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.