On song, out of tune

We don't like perfoming in public unless we can make money at it

Nigella Lawson
Sunday December 10, 2000

Observer

I cannot, absolutely cannot, sing. I dare say most neurotics believe that there is one thing that eludes them that would make a difference to their confidence and their life. For me, it's singing. Many people say they can't sing, but really mean that they can't sing well. I mean that I have to mime to 'Happy Birthday'. And I mind. I would like to be able to sing, not just because I feel ashamed of my inability, but because I think singing is one of the few ordinary activities that can confer confidence, and even happiness.

John Rutter, the choral composer, observed last week that the British were 'no longer a singing people. You only have to go to a wedding to see people looking embarrassed at the hymns', he said. Rutter is surely touching upon a curiously significant malaise when he pinpoints the fall-off in ordinary local choirs and indeed any form of communal singing. Whether you can sing or not may hardly matter in the great scheme of things, but it does seem to say something about us as a society.

I am not about to get sentimental and start getting nostalgic about the nights we didn't watch telly but gathered around the old Joanna to have a good sing-song. But I do believe we are missing out on something. Singing with people, as a choir or in a group, can be a uniting experience. There can even be something cathartic about unselfconsciously unleashing the human voice.

Today, though we are obsessed with expertise and professionalism. It's not enough for someone to enjoy singing, they have to excel at it. So any singing ambitions a person may have today are less likely to be about forming part of a group, but about standing out, being special, having the spotlight on them - in short, being a star. People would even rather do a karaoke turn in the pub and fantasise about being a professional than a mere member of a group.

But choral singing is different for other reasons, too. It can absorb the individual as a visit to the cinema can, while watching television can't. A choir, like a good film, can engulf you. You can lose yourself in it. The individual human voice is somehow eclipsed and becomes greater than the sum of all the individual voices. Even a toad-voiced person such as myself can remember that special feeling of singing in a choir at school and of being lost in the collective voice. And that is where the catharsis lies. Sometimes losing yourself is when you can feel most yourself.

Singing requires both confidence and unselfconsciousness and neither are things that we do well in this age. We are knowing and we are anxious. And for all that we are supposed to live shallow and hedonistic lives, the truth is we constantly opt for recognition over pleasure. We cannot concentrate on the process: we are constantly striving only for the result. That is not only a loss; it is also counter-productive. Any human activity that is worthwhile derives its meaning as much from the process as the end purpose.

When Carrie Fisher wrote, in Postcards from The Edge, of 'being punished by rewards', she may have been describing singular experiences connected with her far from ordinary life, but she was voicing a universal idea, that the goal of certain activities is not the most important part.

The notion of community has been politically overplayed in recent years. None the less, some activities do create a sense of cohesion and belonging that otherwise eludes us. I wouldn't claim that joining a choir would solve the problems of a fragmented society or offer solace to alienated individuals but it is sad to speculate on the response you would get if you suggested it as a therapy in some places. 'What would be the point? Where's the gain?' the cynics would ask.

If an activity doesn't earn you money, or make you rich, then there is no value attached to it. True, we admire singers with good voices, but what matters even more is the number of records they've sold and how much money they've made. And that's what we want to emulate: their stardom rather than their talent. This has become what validates our existence.

Doing something professionally is a mark of status. Turning a personal quality into a financial asset is the natural consequence. In just the same way, when a good-looking girl wants to be a model it is not so much a mark of confidence as a way of seeing what about herself she can sell as a commodity.

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of the the way we've constructed our lives. The idea that someone might have a hobby now seems downright quaint. If they've got any sense, they'd be setting up a business, doing whatever it is that gives them pleasure to make themselves rich, we think. Why waste time enjoying yourself?

Such an attitude makes a testing business out of life. You can't always be pitting yourself against the world. And perhaps the particular comfort in singing, is that it is about being human, essentially human; song predates even speech. Where that leaves a vocal deficient like me, I wouldn't like to say, but a girl can dream.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007