performance, be it not making the school choir, or being caught caterwauling into a hairbrush, can have a lasting impact on your vocal confidence. This can manifest in feelings of shame, or embarrassment, and fuel the idea that your singing voice and, by extension, your self-expression, is not good enough for public consumption.
“Learning to sing can be very poignant territory,” she says. “So many people come to singing lessons and, three lessons in, they start crying because they think, ‘I never thought I could achieve that,’ or ‘I never thought about myself that way.’”
Programmes like The X Factor, and The Voice have also fed into an idea that only select people can and ought to sing in public. “We are conditioned to think that we shouldn’t sing for fun or enjoyment,” White says. “It’s like, ‘Well, will you be the best? Will you win? Do you have a sob story?’”
We do seem to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards when it comes to singing. Not everyone is going to be Usain Bolt, but that doesn’t stop people lacing up their trainers and going for a park run at the weekend. “You think, ‘Oh my god, I can never be Adele, so why try?’” White says. But O’Rourke says that anyone who can talk can sing.
Big feelings to one side, there is a delicious level of giddiness to Sing Your Failures. Maybe because skirting around ideas of floundering means there is a wave of relief when you get through it all. It makes me realise how playful singing is, and how, as an adult, you can forget all that jollity — and that roaring your head off in public is actually a very good idea.
“Everyone has the right to sing,” O’Rourke says. “And the right to the endorphins it releases, and the right to the joy of it.”
Sing Your Failures runs from June 24-26 in Fitzgerald’s Park as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival