Psychologist was not in fact my first profession. I left school at 16 and by the time I was 17 I was working as a professional actor and singer. In fact those were my professions until having actually done quite well, I made what in retrospect may well have been a big mistake and decided to get an education at the age of 25.
I always found acting rather easy, and maybe for that reason have never really valued my ability in that regard. However, in contrast I did not and do not find singing easy. I desperately wanted to be able to sing well and worked very hard indeed to achieve that goal. I had some success, and objectively when I listen to some of my recordings I have to admit that I was not half bad, but in truth, deep down I really don’t think I can sing.
Enter Mother in villain’s costume, stage right.
My mother fancied herself as a dance band singer and indeed had a pleasant voice, but was riddled with resentment that she had never pursued a professional career (which she blamed on my father).
It is a source of joy and wonder to me when either I observe or hear of mothers encouraging their children. I started taking singing lessons around about the age of 14 or 15 and continued into my twenties. From the very earliest time I can remember my mother made it very clear to me that I absolutely could not sing, and that if I cared anything about music I should not try to do so. I should add that my father was as ever vaguely encouraging even to the extent of trying to help me practice at home using his seriously limited accompanist skills which in retrospect may very well have contributed to my difficulty.
The first time I sang on stage in a musical theatre production the curse apparently followed me. It is hard to believe now, but in those days I played ‘awfully nice young men’ and I had the juvenile lead. I survived the first duet reasonably well but then came to the ensemble number at the end of the first act. I began the number with a line of recitative. Exactly at that moment a lady sitting bang centre on the front row suffered an epileptic fit.
I can remember two things distinctly (I may talk about posttraumatic memory at another time). First, the thought went through my head ‘I think my mother might be right’, and second, I have an enduring memory of the unfortunate lady’s legs flying up in the air to reveal a pair of what I think they called bloomers in those days (knickers with long elasticated legs); they were powder blue, as I recall. If that was not bad enough, the situational response of the theatre management was to dispatch four men running down the centre aisle in order to each take an arm and a leg of the unfortunate woman and carry her back up the aisle foaming at the mouth and flailing. I turned from my position centre downstage to see every other single cast member with his or her back to the audience in fits of laughter.
The outcome was that even when I was singing professionally I could never sing in the presence of my mother. For some reason whenever I attempted it I became tone deaf, lost my sense of rhythm, and could never remember the lyric (apart from that I was great).
Fast-forward 25 years or so. My great aunt died. We are a small and ever dwindling family. My great aunt had requested that “Amazing Grace” be sung at her funeral service. I decided to take this as an opportunity to overcome the curse of attempting to sing in front of my mother. I bought the music, I rehearsed, I even went so far as to have a couple of lessons for the first time in more than 20 years, and you know what? I absolutely nailed “Amazing Grace”.
My evil plan was to stand next to my mother at the funeral service and blast out “Amazing Grace” with all the gusto I could muster, thus overcoming the curse.
As I say, we are not a large family, and so the funeral consisted of me and my mother on the front row, the somewhat bemused person conducting the service intending to deliver a eulogy for someone he had never met and had only heard about for two minutes, and the undertaker. The undertaker was standing right at the back of the crematorium.
“Amazing Grace” wormed its way to the next item of service, and I launched. Oh my goodness, did I launch; in fact, standing next to my mother I blasted “Amazing Grace” as “Amazing Grace” has never been blasted before. I felt rather smug.
Leaving the crematorium my mother said, “That ‘Amazing Grace’ was fantastic. I could not believe that singing.” I’ve done it, I thought: I’ve done it. And then she went on: “That undertaker had one of the nicest voices I’ve ever heard.”
I had been standing right next to my mother. I had been blasting her eardrum at a range of about seven inches. Either she had mistaken me for the chap standing at the back, or she had somehow successfully managed to filter out every sound I made.
The exercise was a complete success. I was almost helpless with laughter before the end of the day. As far as I am concerned the curse was broken, and I guess if I really had to I could sing in front of my mother. Why? Because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.