Singing a new tune — or any tune at all, for that matter…

How I’ve become a research participant, learnt new skills and exorcised a few musical demons.

I’ve been involved in different roles in research for 15 years now. I’ve given grants, written proposals, put together budgets, and overseen awarded projects. Until recently, there were two roles that I’d yet to experience: running a project as a researcher and being a participant on one. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever be a researcher but I am now a participant. A guinea pig, if you will.

The AHRC news story that kicked off my involvement.

It started last summer when an email newsletter from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) popped into my work inbox. This in itself wasn’t unusual — I’ve been receiving these emails for many years. But this one was calling for volunteers to participate in a newly funded project. ‘Finding a Voice’ at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama was looking for non-singers in order to ‘understand the journey of learning to sing in adulthood’.

This piqued my interest. I was definitely an adult non-singer. I’d never been taught how to sing; in fact, I’ve difficulty in recalling exactly what went on during my school music lessons. I’d always struggled to sing with others as I couldn’t get the breathing or pitch right — I felt like I spent most of the time either screeching or yawning. Singing was something I felt I had to do in certain situations (church services, for instance) but not what I’d choose to do. I don’t play an instrument and I don’t read musical notation. I might listen to music but singing and playing was what other people did, not me.

Seeing as the Guildhall was on my way home from the office and I could mix participation with a professional interest in how a research project is run, I signed up.

The project manager sent me a couple of questionnaires to complete and I was invited to a one-to-one with Dr Karen Wise, the lead researcher.

Karen started the session with me repeating spoken phrases using exaggerated expressions. We moved on to other exercises to see what else my voice could do. One of the things Karen tried was playing notes on a piano to encourage me to go high and low. I hit a place that felt comfortable and I had my first surprise.

‘You are low,’ she said.

‘Am I?’ I had no idea my voice was like that.

Then, she asked me to wear headphones attached to a laptop and listen to notes played though a website. I had to repeat the notes into a microphone and the website would determine how close I was to repeating the notes. The test was straightforward at first but as it progressed the notes were in increasingly long and complex combinations. I tried my best but I felt that I was flailing around and just making random noises.

After the test, Karen checked the results. She told me that I was 95% accurate.

‘Really? Are you sure?’

The project manager contacted me a few days later to say that I’d be part of the core group who’d have individual tuition with a singing teacher.

Before the lessons started, most of us guinea pigs met at a little gathering at the Guildhall. It was a chance to learn why others were involved. We were a mix of ages and backgrounds but some similar stories emerged. Being told at a young age that you couldn’t sing. Living as the only non-singer in a musical family. Singing in the bathroom but wary of doing so in front of others.

I was told by email who my singing teacher would be. Inevitably, I Googled his name to see who he was. I nearly freaked out. He had a serious amount of performance experience and was obviously used to teaching conservatoire students rather than a klutz like me. On top of that, I started to feel nervous about having lessons at the Guildhall itself. Wouldn’t I be an imposter? Like I was being invited to Le Cordon Bleu on the basis of being able to make toast.

Thankfully, my fears were quickly put to rest. My singing teacher soon put me at ease and in just a few lessons I learnt how to breathe correctly, banishing the yawning problem. I also found out why I’d struggled to sing many songs. Karen was right that my voice is low and my teacher confirmed that my natural singing voice is a bass. Most songs aren’t written or performed for deep voices so that’s partly why I struggled to sing in a group.

Complementing the individual lessons have been group sessions where different approaches are tried out. These have also been useful in gathering participants together so we have a chance to compare notes. As we’re all going through a similar experience, singing as a group is less intimidating.

I have to keep a diary of each lesson and group session which are also recorded. I have homework (which I also have to note down) consisting of exercises and sections of songs.

The project isn’t seeking to produce a Gareth Malone-style choir and there’s still many months to go. But it’s had quite an impact on me. For the first time, I feel confident about singing. I’m more conscious of how I speak and what I can do with my voice. I still have a strange sensation that when I hear a note and try to repeat it as well as I can, I feel that I’m off-pitch even though my teacher assures me that I’m not. I guess the sounds I make and what I hear of them will align themselves in time.

If you’re involved in doing or supporting research, I recommend being on the receiving end. You could gain a new insight or learn a new skill but more importantly discover something new about yourself.

I’m Deputy Director of Research Management and Administration at University of the Arts London. All views are my own. orcid.org/0000–0002–3476–3845

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