There is a Zimbabwean proverb: “If you can talk you can sing.” It’s usually told to non-singers by those whose mellifluous voices burst confidently into song at the slightest excuse. Those of us for whom hell is a karaoke machine, know that the proverb is simply a lie uttered to make us feel even worse about our lack of vocal talent. I cringe with embarrassment, self-loathing and impotent rage every time I hear it – and I am not alone.
Last week at a seminar in the Netherlands, I told the story of how Miss Pendlebury – my music teacher at preparatory school – would prowl up and down the ranks of us small boys listening to our efforts with a critical ear:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
My seven year old heart swelled with pride as she came closer to where I stood singing lustily in the back row. I took in an extra large lungful of air so I could belt out the verse.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.
She stopped in front of me. A word of praise, perhaps, poised on her lips: recognition for my natural ability to harmonize with the pure treble voices on either side of me? Maybe some token of encouragement for the enthusiastic volume of my descant? My moment had come.
“Mead. You are tone deaf. Go to the front row.”
The front row was reserved for boys with attention deficit disorder, a tendency towards random violence, and/or speech impediments. In the front row, you were given a triangle to hold silently while the middle row shook their tambourines and the privileged prima donnas of the back row fired off salvos of sound on drums and cymbals. The front row was where you learned for life that you could not and should not sing.
After I had told my story, I asked the audience how many of them had also learned as children that they could not sing. About half of them held up their hands and in that moment the seed of an idea was sown. There was to be an end-of-course cabaret the following evening: a chance for all us non-singers to roll back the frontiers of shame; to take revenge on the Miss Pendleburys of this world; to stick it to the smug bastards who spout Zimbabwean proverbs.
And so the Choir of the Damned was born.
In the picture above, members of the choir (apologies to those not in the frame) can be seen performing the “Little Green Frog” with unrepentant gusto to the astonishment and delight of the other members of the course. Our audience burst into frenzied applause and we took several curtain calls to spontaneous cries of “Bravissimo!” “More! More!” and “Time for a beer!”
Shame is a cruel and effective teacher but, as the Choir of the Damned proved decisively, nothing that cannot be overcome (albeit 55 years later) by a stubborn refusal to be silenced and a bold disregard for conventional harmony. It was indeed, a night to remember.
And it is in this spirit that I invite you now to watch this short video of a young girl doing her bit at the school nativity play. Never, never tell her that she cannot sing.