Hitting the high notes: the lessons of all singing from the same sheet

There is something about singing in public that solicits everyone’s attention instantly and demands a reaction. It makes its own weather system wherever it happens. Even singing that is wildly off-tempo and off-key, like drunken karaoke, can’t be ignored. And when the singing is beautiful, it declares the singer’s emotional state and replicates it in the listener, gluing them together briefly in a moment of shared attention.

We have seen and heard this in videos that have emerged from Ukraine in the past few weeks and gone viral. MPs lustily singing the Ukrainian national anthem as they returned to parliament. Parents singing folk songs to their children in underground stations to keep their spirits up. A young girl silencing the other occupants of a Kyiv bunker with a rendition of Let it Go from Frozen. Singing stops us in our tracks in a way that speech rarely can.

 I have always loved to sing. For most of my adult life, though, I have just sung to myself – in the shower, in the car, or along the corridors at work. Then, three years ago, I joined a sea-shanty choir. Liverpool, where I live, has a rich shanty tradition and our choir’s leader, Professor Gerry Smyth, is a leading scholar of the form. We were an unlikely crew to be singing these rough-hewn sailors’ work songs, meant to accompany the hauling of ropes on ship. Women outnumbered men in our group, as they do in most choirs, and none of us looks as if we could heave up an anchor. I get seasick on the Mersey ferry. But the sense of incongruity soon wore off, and I found, along with the two million other people in the UK who belong to choirs, that singing in unison and harmony with others is a joyful thing.

We started doing gigs in pubs and bars, the first time I had sung for an audience since concerts at school. Writing, my only other creative outlet, connects with its readers one-sidedly and remotely. Mostly it generates polite interest or indifference, or any enthusiasm is long-delayed – as if you’d dropped a stone down a really deep well and heard, months or years later, the tiny splash of a reader’s response as it hit the water. When we sang, the response was instant. We woke up the room.

And then Covid silenced us. Some choirs migrated online, with varying success. We had a couple of desultory meetings on Zoom, but soon realised that you can’t sing in unison because of the millisecond time lag. The urge to sing remained. So, to raise my spirits in the boredom and anxiety of lockdown, I started singing to karaoke backing tracks on YouTube. I soon acquired a weirdly eclectic repertoire, mostly governed by the singers (Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, David Cassidy) who sing in the same keys as me. On my daily walk, I would turn a corner and find myself singing full-throated to a startled-looking dog walker.

It was worth the odd awkward encounter. Singing, I am sure, has got me through the last two difficult years. Its mental and physical health benefits are well established. It has been found to reduce stress, release mood-boosting hormones and increase the body’s tolerance of pain. Graham Welch, professor of music education at the UCL Institute of Education, has collated this evidence for more than 30 years. For him, the physiological and psychological effects of singing both derive from its status as a primal act, “interwoven with core emotional states that are central to the human condition”. When you sing, you feel your chest and head vibrating and the lungs properly filling and emptying. It reminds you that you are a living, breathing, sentient body, taking up its own space in the world and making its own noise. Amateur singers tend to delude themselves about how good they sound. A voice always sounds better to its owner than to an audience, because it resonates more sonorously through the bones of the skull than through the air. (This explains why we find recorded versions of our voices so thin and disappointing.) Still, I admit it: I like the sound of my own voice.

The voice is the oldest musical instrument of all – and the most complicated. At root it is just an exhaled breath, the noise made when the air rising up from the lungs vibrates against the glottis, the V-shaped aperture between the vocal folds, before being modulated by the jaw, tongue, lips and teeth as the air travels through them. But really singing is done with the whole body, and every aspect of our carriage and posture affects it. Any bit of tension in the shoulders, chest or abdominal muscles, even locked knees or a sprained ankle, affects the sound that comes out of our mouths. That sound is your vocal tone, something as unique to you as your fingerprints. It might delight or mortify you, but you can’t be indifferent to it, any more than you could be indifferent to the face that greets you in the mirror. Like it or not, it is you.

Even the most angelic-sounding voice still feels fully human, with its own knotty grain and texture, its own unreproducible flaws and glitches. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that we measure aesthetic achievements, as we do athletic achievements, against the constraints of the human body. “Human limits structure the human excellences, and give excellent action its significance,” she writes. When a soprano pulls off those outrageous top Fs in the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute, it astonishes and delights because it’s just, but only just, within the limits of human lung power and vocal range. Like Usain Bolt running 100m in 9.58 seconds, this kind of singing feels virtuosic, but still something that a mere mortal could do.

In her book about singing, Naked at the Albert Hall, the musician Tracey Thorn points out what a mundanely technical business it is. “There’s more thinking in singing than you might think,” she writes. The singer must learn to breathe in all the right places and release the air slowly, take little top-up breaths where they can, work their tongue round the trickier consonants, and train their swallowing muscles, near the larynx, to sit still while the larynx does all the work. That swoon-inducing effect achieved by moving dramatically up and down the scale is a matter of managing what opera singers call the passaggio: the transition between the deeper and thicker “chest voice” and the higher and lighter “head voice”.

I don’t much care for the bravura style of singing on The Voice and other TV talent shows, with its love of portamento (sliding up to the note) and melisma (using lots of notes on one syllable). It feels like singing as competitive sport, all vocal pyrotechnics at the expense of the words. And learning a song for me is about getting to know the words intimately, savouring them in the mouth before letting them flow into the melody and metre. It means going over the chewier diction, thinking carefully about stress and intonation, and noting where you need an extra breath to sing through a line break without breaking the syntactical sense.

Singing every day is heartening because you can hear yourself improving. Almost without trying, I found my tone getting smoother, my range expanding and my breath sustaining for longer notes and phrases. As the pandemic wore on and the days melded into a homogeneous mass, singing gave my life at least some measure of progress and momentum. Still, I longed to sing in a group again. Group singing was one of the last activities to be released from coronavirus restrictions, because the respiratory droplets and aerosols that singers exhale are thought to make it high-risk.

Even before Covid, singers would fret constantly about the state and health of their voices; throat-knackering air conditioning, dry sinuses, or that little tickle that might be a cold, or worse. Singers know that the voice is like life itself – a fragile, mortal, capricious thing that can falter and founder without warning. The lungs lose power as we get older, and the muscle fibres in the vocal folds become stiffer and thinner. The voice is the only musical instrument that is alive, and the only one that ages and dies with its owner.

And yet this fragility is precisely what makes the voice so magical. The ugly and unreliable mechanics of singing, all that flapping around of laryngeal cartilage and muscle, are invisible. The voice has no proper home, in the body or anywhere else; it is pure action, existing only when released into space. So when it materialises in the presence of other people it feels like a small miracle, as if we were mainlining the contents of another human heart.

To sing, as Joan Baez once wrote, is “to coast into the hearts of the people who listen, to tell them that life is to live, that love is there, that nothing is a promise, but that beauty exists, and must be hunted for and found”. Singing in public is as near as our disenchanted world gets to the “winged words” that the heroes of Greek epics speak, which fly like feathered arrows to pierce their listeners and leave them changed. At the end of March, our shanty choir will perform in public for the first time in over two years – the first of many more gigs, I hope. I feel like I’ve already wasted too much of my life just singing to myself. Now, whenever I get the chance, I will sing to anyone who wants to hear.