What a superb day of strange and wonderful singing. Two workshops – one for dementia victims no longer able to read lyrics but seriously engaged in Rocking around the Clock – sexy and young and joyful again; the second for more ‘able’ folk who took such pleasure in layering up the rhythms of Woodie Guthrie’s This Train and spirituals Swing Low and When the Saints…responsibility taken; group key and tempo held; harmonies felt. Then an evening spent with two women, one old and one young [names changed] – both struggling to sing but knowing that song can connect them to a better life.
Paula was once a philosopher at the forefront of her field – I imagine she was always warm and playful, but then she brought quick-wittedness and intellectual dexterity to her social encounters. Nowadays, afflicted by not just dementia but Parkinsons and cancer too, she sits hunched and crooked in her wheelchair, her fingers hopefully curled towards the piano keys (a perfect hand position, but little co-ordination). My arms stretch across hers and trace out the patterns of Bach’s Inventions, pretending that my fingers are hers. ‘Are you going to sing?’ calls her impatient husband (how patient can you be after five years of three diseases eating away your loved one?). ‘I think Paula is enjoying the piano,’ I defend. But she is drawn towards his voice; she senses his annoyance; she understands that I am here to sing and it is she who should be singing. Her chest rises tentatively, trying to fuel some phonation, and something creeks in her throat. She smiles; she so wants to please
I stand up and turn the wheelchair around so I can sit opposite her keeling body and pick up my guitar. ‘Ye banks and braes of bonny doon…’ I begin. This is a song I deciphered some time ago when she hummed it – I regard it as Paula’s song, maybe she will hum again. But the voice is mute. Her husband clomps over from his desk and takes up an armchair by her side – Something simpler maybe.
‘In Dublin’s fair city…’ and Paula is singing. Yes, every word. She especially engages in the bit about Molly Molone dying (the bit that bothers me each time I get to it). Paula knows she is going to die soon; maybe she too will return as a ghost. We stream through hymns, and a mezzo aria from Handel’s Messiah (He shall feed his flock – so optimistic and clear and true) and eventually get round to Paula’s husband’s favourite bit, where he plays a significant role – canons. Here is another one that in better, earlier days Paula taught me – My dame hath a lame tame crane. Still she is better at the tongue-twisters than we cerebral folk. Her face is flushed; her chest open and strong and no longer crushed. The Jamaican carer comes in with a tray of pills and potions.
‘Paula won’t be needing them,’ says the husband – ‘Look, she is feeling fine!’
Finally, back home, here is a 30 year-old French girl telling me she thinks she might be tone deaf. Some other girl, some time ago, told her she sang like a strangled cat. Her husband and his family sing all the time, but she is frightened to join in. i explain that true tone-deafness is a physiological condition and rare. But that cultural tone-deafness is common enough – apparently she didn’t sing at school in France; her parents rarely sang to her; she never sang in church or any equivalent communal environment. She has been seriously handicapped. The best thing she has going for her, in my opinion, is her lyrical language. That is where I propose to begin – to get her listening to the contours of the sentences coming from her mouth.
I get out La Vie en Rose, wondering whether it carries too much baggage, will inhibit my pupil. I ask her to speak the intro – ‘Les yeux qui font baisser les miens…’ and gradually get her to exaggerate the ups and downs. I explain that the notes are quite close together and linked to speech patterns, and then without my suggesting, she starts intoning Piaf’s melodic setting. Her voice is sweet and open and entirely musical.
What a relief. This girl is not in the last bit tone deaf. She just has an instrument that needs using. As she is finding it hard (or frightening?) to be precise with the notes, I get her to move around (she says she has enjoyed ballet in the past), drawing out the patterns with her body – the rise and the fall. And now the main melody is there – What a blessing. This girl has far to go – so many pleasures to share with her husband and his family. I wonder if an equivalent English speaker, with our flatter intonation, would find it so easy to step into this new and liberating world.