Saturday 24 August 2019

Mary Kenny: Songs of praise

What the doctor ordered? Singing lessons…

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

The wages of sin for 40 years of smoking is a wheezing chest and a possible diagnosis of a COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). When I was informed that I had a condition called bronchiectasis, a consultant at one of London's leading chest hospitals told me to go and join a choir, or take singing lessons. Singing, he said, was one of the best things you can do for your chest.

I'd tried learning singing before, but the teacher wasn't quite right for me. She was pleasant, and competent, but probably too young to teach an old dog new tricks. In any one-to-one situation, it's important to find the right teacher, and this year I did. Avril Gray is a retired diva in her 70s of the great bel canto tradition: she has the authority and command of someone who has sung at Covent Garden, at the Paris Opera and in Milan (with Tito Gobbi). She teaches singing to students of all ages - this is in Kent - and she also coaches people who do public speaking. The same exercises which train singers also help with speaking.

Breathing exercises are always the beginning of the half-hour regular lesson. You put your hand on your tummy and pant like a dog. You imagine you are blowing out a candle held at arm's length, and try to make the breath last. You put a finger over one nostril, and with mouth closed, breathe in and then out, to "Tshoo", like a train, with lips forward in kissing position. And there are many more, developing the volume and control of breath. In one exercise, you can feel the upper chamber of your lungs fill and flux as you let out the air.

The breath of life! How precious it is! And how we put it in jeopardy with those fags!

Then there are tongue-tip exercises and tongue-twisters to enhance speech; and re-learning the basic musical scale. How little I remember from my unfortunate music lessons experienced as a child. Miss O'Toole, the bad-tempered piano teacher to whom I was sent as a schoolgirl, had the disagreeable habit of rapping you sharply over the knuckles with a pencil if you got a note wrong, making you dislike the whole endeavour. And now, I have to find middle C all over again and re-learn the meaning of a crotchet and a quaver, a sharp and a flat.

Avril is a knowledgeable but encouraging teacher, and understands that my musical capacity is limited: but everyone has some range, and, she says, we can all extend our natural range by practice.

Breathing exercises are essential as a preliminary, but the most enjoyable aspect of a singing lesson is the singing itself. There are many fine contemporary songs, but the tunes chosen for me are traditional, because they are the most accessible for someone who isn't a gifted singer, but who can, with practice, hold a note.

We began with Moon River, the Johnny Mercer-Henri Mancini composition that Audrey Hepburn sang in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Hepburn had a modest singing voice - she had to be "ghosted" for My Fair Lady, but Moon River is ideal for beginners. Then came Cole Porter's Don't Fence Me In, which has a lovely pace and cadence, as has another with cowboy echoes, Home on the Range, whose author is anonymous. What a comforting world some of these lyrics evoke: "Where but seldom is heard/A discouraging word/And the skies are not cloudy all day."

Simple Gifts is yet another old American song which makes a stimulating singing exercise. Marilyn Horne performs it impressively on YouTube, although Judy Collins gives it a simpler delivery, and possibly nearer in spirit to its Shaker roots.

Traditional Irish songs have also been a rewarding part of the lessons. I Know Where I'm Going - words and music also from an anonymous hand - is so easy to sing, and yet so satisfying. Love, and lost love, and the willing sacrifice of love are so often the themes of these old lyrics: "Feather beds are soft/And painted rooms are bonny;/But I would leave them all/To go with my love Johnny."

Hugely enjoyable too was the discovery of How Are Things in Glocca Morra? from the musical, Finian's Rainbow. At first, I thought it embarrassingly corny, and then I came to realise that it is entrancing to sing: challenging, too, because of the way it goes up and down on the scale. Julie Andrews delivers it with limpid lucidity on YouTube, but so many singers have covered it - Rosemary Clooney, Petula Clark, Barbra Streisand, Gracie Fields, Jane Morgan, Maureen Hegarty.

I've never spent much time consulting YouTube for music, but Avril encouraged me to do so, and it's opened up a new world - or, perhaps, brought an old world to life. There are so many vocalists who are not forgotten by their fans, who leave appreciative comments after hearing a recital. Another song I've been given to practise is I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair: it's rather beyond my range, but it was a pleasure to hear John McCormack sing it so magically. Poor Stephen Foster, its composer, died penniless.

A chronic bronchial condition is neither cured nor improved, but it can be managed somewhat. My mother also developed a COPD in her 60s (and for the same reason) and she was prescribed Valium, to calm breathlessness. But is singing not a better medicine? It opens the airways, and brings joy, harmony and uplift to the soul.


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