Why I’m Not a Good Singer Any More

I am not a good singer. I love singing, but I’m not good. In a way I’m worse than a bad singer, because bad singers you can just smile and think “oh, poor them” and know that they know it too. I’m in that dangerous band of ability that is not-quite-very-good. It’s awkward for people because if my breathing messes up or I waver on a note, they don’t know if I know.  People who think they can when they can’t – delusion is cringeworthy. But the voice is an instrument and you have to practise.

If I played the guitar, and someone overheard me playing “Leaving On A Jet Plane” three times in a row with slight hesitation on the chord changes, they would think “That is someone practising the guitar. A bit annoying. But they are clearly practising.”

If I played the piano, and someone overheard me playing “Moonlight Sonata” three times and occasionally forgetting the accidentals, they would think “This is someone practising the piano. A bit annoying. But they are clearly practising.”

But people don’t – by and large – realise that singing requires practice too.

If I sing “The Voice Within” three times in a row, and I am really going for it, and then fall off it, people assume I’m a deluded wannabe with a Christina Aguilera fixation. The idea that I’m trying to do something I won’t ever be able to do unless I keep trying simply doesn’t occur to them. To them, singing is something you Can Just Do.

Here’s the thing. I am aware of this. I KNOW you can hear me. So I never practise properly. I want to go for the big note, but one can’t do that without fully committing and not being scared of it going wrong. Do the note! Oops, bit squawky! Too bad! Do it again! But for me, I’m aware that people can hear, and they judge, and find it ultimately more annoying than instrument practice because they can’t qualify it in their minds as practice. It’s self-indulgent karaoke caterwauling, so it’s instantly more annoying than something rooted in self-improvement.

People who think they can when they can’t. I am not that person. I do not think I can. I think I might be able to, one day. I know that right now I can’t – but how am I supposed to get there, when every time I try, people not only agree that I can’t, but won’t tolerate it as kindly because they don’t realise I don’t know that myself?

I think this is born of the fact that it seems anyone who can hold a tune and has a decent tone instantly gets the praise of being a “good singer” – which is odd. It seems like you have to play it safe to be a “good singer”. If you take risks and they go wrong, you are no longer a “good singer”, even if what you’re trying is technically more difficult.

An example.

I was writing little girly ditties at university (you know the kind – one girl and her guitar: I love you, you don’t love me, let’s sit on the grass and be poetical about rain), and I’d sit and breathe them out melodically, and it was nice enough, and people said “That’s nice. You’re a good singer.” But I wasn’t; it was nice, but basically humming with words.

Avec le band

I know, I know, the blonde was a mistake. How about that dress I designed though eh?

So I’m working on my breathing, my posture, my range, how and where I switch registers. I pick songs I aspire to and imitate singers I admire. I do things I KNOW I CANNOT DO. But I’m not a “good singer” any more, because people are hearing the practice. They hear the breaks, the cracks, the shakes, the strained messes I shouldn’t have attempted yet but couldn’t have known until I did. I’m actually a much, much better singer than I was, but people don’t think so, because it isn’t “nice” any more.

It should be made clear – if you want your kid to play guitar: get them lessons; make them practise. If you want your kid to play piano: get them lessons; make them practise. If you want your kid to sing, don’t just sit them in front of Sing-a-long-Songs and tell them they can hold a tune. Get them lessons; make them practise. Singers need a world that understands that singing – proper, challenging, versatile singing – is not easy. We need a world that is a little less ready to tell you you’re a good singer, and has just a little more tolerance for those that could be.

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In defence of mediocrity

(Edit: This blog is getting way more views than I expected! So I just want to add a little preface. As usual, it’s only the vocal minority that spoil things. Most people, when they find out that you like what they like, are absolutely thrilled. This blog was triggered by a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago about video games after which I felt like I just wanted to crawl in a hole. It made me reflect on how I’m changing my approach to my own enthusiasm.)

I used to think that I was extremist. A Marmiter. Incapable of indifference or mildness. I either loved something or hated it. Not so, now.

Have I grown up?

Have I mellowed?

Too late, it seems. I find myself in a world where that isn’t the right way any more. Where you can’t just kind of like something. Where you’re not anyone unless you can choke and giggle that you’re “obsessed with” x or y.

I kind of like anime. I’m not a connoisseur, and I don’t pretend to be, but I do kind of like it. I *really* like the ones I watch. I’m trying to learn Japanese because I think it’s a beautiful language. But if you’re into it, but not PROPERLY INTO IT, if you’re only halfway, then it must be pretension. They call it Weeaboo.

I kind of like video games. I don’t have the budget to play all the games I’d like to, but I keep up to date with things and I can pretty much hold forth on a conversation about games I’ve barely played. I don’t purport to have played every game ever made; I don’t pretend that gaming is a key and solid part of my daily routine – but I do kind of like it. I *really* like the games I’ve played. I get excited by references to those games and I feel like they’re an important part of my life. But if you’re into it, but not PROPERLY INTO IT, if you’re only halfway, then it must be pretension. They call it Fake Gamer Girl.

I kind of like Pokemon. I haven’t had the time or the money to keep up with all the games on all the platforms, and they’re now so terribly and beautifully and majestically complex that, like the little critters they feature, they have evolved into something so fearsome that only if you have trained at every stage from the beginning do you have any hope of keeping up with what’s going on. I don’t act like I can recite any further than #151, but I do kind of like it. I *really* like the N64 games and the first movie still makes me cry every. Single. Freaking. Time. But if you’re into it, but not PROPERLY INTO IT, if you’re only halfway, then it must be pretension. They call it Genwunner.

I kind of like the idea of comics. I’d like to read comics more. But I feel like I’m expected to be the classic comic book nerd who can cite the exact number and date of any given issue of any major comic franchise, because that’s become the Uncool Nerd thing. I feel like it’s a world that’s barred to me, that forbids me from even starting, because my ignorance will make me uncool to the Cool Uncool People.

Here are a few more things that I kind of like – actually, that I *really* like – and know a damn sight more about than most people, but not enough about to stop me from feeling like I’m just going to seem like a try-hard dumbass when I meet people who are PROPERLY INTO IT. Magic. Folk music. Herge. Snooker. Fashion. Whedon. Morris dancing. The Beatles. William Blake. Astronomy.

I am conceited enough to believe that I am the kind of young woman who at one time might have been thought accomplished. I know a considerable amount about a lot of things and I can hold a conversation on a whole range of possibly unexpected topics.

But I think that the Internet has opened possibilities that are simultaneously wonderful and very dangerous. You can find out everything about everything. A little about a lot is no longer any good. You have to know at least one thing in immense, paranoiac detail. As they say: le geek, c’est chic. That’s great – nobody should be looked down on. Celebrate your love. Celebrate the things you enjoy. But if I say I like something, please don’t shout me down, tell me I’m inadequate or say that I have no place among you simply because my knowledge of the topic is inferior to yours. I’m sorry that it’s not cool to have other interests that are of equal value to me and prevent me from devoting my entire being to one particular area of expertise.

Please, everyone: don’t create a world where someone can be too afraid to mention their enthusiasm for a topic for fear that it will prove insufficient. Right now, that someone is me.

This entry was posted on June 25, 2013. 4 Comments

The Persuasion of Book Covers, and vice versa

I just read an article in my Sunday paper. Note here that I get a Sunday paper, which I am using as a rather crude indicator that I count as an educated woman – that will be important shortly.

This article stated that We Need to Talk About Kevin author Lionel Shriver spoke at the Hay Festival about the use of ‘pastel colours and pretty pictures’ on the covers of ‘serious words by female authors’. According to the article, Shriver ‘said it was “bizarre” to think that educated women would be seduced by such branding’, with specific reference to the visual similarity to “chick-lit”.

I’ve got three points to make about that.

Back in Yorkshire (I’m currently elsewhere so can’t take a picture to illustrate this) I have a set of Jane Austen’s novels that meet this description. They are a variety of shades of pink, lilac and blue, and illustrated on the cover with silver and gold Regency ladies and flowers. They are unequivocally girly. They are definitely the kind of thing to which Shriver was referring.

Point 1: As I stated earlier, I think I’m an educated woman, by which I mean that I am familiar with Austen’s novels. We have a few old copies of some of them on the bookshelves around the house, and you can get them for free on Kindle. I buy books, these days, as artefacts, as attractive or interesting ways of framing the text of books I like, and rarely primarily as the text itself. I have these particular pretty editions because they’re pretty. They look good in my bedroom, like a poster than you can open up and read. I don’t feel “insulted on an aesthetic level”, Shriver, that a publisher offered me the choice to have the books I like in covers that suit my tastes.

Point 2: Suppose that an “uneducated woman”, by which I’m assuming Shriver means people who read chick-lit (a strange distinction to me, but clearly the insinuation) were to pick up my copy of Persuasion with no knowledge of Austen beyond a vaguely wistful notion of Colin Firth. I would not be the one to smack it from her hand and say, “No! This is not a Catherine Alliott! Return to your tales of clumsy receptionists and hot male advertising executives, plebeian!” Actually, I’d think, “Great. This person’s choosing to read one of my favourite books. I hope she likes it.” If any seduction is happening on an aesthetic level, I’d suggest that it is not the “educated women” who are being seduced. Any cover is an advertisement of some sort, and what is wrong with finding a way to target new audiences for great work? Simply because a woman hasn’t read Persuasion and is therefore, in this particular context, not “educated”, does not mean that she lacks the intelligence, wit and compassion to enjoy a book of such intelligence, wit and compassion. The likelihood is that she will. And if she does, and finishes it, she will come out the other end in some way “educated” and, having given me back my pretty lilac edition, she might download it for free on Kindle, or she might go out and choose a copy for herself, knowing that she can see a green leather Persuasion or a flowery pink paperback Persuasion and, knowing the text is the same inside, make an educated decision.

Point 3: People who enjoy chick-lit are not universally ill-educated, and not all chick-lit deserves the stereotype slurs to which I alluded in Point 2. I’m proud and happy to say that my pastel Austens sit beside a number of Marian Keyes books on my shelf. They look good together, because of, you know, the covers. But more than that. Keyes is a law graduate and therefore probably counts as an educated woman. She writes with intelligence, wit and compassion about challenging issues affecting women. Having faced great difficulty in her own life, she never ignores the darknesses of reality but allows her characters idealised happily-ever-afters. I think Keyes and Austen sit pretty comfortably side by side on my shelf. And, thanks to my choice of editions, they look like they do.

Why I don’t really give a #FF

Twitter is, as has often been observed, a strange place. I joined mostly because one evening my friend was live-tweeting pictures from a gig I wished I was at. Then, a bit later, I thought I should probably follow Derren Brown as well, because he is interesting and strange, which is 50% like me.

I very much doubt that most people (and here I mean individuals rather than companies or groups) join Twitter to tell people about what they’re doing. I imagine that, like me, most people originally start a Twitter account for the purpose of receiving information, and only then move on to the Transmit mode.

Twitterers reading this, I’d be really interested to know why YOU joined Twitter, so please do let me know in the comments if you would like to.

Non-Twitterers, why haven’t you and what might tempt you to do so?

You find interesting sources of information or accounts that make you laugh, and you want to share it. The #FF hashtag (Follow Friday), as Twitterers will know, is a weekly exhortation to your followers to follow certain named individuals. For example, if you like me and have no bad conscience about lying to your followers, you might one day tweet

Hey everyone, #FF @CressidaFord because she will make you laugh! #norefunds

But after a while of that sort of information-juggling, something happens. You encounter someone else who juggles in the same area of interest. You connect, and form a bond. The network expands, and more people appear, and you start using Twitter like Facebook – telling people what you’re doing and where you are, instead of just spreading “useful” information. The social bit comes into play – and you make friends: proper friends, friends you might even meet “IRL” (which is that weird thing that happens when you go AFK).

Which is where #FF suddenly gets awkward. What if you love and get on with someone, but all they do is tweet about their toast or the next book they’re going to read? It’s interesting to you, sure, because they’re your friend and you like to know what’s happening in their life, and it’s seen as a mark of friendship to #FF someone. But doesn’t it devalue the #FF if you are simply paying your friend a compliment and not actually recommending their content to your followers? Do we need to come up with a different hashtag for friendship? Matey Monday? Chummy Chooseday?

And so I very rarely #FF, and when I do, it’s because that person has posted things recently that I think have been worth sharing, and of interest not just to me but to the kind of people that follow me. I’m interested in what’s next on your reading list! I am! I want to talk to you about it, and read it myself or share what I thought! But I don’t necessarily think that my (admittedly measly) 200-odd followers, who follow me for reasons best known to themselves, will without question be as interested as I am.

Last question:

Twitterers – how many times, roughly, have you actually followed someone on the strength of an #FF? Has it been worth it?

Non-Twitterers – do you think friendship #FF or sharing #FF would be more interesting to you if you started on Twitter, and which would you prefer to receive?

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This entry was posted on October 5, 2012. 3 Comments

New puppies in the house

Jade Whittaker (whose initials, I have just realised, matched those of the organisation that bound us together) was my best friend until I was about nine. She was the first person I ever heard use the word “sexy” – she tried to make me say it, too, but I refused on the grounds that I knew that it was rude, though I was confounded if I knew what it meant.

Jade’s family had a fair bit more money than I did, and as a young girl in the early 90s, she of course had those little plastic animals produced by M.E.G. and Vivid Imaginations: Puppy in my Pocket. I was crazy about those little dogs, to the extent that I used to try and get invited round to her house to play with them. She had so many, and the pink “Play and Display” house… everything. Strangely, although I am definitely a cat person, the Kitty variation never grabbed me in the same way.

But I came to the craze a little late, and the market had moved on. M.E.G. were trying new, ever-tackier, ever-more-desperate attempts to capture the Vivid Imaginations of their easily bored target audience. What corner had not been exploited? Bunny, Pony, Teddy, and finally (most gruesomely) Baby gradually took over the shelves of my pilgrimage in Woolwell Tesco and Toys ‘R’ Us. Puppy was old hat and I was bereft.

If you, too, used to collect them, you might remember that you got a list of all the puppies manufactured at that time, called a Collectafile, one of which Jade gave me so I at least had the pictures. There, on the last page, was a glimmer of hope. A number to dial to help you fill the gaps in your collection (or, in my case, build it from scratch).

I used to get £5 a month pocket money if I had done well in my lessons – which I always did, not because I’m particularly clever but because my mother is the most amazing teacher. Once a month I would wake like it was Christmas morning, because pocket money became Puppy In My Pocket money. They were £1 each and another £1.50 postage, but it was always the same lady on the phone, and she got to know my voice, and ended up always letting me off the postage so my £5 could buy a whole five puppies.

Occasionally some extra money from walking the dog two doors down would help my cause and get me one or two more for the month. I saved up tokens from cereal boxes and got the house and the hospital and the exclusive puppies. In many months’ time, I had an empire. And it occurred to me this month, as I arranged them proudly on my shelf in my Edinburgh home, that what made them so much more special – so much more important – than any other toys I have ever had… was that I bought every single one myself, with my own money.

Time has passed. The telephone number doesn’t work any more. Puppy In My Pocket has been resurrected in new twee varieties two or three times since then. But I still collect those originals. I still hope to fill the gaps. Yes, they are plastic dogs and I am 25, but I still love them.

And Jade, wherever you are now, I hope you’re happy and I hope you got out. And I bet you’re well sexy.

This entry was posted on September 27, 2012. 5 Comments

BAFTA bafflement

Maggie Smith. Am I missing something?

While her performance in Downton has been undeniably entertaining, the reasons for the role’s continuing popularity seem to fall exclusively at the feet of the scriptwriters; her cutting one-liners and breezy put-downs are pure screenplay magic. But is there really anything in the delivery of those lines that sets Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, apart from Minerva McGonagall? And yet this enjoyable yet persistently unsurprising character has been subject to no fewer than six award nominations (a Golden Globe and now a BAFTA among them), and two wins, including an Emmy. Identical to her equally award-laden (and equally bafflingly so) role as Constance, Countess of Trentham in Gosford Park, Jean Brodie it certainly ain’t.

By far the canniest acting talent among the women of Downton is Laura Carmichael, whose understated and delicate portrayal of Lady Edith is by turns touching and comical. But the Dame has the pedigree, so the Dame has the chums.

This is to say nothing of the howling nomination of Miranda “Miranda” Hart for her role as Miranda in Call the Midwife, or the startling omission of ratings favourite and critical jamboree Sherlock from Best Miniseries.

On the other hand, I don’t envy the panel trying to pick between Andrew Scott and Martin Freeman in the Best Supporting Actor category (because, excellent though their fellow nominees were, it can’t really be either of them that walks away with that creepy golden mask on a stick).

Scott’s Moriarty was electric, a batty, volatile charm-bomb akin to a cross between Mr Teatime and Graham Norton. While landing solidly in the “evil genius” archetype, he played the part with such delicious enjoyment and darkness that his scenes were more thrilling than fireworks.

However, Freeman, better known for his comedy acting and his silent expressions (the published screenplays for The Office acknowledge frequently that “Tim reacts” is the only stage direction needed to convey the moment), shows in his Watson the apparently effortless ability to switch these reactions from comic to tragic. By turns the farcical fall guy and the driving emotional force, Watson never brushes close to archetype. His closing scene in The Reichenbach Fall left a nation in tears, which, for me, should just clinch the award.

But it’s still a very close call. Because, fortunately for both of these chaps, Maggie Smith wasn’t cast as Lestrade.

This entry was posted on April 24, 2012. 1 Comment

“Just” magic

I have no idea why I feel compelled to write about magic on TV, or think I am in any position really to do so, but hey, it’s what interests me. I’d like to know what you think about it too.

I watched CBBC’s “Help! My Supply Teacher Is Magic” for the first time recently. What a great idea for a show, I thought! But – and I really, really didn’t want to have to say this – I think I was wrong. (Am I just really fussy about magic on TV? Answers on a postcard or blog-comment)

The wonder of magic entertainment is to see something made possible which you know to be impossible. There’s an appreciation of the creativity and skill that can develop something like that; Latimer’s “shaping water” from a few weeks ago on the Magicians (which I won’t bore you about again other than to say that several format changes have improved it) is an excellent example of an illusion where the audience KNOWS that what they’re seeing isn’t what’s happening, but dammit, it sure as hell looks like it.

HMSTIM comes from completely the wrong angle. Kids in the classroom are amazed and enraptured to see that science is capable of teleporting an egg, of switching off gravity and floating the teaching assistant, right before their eyes, right there in the classroom. Technology is advancing quickly these days, and these children are thrilled to see what they believe to be the accomplishments of progress. They stare, open-mouthed, at the possibilities these developments appear to present.

And then the “teacher” comes clean. “It’s not science… I’m a magician!” That’s right… not so amazing after all, you guys… it’s not real… it’s JUST MAGIC. At every reveal in the episode I was watching, there was such a huge sense of disappointment that only got clawed away by hastily pointing out that there are hidden cameras everywhere and, hey, they’re going to be on the telly! That’s when the excitement comes back. Oh! Telly! Yes. We know about telly.

Rather than showing these children what they know to be impossible, the premise of HMSTIM is to convince them that it IS possible, and then destroy that belief. Which is probably funny for the kids watching, but not so much for the class.

Here comes the oft-referenced Seinfeld quote: “All magic is “Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone. You’re a jerk. Now it’s back. You’re an idiot. Show’s over.” Magic, recently, has done so much to fight back against this, with witty, wry shows from knowing, but never smug, performers. Yet seemingly, someone ignored this and decided to pitch – and someone else decided to commission – a show which combines two popular trends in current TV (magic and hidden cameras) to create some kind of Trigger Happy Fool Us. Which just sounds like Derren Brown’s Russian Roulette stunt, but rubbish.

Nevertheless, the “Wannabe Wizards” segment is the highlight, a real delight to watch; seeing young kids all around the country who are already pretty damn proficient in magic is wonderful and gives a lot to look forward to. The children growing up with The Magicians, Fool Us and HMSTIM at the moment are the ones who will be working their butts off every night through August one year at the Fringe, and I will be in the audience, and I have got to say, based on what they’re like now, I’m really looking forward to it.

And now, like Marc Warren, I’m going to point at the bottom of the screen and say “but what do YOU think?” – but in a less creepy way.

This entry was posted on February 18, 2012. 3 Comments