In a half-remembered, possibly apocryphal anecdote, a famous conductor stands with a colleague as they listen to a young soprano sing.  The colleague expresses his appreciation of her fine voice, phrasing and shimmering high notes.  “Yes”, agrees the conductor, “but she will be even better when her heart has been broken.” 

Image by NeONBRAND

On our summer family holiday, we visited our friends in the Western Isles of Scotland – way out towards America, and we went with them to their church.  Their rich tradition includes the singing of the Psalms in English and Gaelic as well as hymns.  All their music is led by a precentor standing at the front of the assembly and to lead the psalms he will intone the first line of a verse before the congregation repeat it, often individually adding their own small variations to the tune.  The psalms are always unaccompanied and the precentor will pick a key – somehow!  There are certainly no tuning forks apparent!  In terms of a conventionally ‘perfect’ musical rendition, this system has much against it! There will be maybe 75 - 100 people all singing at slightly different times, with slightly different interpretations.  However, the effect is astonishing.  To hear this group of people drawn from all areas of life; the shopkeeper, the fireman, the doctor, the school-kids, the social worker, the crofter  – singing with heart and soul these ancient yet personally meaningful words of the psalms with such commitment and vigour and with such strong expressions of their faith and worship, put our often anaemic, careful and prissy performances in the shade.  In fact, I can hear that precentor’s voice ringing in my ears still. These hardy Northern folks who are still at the mercy of the wind and waves have left a deep impression on me and if you ever find yourself up there, quietly slip in to church and join them to hear some real soul music.  They certainly have something to sing about.

This rather harsh sounding story, yet one that I could easily imagine being true, contains a real nugget of truth.  That young soprano had all the ‘right’ things going for her but the conductor in his gnarly wisdom realised that as beautiful as the sound was, as perfect as her vocal technique was, as fresh and beautiful as she most probably looked, there was yet something missing.  She simply had nothing to sing about.  Yes, the role or the words of the songs could be perfectly enunciated but the core of the person, the reasons for singing, the beliefs, hopes, pains and joys of that human being standing before him were absent or too hidden for him to detect. 

As a young student, I remember being deeply impressed by other musicians flawless technique or by their other-worldly dexterity or seeming perfection and whilst I still hold an admiration for the talents and dedication of those marvellous players or singers, these days such performances leave me cold and wanting so much more than a virtuosic rendition of the score.  I would now happily trade a soulless but polished performance for a somewhat hairy performance of a song that had real personality and something to say to me beyond the composer’s marks on the page. Maybe this comes with hoary age!  My young daughter and I have a regular tussle over the value of Bob Dylan’s singing which appears on our family car playlist.  She - like me at a younger age, cannot stand the swooping, droning sound of Bob in ‘Hey Mr Tambourine Man’ and I have to admit to a regular chuckle myself at the expense of his agricultural harmonica playing.  Nevertheless, good old Bob has got something to say, even if it is nonsense, and that floats my boat!

Image by Nathan Anderson