Sunday, February 03, 2008

Little voice

This being the cold and ’flu season, and since I work with a wide variety of people from all over the country, I thought I’d do my bit and catch a chesty cold with accompanying cough! 

I’ve been very lucky in my vocal career so far and have never had to cancel a workshop or rehearsal due to a cold, nor have I ever lost my voice. Until last week that is.

Yes, yes, I know I shouldn’t have done it, but just after I caught the bug I ran a one-day singing workshop for men. Since I teach by ear it meant singing very high and very low for most of the day. I managed it, but by the time I had got home I had lost my voice completely.

This was a very strange feeling as I had never experienced it before. Reduced to a literal whisper I found my sense of self and my feelings of confidence seemed to disappear.

We all have a very personal relationship with our voice, and in many ways it is a reflection of our innermost self (I found this when asking university students to improvise: they could improvise dance and movement with no problem, but as soon as it came to voice they became very shy and self-conscious as if they were frightened of revealing too much about themselves).

When it came to choir on Thursday I still had quite a chestykoff, even though I had got some of my voice back. With an hour’s drive ahead of me (and 60mph winds on the motorway!) I found it very hard to decide whether to cancel the session. This brought up two issues for me:

  1. as a freelancer who doesn’t get paid if the session is cancelled, how do we know when we’re truly sick enough to cancel a session? and
  2. since all my work is acappella and I don’t use any instruments or written music, is it possible to run a session successfully without using your voice?

cancelling work when sick

Of course, if we have broken our leg, or are confined to a hospital bed, or are simply too ill to leave the house and drive, then the answer is fairly straightforward. But what of those times when we’re “under the weather”, or have a cold, or a tummy upset? Then the dividing line is not so evident, especially since we know we won’t get paid if we don’t turn up.

We could maybe drag ourselves out of bed for one session, only for this to precipitate a relapse or delay our recovery and we may end up having to cancel more than one session!

On Thursday, I think the high winds would have tipped the balance, but they died down and I decided to go, promising myself to take the session very gently indeed and not to stay for a drink afterwards. Although I could perhaps have called on someone to say which songs I wanted them to go over, and give out the starting notes, I don’t have an assistant or stand-in to rely on.

“Today I will be singing without using my voice”

(This came from the young son of a friend of mine – I kind of knew what he meant!)

Having decided to run the session, I wondered how much I could do without using my voice. I made a sign which read “I have lost my voice!” and showed it to everyone just before we began. Then I used gestures and invited people to copy me for the warm-up session. After that, I simply beckoned people to come very close every time we started a song, and then spoke very quietly to those nearby, expecting the instructions to be relayed outwards from there.

We went over some old songs for which I blew the starting notes on my chromatic pitch pipes. I also re-taught some songs which a lot of newer people didn’t know by singing very, very gently to remind those who already knew the song, and then got them to ‘teach’ the others.

All in all, it was a successful evening and I covered everything that I wanted to. Talking was kept to a minimum (often I have to shout to make myself heard!) and I found myself moving around very slowly and gently, giving the whole thing a dream-like quality.

I would be very interested to hear how other freelancers deal with illness, and also if any of you have taught without using your voice.

Chris Rowbury


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