Expanding the Comfort Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of expanding one’s comfort zone from within, as opposed to stepping out of it (useful posts here from Havi Brooks and Jem Bloomfield), in the context of singing – purely because I spend a lot of my spare time doing it.

I estimated a couple of months ago that I’ve averaged two hours of choral singing a week over the past decade. There have, of course, been lighter patches (2007, of which I spent a third in Spain and Germany not singing much at all, and my second and third years at university, when I decided that the need of the serving team was greater than the need of the chapel choir), but they are balanced out by the five years I spent in the choir at Holy Trinity, Guildford. During term time we did two services every Sunday, with a half hour or forty-five minute rehearsal before each one, and an hour’s practice every Thursday. As a result I know a lot of the standard church music repertoire inside out and back to front: if we assume that each piece was sung twice a year, once during a morning service and once at an evensong, then I’ve performed most of them ten times.

I was not at all confident when I joined. All my life I’ve been close to people who have more singing experience than I do and, while they have been nothing but supportive, I’ve always been able to see that their sightreading was better than mine, that they were more confident than I was, that they could hold a line against all comers and I couldn’t. Fortunately, when I joined Holy Trinity, there were plenty of other altos to follow.

I’ve joined two new choirs over the past year, and I’m still singing less than I was at Holy Trinity. They have both proved the expansion of my comfort zone, in very different ways.

The first one was one of the several choirs that run out of my parish church. The workload is considerably less: we sing one, maybe two, services every month, with an hour’s rehearsal beforehand, and a rehearsal on the preceding Friday. This is very much flying by the seat of the pants: a lot of sightreading, and no guarantee that there’ll be anyone else on your part to prop you up.

And that doesn’t scare me any more. Once upon a time I would have been too terrified even to consider joining this choir, but my comfort zone has expanded to encompass this method too.

Granted, some of this is stuff I already know from Holy Trinity. On Easter Sunday I was the only alto at evensong. That was fine: we did Blessed be the God and Father, which I have sung every Easter since 2008. On the other hand, I was the only alto at the previous evensong, and I was sightreading an anthem… I can’t remember what it was, only that I’d never seen it before in my life, and that the alto line contained several top Gs. The very first piece that I did with the new choir was Herbert Howells’ Requiem; that, thank goodness, had rather more rehearsal time dedicated to it.

The other choir is pretty much the complete opposite. In this choir, ten weeks to learn three pieces is presented as a frighteningly tight timescale. This is the workplace choir, set up by the social club and the excellent Workplace Choir Company. Its basic assumption is that nobody has sung anything since they were at school, when they were probably told by a teacher that they couldn’t. This seemed to be about right at my workplace. There was a question early on: who was in a choir already? I was one of perhaps three people who raised their hands. Three out of sixty, and the only one in the first altos.

There was the solo. (But I’ve done solos before, in front of people who would know exactly where I’d gone wrong.) There was the fact that I was doing the solo with a microphone. (That was new territory.) There was the responsibility. At one point the Director of the Executive Office told me, ‘You’re our leader’. I’m not even sure that she was joking. (I have never before in my life been the most experienced member of a large choir.) There was the assuring of everybody that everything was going to be fine.

And somehow I was able to meet it all with a general attitude of ‘Bring it on!’ Solo? Bring it on! Microphone? Bring it on! Teaching a tricky snippet to the rest of my section without reference to a piano? Bring it on! It’s being filmed? Wait, what? Er, bring it on! Thank you, comfort zone, expanding yourself while I wasn’t even looking.

I managed to appear calm through the performance, although it wasn’t until last week, when the high-quality video was made available, that I was able to see whether or not I’d cocked it up. I never know how a solo has gone after the event. I’d like to think that’s because I’m so absorbed in the music that I’ve no space left in my head to remember it, but it’s happened before when I’ve lost a bar in the middle of it.

Anyway, it turns out it wasn’t too bad, all things considered. Here’s the result. I’m the tallest soloist, in the green shirt, singing the alto part in the second verse. Me and my expanded comfort zone.

Getting Around

I’ve been doing a lot of walking these last few days. This is partly because my bike has been in for a service (now reclaimed, complete with a new front mech shifter that actually works!), and partly because I’m planning to walk St James’ Way from Reading to Winchester in July, and I need to get some practice in.

I’ve walked from home to the station; I’ve walked from the station to home. I’ve walked as far round Regent’s Park as I could get in my lunch hour. I’ve walked from town to the station after I’d dropped my bike off, and from home to town to pick it up again.

I’ve been walking. I’ve been cycling. I spent twenty-five agonising minutes on a bus that was progressing down Station Road five metres at a time. I would almost swear that I could feel my blood pressure rising the longer I sat there. Stepping onto that bus, I’d relinquished control and surrendered to the rush hour. Cars are meant to give you control, but of course they don’t. There were plenty of cars stuck in that queue along with me.

I wanted my bike back. That was the reason I’d got on that bus in the first place: I had twenty minutes to get to the repair shop before it closed. I knew that I couldn’t make it on foot. I thought there was just a chance on the bus…

No. Twenty-five minutes of jerking, teeth-grinding, stop-starting creepy-crawling down Station Road and Hills Road. I ran from the bus station, but I didn’t have a hope of making it before the shop shut, and I knew it.

On the bright side, I had an excellent excuse to buy an ice cream and walk home, and it was a glorious evening in which to walk alongside the Cam, over Jesus Green and Midsummer Common, with the college rowing teams hauling themselves down the river and the trees very green with their new leaves.

I love walking. I love the freedom, the chance to turn aside and look properly at things that catch my eye, to go another way entirely. I love the gentle ache in my legs, reminding me that I’ve been out and seen things. I’m less keen on the blister; that’s from wearing the wrong shoes.

I’m so glad I don’t have to sit in that queue every day. I’m so glad I don’t drive. I’m so glad I don’t need to drive. I’m grateful that I’m well enough to walk long distances. I’m thankful for my own pig-headedness and determination that allowed me to relearn how to cycle in my late twenties. I’m glad that I’ve lived in towns and cities with good public transport links.

(And I do like a bus ride. But not in rush hour. Never again in rush hour. Not when I’ve got somewhere to be.)

April Moon: day 15: permission to wish

Permission to wish. Permission to really, really want something. I find this difficult. I have a superstitious conviction that letting myself really, really want something will alert some contrary-minded force to my desire, and I won’t get it.

It’s a defensive little monster in my mind, promising me that if I manage not to want something then I won’t be disappointed when I don’t get it. It’s first cousin to the Angel in the House (who has been quieter of late, but is still in there somewhere) who sits in my head telling me that whatever it is that I want cannot possibly be as important as whatever it is the other person wants, and that if I get it instead of the other person, it will all go wrong and will all be my fault.

Of course it doesn’t stop me wanting it. I catch myself thinking, ‘well, if I get it, I’ll…’ – or, more dangerously, ‘well, when I get it, I’ll…’ Wear this. Say that. Be able to do the other.

There’s nothing that I can do at this point to make it more or less likely to happen. These little mental tricks will make no difference to the outcome. All I can do is wait.

I tried forgetting about it, but it hasn’t worked. I’m still watching my emails, listening for the letterbox. (There’s a lot to hear from the letterbox at the moment, but it’s mostly Labour and the Lib Dems fighting for this marginal seat.)

Let’s try an experiment. There are ten days left of uncertainty. Let’s try really, really wanting it for those ten days, and risk the disappointment. Truth is, monster, I’ll be disappointed anyway.

Very well, then. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I wish…

Just for a second, I manage to really, really want it.

April Moon: day 14: water and trains

‘Oh, I’m so lucky!’ my mother exclaims, whenever she remembers where she lives.

View over the English Channel from South Street, Ventnor

This is why.

Standing on her garden wall, you see Ventnor falling away below you in higgledy-piggledy terraces down to the sea, and the Channel stretching out. France is over there. Thataway.

I don’t have the English Channel, but I have taken to thinking the same way about the river Cam. I live three minutes away from this. I am still overwhelmed by the fact that I am lucky enough to live here, and I’ve been doing it for nearly a year so.

There’s something about living near water, I think. There’s the huge, calming vastness of the sea. The river doesn’t quite do that, but it’s full of life and activity. The ducks, the rowers, the houseboats, the swans – there’s always something going on, always something to look at, and you have to go out very late at night if you want to be sure of not meeting anybody.

The days draw out, and even on work days I leave home in daylight and I return in daylight, and I cycle to the shops, or I walk to the pub, or I sit by the river and eat an ice cream, and I watch the ducks flying downriver and the boats hauling upriver and the swans nibbling at the grass from the bank, and the trains pelting over the bridge, and I think, ‘Oh, I’m so lucky.’

I love living near water. One worries, vaguely, about flooding and cliff falls, but they haven’t happened yet. I’ve always lived either near water or within earshot of a railway, or, as now, both. The one time we did flood we were way out in the country, and that was the river Teme remembering its prehistoric course and coming straight through our cellar. It was all right: we lost the freezer, and that was about it.

I love the trains, too, but in a slightly different way. Water is huge and full of activity; the trains are contained. Human creations, orderly, predictable, going where they’re meant to go. They make me feel safe. Even in the awful bedsit, the worst place I ever lived, I heard the trains rattling past at night, down in the cutting underneath my window, and I could think, ‘I can get away. If it gets too bad, I can get away.’

Here, I have trains and water. This is what makes me feel lucky.

April Moon: day 13: false dichotomies

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever… shh. Don’t wonder too hard. You’ll wake it, and it needs a rest. So do I. It’s asleep, curled up in a cave somewhere in the Mariana Trench. Don’t worry. It’ll come back when it’s ready.

We’re not talking about this today. We can talk in generalities.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever make my living by writing – and then I realise very swiftly that I don’t want to.

Oh, I dream. I wander along the banks of the Cam and wonder which house would be the best to live and write in. I think of having a studio with a balcony and looking out at the swans and ducks and rowers. I imagine how my books will change people’s lives. I daydream about being interviewed in my beautiful home, and all that guff.

In the mean time, I write on the train to work.

Here’s a confession. Even in that dream life, I still go to work.

I was talking about other people’s expectations early in this round. I think there are just as many levied on artists, of whatever ilk, as there are on everyone else. Just as everybody assumes that the temp can’t be happy until they’ve found a real job, everybody assumes that the artist must really want to chuck in the real world and devote themself to art.

It’s the dream, isn’t it? Chucking in the [soulless bullshit job] and giving the whole to [one’s vocation]. But is it really the dream?

I have a friend who, in his forties, left the air conditioning trade and went to university (which is where I met him) to study French, with the ultimate aim of becoming a teacher. He tried teaching, hated it, and is now back in air conditioning, although with a life much improved (or so I believe) in other ways. Meanwhile, my uncle has left teaching to become a lorry driver. (He’s also an extremely accomplished musician and photographer.) Life is, as ever, more complicated than that. And people vary.

Personally (and I know I was ranting about the conflation of these concepts earlier in the round, as well) I would no more like to be a full time artist than I would a full time mother. I like my day job. I like getting out of the house and going to the big city. I like interacting with amusing, knowledgeable people. I like my forty-five minutes of writing time on the train. (Hush. Hush. It’s all right. Not you. I didn’t mean you. Nobody’s writing anything more on you at the moment.)

Even if there were a way to earn a living by writing without the nicotine and/or alcohol dependence and chronic financial insecurity that characterised the only household I knew where anyone tried it, would I want to? I don’t think so. I am learning to take better care of myself than that.

April Moon: day 12: when the sun and I are in the right place

Cycling south and west, parallel to the river. The first cup of tea of the morning is beginning to kick in, or perhaps it’s just the cool air rushing past me. Swans squatting in the beer garden of the Green Dragon. The morning sunlight drenching the house on the corner of Ferry Lane and Water Street until its pale green paint glows.

It doesn’t happen every day. For three months of the year it’s dark when I ride down Water Street. Sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes it’s cloudy. On the days when the sun and I are in the right place and the right time, though, this is the best part of my day.

April Moon: day 11: permanent święcone

I am trying not to talk about food.

No, that’s not true at all.

I am trying not to talk about food in a certain way, with certain people, but they’re not making it easy.

Recently I cancelled my Graze box, partly because it kept going to someone else’s desk and I found it embarrassing to go and track it down, and partly because they insist on labelling their cake ‘guilt-free’ and filling their covering notes with irritating little screeds about the nutritional superiority of their snacks over anything else I might happen to be eating. I have yet to find a replacement, which is irritating, because if I don’t eat something on the train back from work then I’m a total wreck when I get home.

Once last year I tweeted angrily at Riverford because they included in the box a recipe brochure divided between ‘good’ and ‘naughty’ options – complete with halos and horns. They haven’t repeated the offence so far; I doubt my tweet had anything to do with that, unless perhaps it was echoed by many others. I don’t know. While the parts of the internet that I frequent tend to recognise the value of food, offline I seem to be surrounded by people who assign moral virtue in inverse proportion to nutritional content.

I want no part of this culture of guilt and ingratitude. I need to eat. So does the rest of the human race. Food is good! Food is a blessing! One of the loveliest things about marrying into a part-Polish family is the Holy Saturday ritual of putting together a święconka, a basket of smoked sausage and cake and hard-boiled eggs, and taking it to church to be blessed ready for Easter. It is the most refreshing interlude from the outside world, which is busy beating itself up because it tells itself it has eaten too much, or the wrong thing.

Last year I had a practice of silently giving thanks as I ate – not just for the food itself, but for the labour that prepared it and brought it to me. I’d like to revive that. I would like to live in permanent święcone. I would like to appreciate the food in front of me, rather than tell myself that I don’t deserve it.

Oh, but it would be so much easier if people in the office were not dieting, or, if they were, didn’t feel the need to tell me about it! I keep meaning to make a list of suitable alternative subjects, so that when this particular one comes up I can change it.