“There’s gold in that voice,” my singing teacher said.
She was talking to my mother. I’d first seen that smile on my mother’s lips when I was around two or three years old. It happened when the adults around me had identified the noise I made as singing. Now, at the grand old age of six, I couldn’t remember a time without my voice, without singing.
My parent’s encouragement had made itself known in a small, pale blue, miniature baby grand piano that waited for me under the Christmas tree one year. It was perfect. I was delirious with excitement. A toy, with real keys that I could individually play, I adored that piano. Hours blurred one into another as I sang along to my heart’s content. The noise must have driven everyone around me insane. No wonder then that the piano disappeared one day, never to be found again.
I don’t know where the urge to sing came from, but there it was. Only much later did I discover that my grandmother also sang. Her grandmother was an opera singer in Europe somewhere before they’d left to make a new home in Africa, where we now lived.
We lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere. It was a big deal when guests came to visit. As the distances between farms were so huge, visitors would typically stay for a meal – either lunch or dinner. I was the entertainment. My mother would dress me up, brush out my long hair, and I would be summoned to sing for the adults after the meal. I can’t remember what I sang – it might have been hymns. Afterwards, I would receive applause and my mother would give me sweets to share with my sister as we were sent away from the adult company.
When it came time for school, I joined all the other shy, unsocial children from the surrounding farms. We stared at each other with big, curious eyes, but had learned that children were to be seen, not heard. We were an obedient, quiet bunch. Talking in front of each other was a struggle. Singing was out of the question. So, when the teacher wanted to test us for the choir, she devised a cunning plan. Square windows at the top of the wall that divided two classrooms were left open. In one of the classrooms sat all the students in neat, quiet rows. In the other was a piano. After being taught a song altogether, one by one, the students were ushered into the room with the piano. Being unable to see the classmates encouraged each young singer to utter sounds that indicated they had at least remembered the song. But in some cases, the tiny voices were so quiet that only the piano could be heard as the teacher softly played the accompaniment. Despite the awkward situation, the teacher bravely continued to search for new members of the choir to replace those who had left to join the secondary school.
My turn came. Being a seasoned professional, I sang as I usually did in front of our guests on the farm. After a few bars, the teacher stopped playing. I stopped singing, worried that I had done something wrong. But her hands were clasped in front of her mouth, her eyes were smiling at me and silent tears ran down her cheeks.
At home, I handed the letter from the teacher to my mother. She wiped the flour from her hands, untied her apron, and patting me on the head, took the letter from my hand. We sat at the kitchen table, my legs swinging in anticipation.
After what seemed like ages, I realised my mother was reading and re-reading the letter. But I couldn’t read her face when she finally looked at me. She folded the letter and put it on the table in front of her.
“You have not been selected for the choir, Annie. I’m so sorry.”
My heart stopped wanting to jump out of my chest from excitement and instead, stopped from the tidal wave of disappointment that flooded through my body. The tears that spilt from my eyes made my voice sound small and tight.
“Why? I did my best. I sang better than the others.”
My mother put a warm hand that smelled like flour and cookies on mine, but she didn’t smile. Her eyes looked as sad as I knew mine were. Singing was all I ever wanted to do. I was only going to school so that I could sing. Mother had told me that I could join the choir and I could hardly wait. Now, this. It was so unfair.
“You did sing better than the others, darling. And that’s why… Your voice is much louder than theirs. You won’t be able to blend in with the others.”
She patted my hand.
“We’ll think of something…”
I was still crying on my bed when I heard mother’s voice talking on the phone that stood on the small table in our long corridor. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but she was using her firm voice.
The next day after school, I started singing lessons with a singing teacher. But I carried the rejection from the choir deep in my heart.
After a month or so of lessons, my teacher entered me for an Eisteddfod, the annual singing and performance competition. It was my first performance in front of a hall filled with people. My mother thought I would be nervous. She held my hand as the chair beneath me shook from my uncontrollable trembling. But once I stood in front of the audience and the judge, a well-known operatic tenor, I loved every second of it.
Only when I won my first Eisteddfod as a soloist, did my six-year-old heart begin to feel hope that I could still sing even if it wasn’t with my friends in the choir.