The song draws to a close. We are a small group sitting, mostly cross legged, on the floor of a Tibetan Buddhist shrine room which somehow feels golden, with glorious, colourful Tibetan art on the walls and surrounded by statues of deities. Outside is a sunlit, peaceful evening in remote north west Wales with trees all around and birds joining us with their chatter, and inside a faint waft of incense. Our song was joyful, enthusiastic, a happy shared experience. The notes weren’t all exactly right, sometimes our timing missed a beat, and it was wonderful, bringing our little ceremony and day of practice to an end.
I led that song. It was my voice that led that joyful, shared time. Nobody muttered that I’d got a note wrong, nobody suggested I shouldn’t do it again. Nobody told me next time to just mouth the words and DON’T MAKE A SOUND because I am tone deaf and the sound of my singing voice was so deeply offensive that nobody must ever hear it. Ever. I did not die of embarrassment or run away and hide because I’d done something so dreadful. It was well into my adult life that my father told me that, as a toddler, I used to sit on the doorstep and make a tuneless sound, hence the myth that I was tone deaf. In my dysfunctional family I did my best to please so I became tone deaf and the myth was perpetuated through school: “You, third from the left at the back – don’t make a sound, just pretend.” I kept quiet.
In my teenage years we had a music teacher who used to give us all a sheet of music, 30 of us sitting in rows at our desks. She would sing the first note and then go round the class, each of us singing the next note. As my turn got nearer I died a thousand deaths, I was literally in agony. My turn would come and she would stand towering over my desk, radiating hostility at me until eventually I managed to open my mouth and say “la” in a low speaking voice. With a belligerent and dismissive humph she would move on to the next person.
Church on Sunday was compulsory in our family. It was a beautiful Anglican church. Hymns were sung. I would sit as far away from my mother as possible. She would lean forward when the hymns started and hiss sideways along the pew “SING.” Impossible dilemma. We as a family knew that life wasn’t worth living if we didn’t comply with her every wish. But…to comply and sing would be to inflict my deeply offensive voice on the people around me. Agony.
This was the mid 60’s, the era of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, of OUR music. Our parents disapproved, hated it, derided our love of it. Maybe it was just because it was OURS and not theirs, it felt subversive. Maybe it was the words: “Oh come all ye people throughout the land and don’t criticise what you don’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command” [The times they are a changin’, Bob Dylan] and “From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen” [Father and son, Cat Stevens/Yousef]. Now, of course I recognise just how wonderful that music was, and very much still is. It was my lifeline. We had an old reel to reel tape recorder on which I recorded and listened to hours of music, illegally I suppose but I would happily have been clapped in jail if it meant I could listen to it.
Our mother insisted we should have a career – neither she nor our father had any qualifications – and pestered me incessantly about what I wanted to do, which, she said, could be anything but I knew she would only be happy if it was science based. I ended up at agricultural college learning to be a farm manager, the very first student in a brand new college, one of three girls among a total of only 35 students in that first intake, nearly all farmers themselves. I’d worked on a small hill farm in Wales which I loved, and found that I was good at farming, the first time in my life that I had ever been good at anything. I fitted in there, again, the first time in my life. And there I learned to love classical music through one of the farm’s regular visitors who gave me the gift of finding a whole new music experience to love. I learned to love the mountains that surrounded the farm and spent hours exploring wild and lonely places.
I have no idea how I fitted in at college, I’d never had much to do with boys who, as far as I was concerned, were alien creatures, and had been brought up to know that all males were The Enemy. Those boys were wonderful and scooped me in. And they used to sing. Have you ever heard a pub full of Welshmen singing? They sang in the bar after a few pints. They sang on the minibuses we used to travel to farm visits. They sang in Welsh; many of the songs were definitely not suitable for the ears of a middle class towny English girl who had led the most incredibly sheltered life, but no matter as I didn’t speak Welsh. They always sang hymns. They sang with joy and gusto and in glorious harmony. We went to London for the day on the train; by the time we arrived in Euston station in the rush hour they were in full voice, walking up the platform weaving in and out of the commuters, through the station and were still singing at the tops of their voices as we crowded into the tube among the office workers.
One day towards the end of the course, on the way home to college after a farm visit up in the hills, one of those magic days of glorious weather, the hills, the day, and they started singing. They sang a hymn, the tune of which I remembered from my church days, it was one of those timeless moments that stay with you for life. I thought, if only I could sing, that’s what I would sing.
Moments like that – moments of pure, beautiful song or music, have brought me enormous solace in times of need. Last year was difficult. By the autumn I was in a very dark place. Escaping to a hideout in the wilds a friend gave me a lift from the station. As we drove, in silence for a while, she started singing. It was like being embraced by beauty, comforting, healing, safe.
Back at college, I acquired my first car and loved driving through the Welsh hills, singing at the top of my voice for hours.
I muddled my way through my young adulthood; the farming career didn’t happen, in fact a career didn’t happen but I’ve always made my way. I had a very happy three years in London where my love of music was wonderfully indulged in the best London venues – top international orchestras, amazing folk bands in smoky pubs, favourite pop singers in the Albert Hall. For the first time in my life I had fun!
In my early thirties I went to India, and the Himalayas, and to Nepal where I went to see Mount Everest with my own eyes, thus learning that dreams really, really do come true. Sitting for hours waiting at the border on the bus trip between India and Nepal a random young Indian boy lurking around offered me one earplug from his Walkman and we listened to the Beatles in companionable silence. Walking from village to village in the Himalayas was an absolute joy, I felt totally at home with my hill farming background and loved the connection with people who lived there, and with whom I shared not a word of spoken language. They were harvesting peas that first time, and singing as they worked, a song for that particular job; there was a song for all the farm jobs, just like in north Wales where I had been told there were traditional songs for milkmaids to sing while churning butter by hand in end over end churns, and, indeed, for all the farm jobs. On the way up to Everest I spent a couple of nights at Thangboche Monastery and was lucky enough to be there for the full moon and a sherpa dance in the monastery: the men sang as they stepped their strange rhythmic dance, then the women joined them, their voices rising high over the men and filling that space, surrounded by Himalayan mountains, massive and silent under the dark, clear sky.
Despite all my neuroses around singing, when I eventually became a mother I did sing to my baby. I was surprised and delighted to find that I managed not to inflict my singing neurosis on my son, he thought it was perfectly normal to walk around singing things instead of saying them and grew up filling the house with music on his piano. As his time for leaving home approached I had the extraordinary idea that maybe I could learn to play the piano, so it wouldn’t be silent when he went. And realised immediately that I wasn’t tone deaf. What enormous pleasure to be able to make music! The next step was to go to an afternoon workshop run by somebody I knew who is on a mission to get the world singing, especially people like me who’ve been brought up to know they can’t. I was astonished when she invited me to join her choir, and for the next ten years I happily sang with choirs. But never, ever on my own. Never so anyone could actually hear me sing.
My sixties brought retirement and travel and a ten year voluntary job supporting the Tibetan community in exile. I spent many poignant moments standing and marching shoulder to shoulder with my Tibetan friends as they raised their national flag, banned in their own their country by their Chinese invaders, and sang their national anthem and songs of their beloved homeland.
Inspired by the Buddhist communities I had seen on my travels I joined the Tibetan Buddhist Sangha here in Wales and responded to a call for help during lockdown, before realising that what was wanted was people to lead the pujas – or ceremonies – broadcast daily online and which involved a lot of singing. Alone. To other people. “Sorry, I can’t possibly do that” I wrote, only to get the response “would you like to try a new way to look at this?”. My curiosity got the better of me and because I trusted him I agreed, reluctantly. He sent me a link to a meeting entitled “Jenny wants to sing”. NO I don’t WANT to sing….I might be prepared to look at why I can’t……. “What’s stopping you?” he asked. Um. Er. “Oh, it’s my guardians” was my eventual reply. Do you know what a mandala is? There’s my personal mandala, me at the centre with my boundaries keeping the world at bay, and boundary guardians looking after me, keeping me safe. “And what are they keeping you safe from?” was the next question. “er…embarrassment, offending people….getting it wrong”. Then, “And how do the guardians feel?” WHAT???? The guardians (whatever they are) have FEELINGS???? Oh. Ah. Er……Well…..my guardians are absolutely fed up. They know I can sing perfectly well……..
Another saintly Sangha member patiently sang to me down the phone, listened to me singing back to her, helped me, encouraged me. And do you know I did it!!! And have been happily doing it ever since, with more confidence and a lot more joy. Singing is glorious!
The other day I went back to that beautiful church of my childhood. I stood alone next to my mother’s coffin and filled the church with song. I sang that lovely Welsh hymn that had been in my heart for 50 years.
Jenny lives in Ludlow near the border between England and Wales but has lived for many years in the hills of Wales. Since retirement she has been travelling and fulfilling a few dreams and becoming a practising Buddhist. Before that Jenny worked in administration and project management, latterly in the environmental sector – she is an old environmental campaigner, latterly more into human rights, with a special interest in what has happened to Tibetans.