Beyond Brilliant (or C is for Choir)

I jokingly said I’d write a poem about choir for today’s challenge. This is the first one I’ve ever written, so I know it’s not brilliant but it was hugely enjoyable to write. And as I’m sometimes a front row diva, I feel entitled to take the mick. After all, one should be able to laugh at oneself!

Big Gig 2016

Rock Chorus performing their Big Gig

Beyond Brilliant

Blue hoodies

and black shoes.

Men and women

singing away their blues.

 

Old and young,

the point is to have fun.

Haven’t sung since school?

Well, this choir’s for everyone.

 

Four sips in and another four out.

Swivel your hips

and shake away your doubts.

Lauren counts us in and off we go,

some voices high and others low.

 

We sing Madonna, Tom Petty

and some Coldplay too.

With forty songs under our belt,

there’s a lot for us to do.

 

But expect a lot of giggling

if you mention Toploader.

Oh the jokes made about that song

If only you knew!

 

Camaraderie and laughter

is really all we’re after.

You want us to sing in harmony?

Well, we can do that too!

 

Sometimes we sing to three men and a dog,

with the raining lashing down

it’s all part of the job!

Other times we have a Big Gig to get through

and that’s when you really see what we can do.

 

The rehearsal beforehand can be a bit of a fight,

with too many divas wanting the limelight.

What do you mean I can’t stand in the front row?

It’s my right to stand here. Didn’t you know!

 

But when the curtain goes up and the lights go down,

watch out folks. Rock Chorus is in town.

Twenty two songs sung with passion and feeling

If you’re really lucky we’ll throw in some tambourine-ing.

 

Blue hoodies

and black shoes.

Men and women

singing away their blues.

 

 

 

Overcoming depression: the power of music and friends too

Well it’s been a very long time since I’ve posted on here! There’s one reason for that – I have a job as an editor – woo hoo! I’m still writing but for the magazine I work for rather than on here. As I’m learning now, there are different styles of writing, and crafting a magazine article is an entirely different skill to writing a blog post and it is a process that takes a long time. There has simply been very little time to blog.

So why bother to post today? Two reasons: the power of music and it’s ability to help you out of the black pit of despair that is depression and anxiety and the importance of support from friends and family. You see, the blog has come full circle – I was inspired to write my first post because of my experience of depression and as I have been suffering another episode, I felt compelled to write about it again.

Nearly a month ago now, as I was leaving a Rock Chorus rehearsal (my beloved choir), my friend turned to me and asked in a concerned voice if I was feeling OK?

“Why”, I asked.

“You seem a bit flat”, she said. I replied that I was and the realization that I was feeling low again hit me with such force it was like someone had beaten me with a crow bar and left me sprawled on the pavement gasping. It really took my breath away. I walked back to the car shaking, with tears rolling down my face. I sat there for a few minutes and raged that the depression was back. It seemed so unfair; I thought I’d put all of that behind me and moved on. Fuck, damn and bollocks!

Back at home, my husband took one look at me and said “What’s the matter?”
There’s no hiding anything from him after 20 years of marriage!
“I feel really depressed again I said”, crying.
“Why?” he asked gently, hugging me.
“I feel like I’m running just to stand still and it’s making me stressed and I want to cry all the time”, I replied.

I told him that if he could help me get stuff done, it would help me feel better. He has since been quietly doing this and looking for things for us to do together, like going to the theatre. Couple time is important and something we don’t get enough of.

The fact that I had only been going through the motions at choir really upset me too, because I usually have a brilliant time. Last summer, I really grew in confidence, singing at most of our gigs and standing at the front on some occasions and loving it. The thought has even come into my head (and refuses to go away) that one day I might stand up at the mic and do a little solo. After two years with them, I am finally learning to breathe and therefore sing properly and my voice is developing nicely.

The first thing I did was to tell everyone how I was feeling (via Facebook where else!) and was overwhelmed by the support I received; phone calls, flowers, lunch dates. My editor was great, calling me everyday to see how I was and just listening to me. My sister too keeps in regular contact; when I need support she gives it, if I just want to chat, she listens.

The worst thing is that when I’m feeling really bad, I’m on edge all the time and feel like I want to snap. Trying to get through the day is very, very hard. I don’t want to talk to anyone but just lie in bed and hide. If anyone asks how I’m feeling on a day like that, I’m likely to dissolve into tears. Publication day for the latest edition was one such time. I don’t really know how I got through it; I do know I was difficult to deal with; unmotivated, moody and actually a right bitch!

Throughout this month there has been a little voice in my head telling me that I must carry on doing the things I normally do, even though I don’t want to, because in the end they make a positive difference. So I’ve got myself out of bed, done the school run, carried on with the housework, the writing, the editing, the accounts, my computer course and choir, even though on many a day I have just wanted to run away and not be bothered, when nothing has cheered me up and I’ve felt empty and alone. The only time of day I’ve kind of looked forward to is the evening, when the kids are in bed and I can curl up and watch the TV or read my book.

The only thing I didn’t keep up were my Landmark seminars. (I went on a fabulous personal development course run by them back in January and there has been a series of seminars afterwards.) The thought of going into London once a week and not returning until 11.30 pm was just too much. Depression can make you tired and in my case it has been affecting my sleep. I didn’t feel like being sociable either and pretending nothing was wrong. I did tell my seminar group what was happening though and knowing they were concerned and wanted to help me made a big difference. Last night I actually made the effort to go and enjoyed sitting there listening to people and seeing my friends.

One of my closest friends came to visit a couple of weekends ago and her company helped enormously. We took the kids and the dog for a walk along the Grand Union Canal in the sunshine, drank beer, made cake pops and played Scrabble. Normal everyday stuff and someone I could be myself with, which was just what I needed.

What has finally begun to lift me out of my funk though is music. I know I have talked about this before but since then I have come to appreciate its ability to lift my mood on a much deeper level. I have learnt that singing raises your serotonin levels which are lowered when you are depressed and it increases your endorphin and oxytocin levels too. All important for improving your mood. It is also very beneficial for people with Parkinsons and Dementia.

Last Saturday was our annual Big Gig, when over a hundred people got together to perform; it is the highlight of our year and not to be missed. A few days before, I realised that I was actually getting excited about the performance, which I hadn’t been before. A chink of light had penetrated the fog of depression – thank God! The rehearsal was gruelling – three hours is a long time to be on your feet – but went well. You know, this gig is going to be awesome I thought. I wasn’t disappointed.

I went and performed on stage with the thrill of knowing I was doing something well and that incredibly uplifting feeling you get when you sing with a large group of people. There is nothing like it. My Mum came along to watch for the first time.

“That was really good fun”, she said, “I just wanted to get up and dance the whole time”.

I couldn’t have asked for higher praise. The whole point of Rock Chorus is that it is supposed to be fun – if you can actually sing too all the better.

The high I felt after the gig has lasted the whole week. I couldn’t wait to go along to the next rehearsal and sing our new song, Like I Can by Sam Smith, on Wednesday. You could tell the rest of the choir were still on a high after the gig too, we sang really well. This feeling has also helped me to get on with stuff this week; to get out a nearly finished article and edit it, to ring my editor and say come on when are we going to do the next edition, to get along to Landmark for my seminar and to write this post.

What this episode has taught me is that my depression obviously has the potential to be a recurring theme in my life but if I can work out what triggers it, perhaps I can take preventative measures when I see the warning signs.

Although this month has been hard and I’m not quite myself yet, deep down I haven’t lost that conviction that actually I can do whatever I want in life if I put my mind to it. Life is not a rehearsal, this is the only chance we have, so go out and live it the way you want to whatever obstacles are thrown in your way!

Music is Good for You!

Some friends of mine at choir were surprised to find out last week that I used to play for Kobe Symphony Orchestra nearly 20 years ago. So I’m hoping this post explains how that all came about.

Music has always been part of my life and until it was absent for several years, I had no idea just how important it was for me. If I was a religious person, I would say it was part of my soul but I’m not, so let’s just say that it is vital to who I am as a person. I love music of all kinds and when I perform, I can feel real joy and get a thrill from it too. A rather inadequate explanation, I think, but I find it’s hard to put into words.

So why, I hear you ask, do I love it so much? Well let me try and explain. You see, I come from a very musical family; everyone plays something or sings and I have been immersed in music my whole life. My love for it comes from my father. A keen amateur musician, he is still as active as ever on the local music scene, although he is nearly 70.

As far back as I can remember, there was always classical music playing in our house if Dad was home. Symphonies, quartets, songs, Gilbert and Sullivan and serious opera would all come blasting out of Dad’s trusty record player at full volume; so I was absorbing and learning about music all the time, without really realizing it.

A child of the 70s, a time when we didn’t have lots of toys and electronic entertainment, my sister and I made up a lot of our games. If it was raining, one of our favourite occupations was to raid the dressing up box, put on a costume and then play records of musicals like South Pacific and sing and dance around to them. We would also listen to Mum’s Beatles records and sing along to them too. I was taken to watch Dad playing in his orchestral concerts too, from a very young age.

When I was 7, I started learning the piano and a year later the cello. I was destined to play that cello! Dad had bought it for Mum, hoping that she would learn and join him in making music but she wasn’t very interested. So as the daughter who had the bigger hands, the cello was mine and my younger sister learnt the violin instead. It was Dad who decided what we were going to play and him who took us to our lessons and made sure we practiced. If that sounds rather authoritarian in today’s child-centered culture, I can honestly say that it did neither of us any harm whatsoever and we are both very grateful to him today for making us stick at it. Of course we moaned about practising but every child does, once the novelty has worn off and you realize that it’s going to be years until you are any good!

I was fortunate where I grew up to have a strong local music society for children (MYMS), which met at one of the senior schools every week. Children from all over the local area came to join in the music making and there were lots of different groups to cater for them.

I joined the junior orchestra when I was 10 and progressed to the senior group not long after. I went to MYMS for the next 8 years until I finished school and went off to university. As a child who hated P.E. and wasn’t therefore part of a team and who was bullied at school, music became a refuge for me. I liked being with other people who enjoyed playing too and it was fun to be part of a group and socialise with friends. Not only did we give regular concerts but we also had the opportunity to go on tour. I have very fond memories of my trips to Germany and Sweden; we had a great deal of fun staying with our host families!

At 13 I moved to a girl’s grammar school and that’s when I really became heavily involved in music. I joined the school orchestra and choir and after a couple of years, joined the chamber orchestra and choir as my playing improved. So just about every lunchtime, I was playing or singing in some group and then there were cello and piano lessons during and after school and MYMS.

What kept me doing all of this, apart from my father? The music teacher at the grammar school, Mr B. After nearly 30 years, I only have a vague recollection of most of my teachers but not him. His passion and enthusiasm for music shone through everything he did and he was a great teacher. As a school orchestra we played pieces which I now realize are pretty difficult, like Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” but under his teaching, we not only managed them but played them with panache.

He also inspired true devotion from the students. Whenever he took to the stage before a concert, he would receive a huge round of applause and foot stamping from the orchestra, never mind the audience! Under his direction the school also produced some fantastic musicals like “The Boyfriend” (with boys drafted in from the boy’s grammar!). I still have the rave review from the local paper, which said that the production was as good as any professional one. A proud moment!

Sadly, Mr B. left after I did my O levels and music at the school was never the same again. The orchestra were given pieces that were far too easy for them and we quickly became bored; although being good girls, we still turned up! Spending so much time with the same people, both at school and at MYMS, and sharing so many formative experiences has made me some life long friends, some of whom no doubt, are reading my blog.

Music making was not just confined to school; plenty of it went on at home too! I have spent hours and hours playing simple Mozart and Haydn trios with my Dad and sister, progressing on to playing harder quartets when we were older and we could get another violin player to come round. If I wasn’t playing chamber music I would be listening to it; Dad was often inviting people round to play in the evenings or at weekends and the music could not only be heard in the house but halfway down the street as well! I have also played in countless amateur chamber concerts with family and friends over the years.

A great deal of music making went on with the wider family too when I was growing up. Whereas most families will get together, have a meal and chat. In mine, once the eating was done, out came the stringed instruments and the question became “What to play?”. The answer is quartets, quintets, octets even. Sometimes friends of the family who played wind instruments or the piano joined us too, widening the repertoire. On one famous occasion we had enough musical people in the extended family to put on a production of the Messiah in the village hall, conducted by my Dad. As you can see, we’re an unusual family!

Music making carried on all the time, whether I was at school or not. All of my summer holidays were spent at my parent’s holiday home in France (see my blog about St. Sauveur). Such is my father’s passion for music, that our instruments were taken out along with the suitcases and he would always find people to play music with. The locals enjoyed our music too and would come and listen to us play regularly, sipping aperitifs provided by Mum.

My sister and I would attend residential music courses in the holidays too, along with many of our friends. It was an invaluable experience. A week of intensive playing improved our skills no end and gave us the opportunity to play pieces that we might not otherwise have done. Also, it’s fun to spend the week away from home with your mates, listen to pop music, play rowdy games of cards, sneak out at night and drink illegal alcohol; an essential part of growing up, I would say!

What about pop music then? Although it was rarely played in the house until my sister and I became teenagers, because Dad’s love is classical through and through, we absorbed it from other sources. Hearing it at other people’s house, on the radio, at parties, on the television, at school. We always watched “Top of Pops” with Mum too, so I know all the classic 70s and 80s bands and as I’ve grown up have developed my own taste in music. As I sit here writing this blog, I have been listening to Michael Jackson, Keane and Dido.

Music making has also been a big part of my adult life. There wasn’t a lot at university, I’ll admit. I tried the university orchestra and hated it. As I wasn’t a music student, the other players were very unfriendly and wouldn’t include me in their social life or even talk to me much. Also, I didn’t like the conductor or his compositions that he made us play, so I quickly left.

To be honest, I realize now that I also wanted to try different things. I’d grown up in a small village and led a very sheltered life. My sister and I never went anywhere with friends or did the things other teenagers do; there just wasn’t the chance. Suddenly, I was living in a big city with endless experiences on offer. Life became about clubbing on the weekend and filling in the gaps in my musical education; it became about having boyfriends and getting drunk; it became about living away from home and managing my own money, learning to cook, staying in bed until lunchtime if I wanted to, dealing with relationship breakups, falling out with friends and making new ones, learning how to study on my own and pass exams. In other words, real life.

Once I was married and we had moved to a town where we didn’t know anyone, I joined the local amateur orchestra in order to meet some people. I had barely settled in though, when my husband was given the chance to work in Japan for 2 years and we decided to go.

Quite by coincidence, a friend of Dad’s, also a musician, had emigrated to Japan a few years before (he had a Japanese wife, who wanted to go back and live in her country) and he lived in Kobe.  Introductions are everything in Japanese culture and Dad’s friend happened to know someone who played in Kobe Symphony Orchestra and so he came along to a rehearsal with me and introduced us.

Playing in an orchestra in a foreign country, where I could barely speak a word of the language at first was hard but I enjoyed it nevertheless. What saved me was my desk partner who spoke really good English. He would patiently translate what the conductor was saying and the German that the instructions were written in (yes, German not Italian, as they usually are!) and made a real effort to include me in the social life of the orchestra. He sadly died of cancer in 2001 and was missed by everyone.

We worked hard in the orchestra; rehearsals were much longer than I was used to, with barely a 10 minute break in the middle but we played hard too, always going out for a drink after and socializing. I made some good friends who helped me to feel more at home, in what was a very different place. On a visit to Japan this Easter, I met up with one of these friends and we reminisced about old times and my desk partner, who is still fondly remembered after 13 years.

Returning to live in this country, I rejoined the local orchestra and stayed with them until a persistent shoulder injury led me to reluctantly give up playing. Then I had two children and moved house as well and before I knew it, 7 years had passed and I hadn’t picked up my cello once.

I had been aware that there were some choirs in Milton Keynes for some time but it took a while before I plucked up the courage to go to one just over a year ago. After all, I hadn’t sung since school and even then I didn’t do it seriously.

I’m not talking classical singing though, this is something completely different! We rock along to more contemporary songs; three-part arrangements of Living in a Prayer and Locked out of Heaven, with “moves” thrown in as an added bonus. Instead of playing in traditional concert halls, gigs are more likely to be outside at local music festivals. And it is FUN! Like my former music teacher, the choir leader loves music and is an enthusiastic and talented teacher. Knowing just how far you can push people to get the best out of them but not take it too far is an art she has perfected. She is also very knowledgeable about singing and helps us with style and technique, as well as having a fantastic voice of her own. A funny lady as well, we spend a lot of time laughing at her one-liners in between singing; which helps us to relax and bond with one another. It goes without saying that I have got many friends in the choir and it is also a chance to do something just for myself. As a busy mother, opportunities like that are few and far between!

I am so glad that I joined and found my music again. I didn’t know how much I missed it, until I realized one day that choir night had become the highlight of my week. The point about music, I think, is that you can enjoy it on any level; you don’t have to be an expert. Choir is a great example of this. Not many of us can read music and there are probably even fewer who have had such an extensive musical experience as me but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Enthusiasm and enjoyment of what we are doing is just as important. Our recent sell out concert proves that!

 

 

The First Steps

Back in September last year, I was hit by the most awful depression and anxiety. Looking back, I think it had been building up for years. Caring for two young children, running the PTA, adopting a dog with severe separation anxiety, trying to do my husband’s accounts and the boredom and frustration of staying at home with no outlet for my intellect was all too much.

Out with a friend one day, I started to cry and poured out all my worries. Concerned, she told me to go to the doctor straight away and ask for some help. Just going to the surgery started me on the road to recovery. To my disappointment the doctor didn’t give me any tablets but listened sympathetically and ordered lots of blood tests as she was worried how tired I was feeling.

Back at home, I realized that I would have to make some changes if I was going to cope better with the strains of my busy life. Although I felt like I was letting people down and knowing that I may loose some friends, one of the first things I did was to resign as chair of the PTA. Whilst it had previously been something that had given purpose to my life, after 6 years it had become a terrible burden and a truly thankless task.

Fighting tears, I plucked up the courage to go and see the Head Teacher and tell her that I wasn’t able to carry on. She was really sweet and told me not to feel guilty because I had already given countless hours of my time to the organisation. Gradually the feeling of guilt passed and I know that it was for the best. It is far too easy these days to put everyone else first and forget about your own needs!

Chatting to a friend in the playground shortly afterwards, she mentioned that she had found out about a computer course in town and was thinking of enrolling. “Let’s go together”, I suggested. Both of us have been stay-at-home mums for 10 years and felt like it was time for a change. A decade is a very long time to be out of the workplace and we both felt completely out of touch with technology and lacking in self confidence. Doing the course has been fantastic! We’ve been going together and helping one another out and after six months are both about to graduate.

Singing has also helped my mood enormously. I have been a member of Rock Chorus for just over a year and I can honestly say that I have never had such fun before in my life. I grew up in a musical family and learned cello and piano to quite a high standard. As a shy child and one who hated P.E., music gave me the social outlet I needed. I have played in orchestras since I was 10 until I had to give up due to a chronic shoulder injury about 7 years ago. Thinking about why I was feeling so low, I realized it was partly Imagebecause I had no music in my life. Unable to play my cello, I decided to try singing. Well, it has become the highlight of my week and something that I do just for myself; I have realized late in life that this is much more important than I thought.

Now that the computer course is over, I have found myself in the house alone far too much, with my mood spiralling down again, so I’m hoping that this blog will once again give purpose to my life, while I contemplate the next hurdle – getting a job!