Once upon a time I would open my mouth and just sing. It really was that simple. A child singing, completely relaxed, no pressure to do more than savour the experience. Living in a house full of music was taken for granted as it flowed through a day filled with Frank Sinatra, piano practice, three-part Beatles songs in harmony on the back seat of the car on the way from school to the latest number one by ABBA. It was all natural, unforced and part of the fabric of life.
Then we went to secondary school and things changed. Music was a minor subject in a day full of Mathematics and English. When the school did put on its annual operetta we made the chorus line, never a solo. We natural assumed that we just weren’t good enough to merit such things, and we could always sing our songs at home. The music continued to flow in our house but without the ambition to become a solo vocalist.
At nineteen I discovered choral singing and began studying Music and English at college. I decided that I’d get my voice trained as I had developed a passion for Early music and I knew I needed increased vocal strength to sing it. Teachers came and went, talking about “support”, “head voice”, “the ribs”, “registers”, “passagio”. This was the correct way to sing. Something I believed was so simple, so natural, became hugely complicated.
I managed to gain a place in Ireland’s only professional choral ensemble, The RTÉ Chamber Choir. The Artistic Director Colin Mawby told me without ambiguity that I had not gained the place as a singer, rather because he had recognised a fellow composer and he felt that I would benefit from the experience. Very few solos were forthcoming.
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 that allowed them to attempt operatic arias or oratorio to a paying audience even at this very early stage of their professional lives. I was happy just to sing in the choir and luxuriate in the music that has fed my artistic soul since then. I had no aspirations to create the sound I heard from most of those around me. It seemed that they wanted to sound older than they were. I didn’t want to do that so I must be wrong and I left well alone.
Then things changed.
My compositional voice began to develop and I needed an instrument, thus Anúna was born back in 1987. While it was just about acceptable to hear Purcell sung with voices of greater age than the bodies that they inhabited, it simply was not acceptable to do the same with my own music. If they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make the sound I wanted then I would have to sing the solos myself.
Often I avoided singing a solo, handing it to one of the other singers to record instead of me if at all possible. I just didn’t think I was that good and it was cowardice to some extent. I believe that unconsciously I wanted to concentrate on the way the overall piece sounded without letting my personal misgiving about my solo singing get in the way. I was also hampered by the confusion as to what I should be doing technically. What I noticed was that if the solo was to successfully transmit the story of the song, the message of the text, then I had to just disregard all the pushing, placing and projecting I had been trained to do.
I just wanted to get the singer out of the way and let the song speak for itself.
Time passed. Anúna became more and more successful and a succession of vocalists passed through our ranks. Due to a brief stint with Riverdance, Anúna’s vocal sound became associated with small, thin sound. Singers entered the group with that sound in their minds, and my technical knowledge was not sufficient to correct them and to get them to sing the song in the way I had intended it to be sung. I started creating music for these small voices, restricting the colours that I could paint. What I did provide was the basis for successful careers for so many of them. But my own voice suffered.
You can hear, and see, how difficult I found solo singing in this video from 1999 of my song “Where All Roses Go”. I reference Jeff Buckley in the introduction having shared a stage with him a few years before. I spent a wild night with him in London talking about the singer and the song. He produced a sound that was free, with an untamed passion. This was the antithesis of what I had been trained to do.
My voice survived on despite shouting my way through rehearsals and then presenting and singing in concert. It lasted for a long time – longer than it should have. Then in 2007 it began to fail. It had always been somewhat variable and the final outing for me was as part of the Celtic Origins project that year.
And then it was over. I couldn’t sing live except to bolster up the performers that surrounded me. I continued to record, but it was a staggeringly stressful experience that never allowed for spontaneity. Then I met Sylvia O Regan. Sylvia is a gifted teacher, and she coaxed my voice back from a very dark place. She allowed me to sing again.
Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t, but I have regained confidence in my voice somewhat. You can hear me sing most recently on the piece “Na Coille Cumhra” from 2019 – older, a little frail, but the sound comes now. Returning to a natural sound shouldn’t be such a difficult thing to do, but we are the measure of the experiences we have in life, good and bad. All joy, all sorrow write themselves on our voices.