Picture a group of forty English primary school pupils standing on a grey beach in north Wales, battling to stay upright against the force of the wind. Believe it or not, this was the scene of our (much-anticipated!) annual school trip, the once-a-year-only opportunity for us all to escape our parents and stay six to a bedroom in a provincial seaside hotel, on the premise that we’d learn about the local geography and history. This was Llandudno in June 1998, and the irony of choosing to travel to a town considerably colder, wetter and windier that where we lived wasn’t lost on any of us.
As many of you will you know, I’m the one King’s Singer who wasn’t a chorister in a church or cathedral choir growing up. I knew nothing of Renaissance motets or psalm chants, but as I’ve written before, I was obsessed (and that’s not an overstatement) with pop music. My parents had given me a Sony Discman for my 11th birthday, and I carried it everywhere with me, saving every penny of my pocket money to buy new singles at the Our Price store in town (albums if I was feeling particularly lavish). The coach journey to Llandudno Beach from rural West Sussex was a prime opportunity for quality time with my CDs and, this week, I had made it my mission to learn all the lyrics to Mariah Carey’s recent album, Butterfly.
On the final night of the trip, there was a big class celebration, with party food and entertainment and the presentation of certificates to those who had excelled in some way during the week. Of course, I wanted a certificate, but we had no idea what they were for or how many there were, even. As chance would have it, our teachers realised that the hotel had – would you believe it – a karaoke machine earlier that evening. What was preloaded onto it? Mariah Carey’s entire back catalogue (and that’s no exaggeration). Many of you will know that I despise karaoke – either you take it seriously and people say that it’s “not in the spirit of karaoke”, or you finish and people look at you afterwards as if to say, “but I thought you were a singer…?” Even then, it was lose-lose. But my friends, having teased me for mouthing along to Butterfly for the entire week, pressured me into taking my turn. Bear in mind that I was a tall and overweight 11-year old with uncontrollable hair. A vision of very early pubescence, I belted out the whole of My all, no run ignored, exploring all three octaves of Mariah’s range in that song. I had no idea what the words really meant (which is probably best for a primary school child), but I do recall all the hotel staff stopping what they were doing to watch (I’m certain in shock rather than amazement). The song finished and there was a rousing cheer. I sat down very quickly, hiding behind a large plastic cup of flat coke.
As the evening drew to close, it was time for certificates to be doled out, awarded for achievements like “Most punctual”, “Best footballer” and “Helper of the trip”. For me? None of these. But cue the final award of the evening, and suddenly, unexpectedly, my name was called. I had no idea for what, but I remember rising slowly and advancing gingerly to the front of the room. The teacher giggled and handed the last one to me, announcing “Singer of the week!” to the room. There was another cheer. I cried, and listened to Mariah Carey again in bed that night. To this day, I’m convinced that the award hadn’t been part of the evening’s original proceedings.
It’s funny. At state primary schools like mine in England, there was, and still is, almost no budget for formal music education. I loved to sing, but I’m not sure I thought that I was any good at it. I wonder, if my teachers hadn’t given me that one sheet of paper, would I be a King’s Singer today? The more I think about it, the more I ask myself whether it’s some of the smallest gestures in our childhood that can have the biggest impact. And, in case you’re wondering, I found the certificate again last month. From now on, I’m going to keep it very safe.
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