Finding my voice again…

When I was young, I used to open my mouth and sing. It was really simple. My brothers John and Tom and I sang so much that my parents just assumed that having three little boys harmonising in three parts was normal. While in school, and despite being involved in concerts and operettas, I never sang a solo. No-one ever noticed that I might have had potentially a particularly good voice, so obviously I didn’t believe I had either. In college I sang one song only at a concert and subsequently when I worked as a professional choral singer in my twenties when there a tenor solo I rarely was chosen to do it. Having my solo voice ignored had good and bad consequences. The good was that I wasn’t shoved down a path before I had any idea what singing was about. Ill informed “experts” never got hold of my voice, and believe me, there are many of them. The bad was that I had no confidence in my singing. It took my work as a composer to push me forward into using my solo voice for the first time.

Whenever I had a solo to do, I became very flustered and nervous. I was aware that other singers around me could make a “big” noise, allowing them to attempt operatic arias and sing semi-professionally even at that early stage of their lives. At the time I believed that this “big voice” was correct, and that I was wrong. I heard people talking about passagio, and breaks and chest and ribs. None of it seemed to relate to what I was doing. I tried some singing teachers, but found no one that could explain to me what the hell was going on. The noise I made was small and restrained, even tight because I wouldn’t let it go. When I did, it wobbled and sounded ugly – out-of-control and unpleasant. It also made my face go purple. Around me I saw young singers with jaws wobbling, heads shaking and being congratulated and admired for sounding just a bit like a very old person. There appeared to be the only route forward for me – stick to my guns or have the voice of a 65 year old in the body of a 25 year old.

Then Anúna began to take off and I found that I had to sing solos. Since I wrote the songs it seemed logical to sing them, but often I avoided doing a solo, handing it to one of the other singers to record instead of me. I just didn’t think I was that good. One example was the track “Island” which I wrote for tenor solo, but ended up putting a soprano vocal on the first version of the album Deep Dead Blue because I believed that I could not sing the solo well enough. I reinstated the solo to tenor much later, which I suppose meant that I was eventually acknowledging that maybe I wasn’t that bad.  It was cowardice to some extent. I believe that unconsciously I wanted to concentrate on the way the overall track sounded without letting my personal misgiving about my solo-singing get in the way.

Here is a performance I gave in 1999 of my song “Where All Roses Go” – you can see the effort it takes for me to sing quite clearly, although the result isn’t unpleasant.

My voice seemed to be able to survive on minimal technique despite shouting my way through rehearsals and then presenting and singing in concert. This lasted for a good long time – longer than it should have. Then in 2006 it began to fail. Something that was completely natural to me became unreliable. I continued recording and singing solo in concert, but even that began to falter, eventually leading me to sing no solos for full tours, and take literally weeks to sing a solo in studio. The latter was the worst of all. You can hear it particularly on the solo vocal of “Agnus Dei” on the Sanctus album by Anúna recorded in 2009. Strangely, it does no damage to the performance, and even adds a degree of strain that helps in the transmission of that composition. But it nearly tore me apart.

Then a friend told me to go and see Sylvia O’Regan and get her to listen to my voice. I know Sylvia for decades. She told me that I had a very good voice, much to my surprise, and then proceeded to coax it back bit by bit. I had to travel back thirty years and proceed cautiously through a minefield of decades of bad habits and erroneous technique. That journey was long, but has resulted in my being able to sing again. I don’t sound exactly the same as I did. A bit older, a bit lower and darker. A lot wiser. Definitely stronger and capable of filling a large Hall unamplified if I work hard. If I don’t play by the rules, it lets me down. Now I know what the rules are for the first time, when my voice won’t work I know why.

Sylvia has a gift. She has the ability to transmit the precious information that she holds, which is the greatest gift of all. This she does in the simplest language. For her singing is breathing, and now that I can sing again, it feels like I am breathing properly for the very first time. You can see her in action in the Anúna Summer School video below. Thank you for everything Sylvia.

7 thoughts on “Finding my voice again…

  1. I’ve thought your voice is one of the purest I’ve ever heard since I first heard Celtic Origins (yes, I’m a bit of a late-comer). Ironically, your early assessment of your voice reminds me a bit of my own… I’ve always thought my voice was under-powered, more of a back-up singer’s voice, for lack of a better word. Only recently have I thought about seriously trying to sing again, partly because of Anúna’s unique approach, partly because of some of the things you have written. Perhaps someday I’ll find my voice again… Keep up the wonderful work!

    Michael writes : Very flattered by your comment – thank you.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this! I personally think your voice is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. It’s rather eye-opening to hear that you’ve had to struggle with it. I used to sing in choirs since I was about 7, and it was completely natural for me. Then when I turned 19 I developed bronchitis, bronchospasm, and a lung infection all at once. I’ve never really been able to sing since then. It’s very encouraging to hear that maybe there is still hope, that if someone as gifted as you can re-learn, then maybe I could try again too. Even if it’s for no other reason than not embarrassing myself in church. :) You truly are an inspiration!

  3. Thank you for sharing this part of your personal history…I’ve been a fan since the Riverdance days and would have never suspected. As those before me have said – you have a beautiful voice.

  4. Is that the story of my life?! And of many singers I know!
    That explains now how you can tell us everything wrong in our technique after 10 sec! How annoying ;-D, I mean, helpful!
    Amazing how the relationship with our voice is always passionate, and like a real love-story, a struggle for the whole life.
    I believe that technique is maybe more difficult for people who don’t focus on one style, are educated for operatic singing but still want to sing ancient or popular music; then the instrument gets easily lost.
    And also sing in the choir and from this different energy (more hearing than focused on your technique), suddenly have to sing a solo.
    It’s well true that singers are fragile animals, and that’s also why I always feel comfortable and “en famille” with them.
    NB: You and Lucy sing more than BEAUTIFUL. Bravo for your technique and the rest!

    Michael writes : Thank you Laura – high praise…

  5. Dear M,

    You could have been writing about MY experience in college too! I’ve been singing since I was in grade school, but when it came time to audition for college, I chose the CLARINET because I hadn’t studied singing “seriously”! Never mind that I sang in nearly every group I could find and scraped by on my major just to graduate……

    I have always avoided voice teachers like the plague, because I don’t want to mess around with something that brings me such joy. I love singing just for the ease and pleasure of it, and have always preferred choral singing to solo work. The director of the ensemble I have been singing with the past 6 years, Charis Chamber Voices, has been tossing more solos my way, and it has been both an honor and a struggle as I continue to define my own voice.

    I was lucky enough to find my own “Sylvia” here in the States–a marvelous soprano named Amy Buckley. OK, so she makes me sing in Italian more than I’d like, but what’s not to like about that? :-)

    Thanks so much for sharing this–whatever Sylvia has done for you, your voice still sounds as effortless and clear as when I first discovered it almost 15 years ago!
    (Happy 25th anniversary to you as well! ;-)

  6. I am a choral teacher. I played Piano and French Horn all through school, Because my voice was so personal, and my self so fragile, I didn’t share it with others. I hope I am encouraging my students to enjoy singing. It is so easy to get sucked into the techniqe theories/wars! Thank you for reminding me that our voice is from the deepest part of us. And we are all fragile..

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