Last Sunday I took my first ever music exam, a Grade 6 in Singing at Trinity Laban College in Greenwich. The more I think about it, the more momentous a milestone it was.

You see, I had a passion for learning the piano from early childhood and eventually persuaded my parents to send me to piano lessons when I was 9 years old. I practised on a table for the first year or so and was finally given a second-hand 1926 Cramer piano with a mahogany case and a beautiful mellow tone as a reward for doing well in my 11+ exam. I practised and played every night for years, with the piano always competing with the constant, loud television, but I was in my own world.

I played for myself really, my parents only wheeling me out to play for their assembled visiting friends and my mother never hiding her disappointment when all I could play was halting classical music from a book, when she just wanted me to play “nursery rhymes” by ear. I was not a good performer, crumbling every time I played a wrong note and the whole experience was terribly stressful for me, not helped by playing to such an unappreciative, uninterested audience. This situation continued for years, as my piano (and general) confidence was gradually eroded through my teens.

I decided on a whim to do music O’ level in my Lower Sixth form year and really enjoyed the course, which was taught as a one to one in my spare time. I worked towards my Grade 5 piano exam as it would exempt me from the dreaded aural paper. My piano teacher was a hippy type who didn’t really believe in putting her pupils through exams and I was just as clueless about the whole Grade system as my parents.

In the end, however, the combined pressures of A levels, first boyfriend, fear of performance and parental hostility were just too much and I ducked out of taking the Grade 5 piano. I did the O’ level Aural paper and actually got an A grade. But I never really played the piano again. My boyfriend’s (now husband’s) wonderful ability to play the piano by ear and work out songs through their chords both amazed and intimidated me and I couldn’t bring myself to pick through a piece and painfully work out what to play.U It is one of the biggest regrets of my life that I did not carry on with my music. What I needed then was someone telling me that yes, an exam was hard and intimidating but that I was good and that the hard work would be worth it. This is something I try to do with my children, both of whom have become fine musicians without any of my performance hang-ups.

Anyway, I carried on singing in the school choir for a couple of years and then stopped altogether, apart from singing along to cassettes and later CDs at home. Twenty years later I joined my local choir to sing Mozart’s Requiem and it became obvious to me that singing together taps into a a primeval human need. Singing with my choir has certainly maintained my sanity.

Imagine, then, how terrible it felt a couple of winters ago to lose my voice. First the ability to produce notes went, and then gradually the speaking voice. Luckily I was able to see a private ENT consultant very quickly, and, after putting a camera up my nose and down my throat, he told me that my vocal cords had thickened somewhat but that I had caught the problem in time to do something about it and referred me to a voice therapist.

It was the first session with the voice therapist that brought home to me how visceral singing is, for me anyway. It is a window into my soul, the only thing I did for myself and now it was threatened. He asked me what was going on in my life and the tears came. About how my career had been a disappointment, about how being an over-qualified housewife struggling to keep children on track while her husband pursued his demanding career was not what I had envisaged for my life. About how I just found everything so HARD. It was an eye-opener for me when the vocal therapist told me that as well as my physical problems, my voice loss was largely stress-related. I then spent a year learning and practising vocal exercises to strengthen my vocal cords. Drinking 1.5 litres of water every day and being caught short when out on dog walks… When he finally signed off my treatment, he warned me that my problems would recur if I continued to sing 1st Soprano without lessons in proper singing technique.

Which is how I find myself a year into demanding singing lessons with a renowned opera singer, who has been wonderfully sympathetic but also pushed me to achieve what I never thought I would. Now I have taken Grade 6, I want to progress further although I must radically improve my dire sight singing, which is the one aspect of last Sunday’s exam at which I really let myself down.

My programme was as follows:

Technical exercise: Vaccai Semitones

Recitative “Oh didst thou…?” and Aria “As when the dove…” from Handel’s Acis and Galatea

Song “Le Secret” Fauré

Song “The Water Mill” Vaughan Williams

Song “Someone to watch over me” Gershwin

Sight singing 🙁

Aural test.

Now that’s over, I can’t wait to start on some more lessons.

30 June 2011 Update:
Just found that I got a Merit mark for my exam. I’m pleased at that, especially as I appear to have failed the sight-singing test, just. I’m a bit disappointed, though, that I didn’t gain higher marks for the pieces, but clearly the examiner didn’t hear what I heard. I am, however, determined to work on my technical production and diction for next time. And the sight-singing!