Ave Verum Corpus
How old was I when we first met? You know, I can’t even remember now. To me there was always something timeless about you: when I remember you now you are always ageless, just as you have passed from the confines of aging.
I was young, anyway. I was young and in need of help. Having been trained by a Bach soprano to be a Bach soprano (although I have never been a true devotee of the Baroque), I now had a spot of bother with my voice, i.e. it had stopped working after years of training and I had no idea why. It was tight and sore and restricted. You could have explained to me that I needed to learn to retract my false vocal folds, that the larynx id biologically created as a constrictor to stop foreign bodies entering the lungs and that our use of it for speech and song is a romantic addition to this basic function. You could have told me that acid reflux can cause these symptoms in the voice. You could have told me to lower my shoulders (which you did over and over and over again in the years that followed). All this information came later. On that occasion you said that some people hold their emotions like a ‘knot in the stomach’ whereas mine were a ‘lump in the throat’. You knew that not just because you were a great vocalist and a great teacher but because you were a true musician: some-one who realised where music comes from, what its power is and what it is that stems its flow.
Then there was the amazing day you let me see my own voice. That was years later. I remember you had organised a professional development conference for singing teachers. I had started teaching myself by then. Funny, but you taught me to sing and when I sing I sound like me and not you (quite the reverse to other teachers I had met), but when I teach I quite consciously try to teach like you. Anyway, you came to the table and told us that an ENT specialist was coming to address the conference and he needed a guinea pig to have a larynoscopy. You said he was the best looking man we were likely to see in a life time. You were right. So I acquiesced to the procedure. I remember your reassuring look when that tube went up my nose and down my larynx, and your excitement being greater than mine when my vocal fold appeared on the screen. And they made me tense my ariepoglottic sphincter muscle. And then hit C5. And then E3. But I could see my own voice.... it had been there inside my neck for years but I’d never actually seen it. I didn’t realise it was seeable. And that basically sums up what you were to me: you brought out the things that were already there and showed me how they worked. You were a great teacher.
Before I met you I was never meant to be able to sing opera again because my neck had fused and I had arthritis in my spine. You just refused to accept this: you said that music didn’t live in my neck or my spine. You made me realise I still had a voice, and you made me use it. It wasn’t all saccharine praise, though: I remember such criticism as ‘you call that a siren?’, ‘That coloratura was just lazy’, ‘Handel didn’t come from West Belfast, so why would he write for a Belfast accent?’ and ‘Are you going to sing at me with your shoulders looking like a boomerang?’. This is all completely fair, but let me assure you I shall never sing lazy coloratura again. Give me Mozart, ‘Batti, Batti’ to be precise, and should it have a hundred notes in only 2 bars I’ll hit every one of them because every one of them will be a gift to you.
Then your own pain came and you sang your way through it, and even in the midst of your own suffering you gave other people access to their own voices. In your last text to me you said you were praying for me, yet you were in so much pain yourself. You should have heard your young choir at your funeral singing amidst some of Ireland’s best known voices and most beautiful. Even the priest was signed to Sony. And they sang St Patrick’s Breastplate and there was a bit of Ave Verum Corpus. And Be Thou My Vision – and those kids, they were as skilful in eradicating ‘the lump in the throat’ as any of the professional singers. You did that for them. Like you, they know what music is, what it is for and what it can do now.
I am sorry that I am writing all this to you in words and not music, but your voice just had so many notes in it and right now I don’t know how to pick the right ones. One day I will – and I can promise you A6. I actually hit it myself last week! You wouldn’t have liked it, though. It lacked the strength and conviction of yours.
Goodbye for now, dearest teacher and even more dear friend. I hope in your true body you are as much alive through music as you were when we could still see each other. I don’t see you now but I hear you all the time. And I’m keeping my shoulders down while I sing just for you.
To MO’S from EW.