A nickname I have in the School of History. Professors and lecturers are always amused by my ‘double life’ as one of them called it; they’d see me studying hard in the library and in tutorials during the day then when they went home they’d see me singing on TV.
I’ve always loved singing, its just one of those things I am effortlessly good at (one of the very few things I might add). My first solo was at the age of two; ‘Jesus loves me’ at a church barbecue. In school I was always in the choir, usually singing solo and in P7 I was the Narrator in our production of Joseph and his Amazing technicolour Dreamcoat. I still know all the colours of that coat. Grammar school was much the same, choirs, chamber choirs, singing lessons. I joined the university choir but since it was student-led and a bit of fun, I really missed the challenging atmosphere of a ‘professional’ choir.
I auditioned in 2009 for two choirs. The first choir is part of a Christian organisation that includes an all-Ireland choir, chamber choir and orchestra. I was an original member of the short-lived Youth Choir initiative that only lasted a few years. This choir puts on concerts twice, maybe three times a year. Rehearsals are few but intense, you have to be able to sight-sing and work on your harmonies at home. I love this choir. Being with such a group of Christians who just want to worship God is inspiring and makes me feel completely at home. We’re doing some concerts this weekend in a concert hall in Belfast and I can’t wait.
The second choir is much more problematic. I heard about it through a friend who wanted us both to audition. We both did. I got in; she didn’t. The choir was brand spanking new, the first ever Northern Ireland gospel choir. But even though we were all new, it took a really long time (over a year) for me to feel comfortable with the other members, to find friends. And even though it was a gospel choir, the choir was not a Christian group. Our director could not stress this point strongly enough: we sang songs about Jesus but we weren’t allowed to discuss religion or try to force our ‘beliefs’ onto other members. So strong was the anti-Christianity of some members that they refused to participate in concerts held in churches. Some members were openly gay. Yet we rehearsed and performed songs that said ‘Oh happy day! When Jesus washed my sins away’.
I had trouble squaring this with my own beliefs. I am a Christian and I believe that God made me the way I am for a reason, He gave me talents to use for Him and His glory. Singing, therefore, has always been something that I’ve done for God. The break after the first year of gospel choir I thought long and hard about whether or not to return. I loved the singing and performing but I felt uneasy with the ethos of the choir and the egocentric atmosphere. I eventually decided that even though the “choir” might not be singing for God, I was.
Last year, still struggling with the same issues, I reached a point where I could not stand to be associated with the choir any longer. The choir operates a hierarchy system of the director’s ‘favourites’, the elite who get to do all the smaller, higher profile gigs and get all the solos. I was on the fringes of the elite, a powerful soprano who could hit notes the others only dreamt of but not ‘gospel’ enough for a solo. (Apparently the definition of ‘gospel’ in the choir was the ability to do X Factor-style air grabs and wail runs of off-key notes, turning a simple three note tune into a bad Mariah Carey impression of over three hundred notes) Around November, I was doing a gig with a small group of twenty for a big Remembrance concert. With time to kill after the sound check, the choir went to Nandos for dinner. Around the table the conversation was gossipy, bitchy and selfish. Even the church-going members were telling stories about adultery, maintaining that your life only begins when you get married and how life wouldn’t be worth living if you didn’t have children. There I was, a girl whose family had been torn apart by adultery, the only single person at the table living with an illness that has high correlation with infertility. The melancholic mood only escalated back at the concert hall when I got changed into my choir outfit.
The choir had to dress in red and black but there was no set outfit for everyone. I had worn the same red dress for just over a year (since I don’t own anything else that colour). That night when I came out of the bathroom, the director’s husband pounced on me and suggested I pin my black cardigan (the only costume item provided for us) together with a brooch to ‘cover up’. Initially confused, I assumed he wanted me to ‘bling’ up so I said I hadn’t put my jewellery on yet. He went on to explain that he meant I should cover up because I ‘didn’t look good on stage’, he could see what the audience saw and it was not pretty. He gestured over my tummy and said ‘some of the other big girls prefer to cover themselves up’.
Were it not for the fact that I was already feeling low, I might have punched him. How dare he say that to me. The man himself is the size of a small mountain and his wife, our director, is a size 22. I’m not under any illusions that I’m a supermodel, I’m a curvy girl and proud of it. I’m a size 16 with big boobs, a small waist, big bum and yes, a bit of a tummy. I don’t cover myself up because I’m not ashamed of my body. This is who I am. But that night that man made me feel like the ugliest girl ever.
I only did one other concert after that, one I’d already committed to. But I couldn’t stand to put myself back in that environment again, especially with the severity of my condition and my uni work. I took the term off, citing medical grounds as my reason. When I see choir events advertised or stories pop up on my facebook I groan and roll my eyes. I said I would think carefully about whether or not to return. To go back means I will get to perform more, be in the spotlight, but it would be for the glory of the choir and our director, it would mean hours of rehearsals with people who couldn’t care less about me, sacrificing my time and effort into something I no longer enjoy. I just can’t do that anymore.