The Clear Voice Suddenly Singing | Amanda Lohrey #AWWessay

I am standing next to Bridie and she is singing too loudly.

Amanda Lohrey recently won her first Miles Franklin Award for her novel, The Labyrinth. Ever since the announcement, her short story essay in Secrets (1997) has been on my mind. Last weekend, I sat down to reread it.

Secrets came into my possession in the summer school holidays of 1999, thanks to the lovely cover design by Mary Callahan featuring a detail from Henri Matisse’s The Moorish Café, and Robert Dessaix’s name. I had been on a Dessaix reading binge at the time, and was keen to read more by him. However, in this case, it was Lohrey’s essay that has stayed with me over the years.

Five years later, in 2004, I joined a community choir with some friends. The director suggested we should read Lohrey’s essay, The Clear Voice Suddenly Singing, so we could discuss it together. My reread is noted on the inside cover of the book as June 2004.

Our choir enjoyed singing African spirituals not unlike Hobart’s Sisongke Choir, featured in Lohrey’s essay, but I believe what our director wanted us to get out of it, was the discussion around singing for fun. Singing in a group, harmonising, is not only fun, but a deeply magical experience. However part of the fun is to extend yourself, to learn and improve your technique. Without this, the fun of singing together can quickly stagnate. Part of the fun is about pushing outside your comfort zone to perform in public, to take the experience to the next level. There was some resistance to this idea within the group, which was obviously why she turned to ‘outside’ help to support her case.

In the end our group was flexible enough (and large enough) to allow those that really did not want to perform, to simply not. They could attend practice but did not have to participate in any performance until they felt ready.

It is twelve years since I have sung with a choir, and I miss it. A lot. Reading The Clear Voice Suddenly Singing again reminded me how much.

It’s true, you just have to sing and you get your spirit back again.

The first time I sang in public with the choir was a truly sublime moment in time. It was a personal revelation, an experience that involved so much daring and courage and trust that I’m still astounded I was able to take that step. I’m so grateful I did though.

Thanks to that first giant step, more steps were taken, then more, that eventually brought me to the much happier and more confident place I find myself today.

You can’t sing without being changed.

Rereading The Clear Voice Suddenly Singing took me back to that exquisite feeling of singing in public. When I read it in 2004 we had yet to sing in public; all Lohrey’s observations on performance were, therefore, purely theoretical. The memory of those four years of singing had been lying dormant all this time, and it has taken this essay to bring them out again.

I feel like I’m in another space.

The section on inhibited daughters, the good girls, who don’t rock the boat, who constantly feel ‘self-conscious – foolish and absurd‘ caught my eye this time. That was me. That is why singing in public was such a life-changing experience. To finally let go a lifetime of inhibitions and judgement was breath-takingly freeing – to move from being ‘self-conscious to being conscious of self‘, to let myself be heard – was such a powerful thing. To read that it had affected others in similar ways was validating and added to a sense of solidarity.

Once you’ve sung in front of people you feel you can do anything.

Singing wasn’t the only way I found my voice at this time. I had also joined a new Toastmasters group in town to improve my public speaking. Between the two, my confidence flourished. I went from someone who often looked confident on the outside (but didn’t feel it), to someone who was also often confident on the inside. It was truly a liberating time.

You don’t have a sense of anything but the moment. There’s no past, there’s no present…it’s ecstasy.

However, the biggest joy of singing in a choir, is the community. That incredible sense of togetherness and harmony that comes from being surrounded by beauty, joy and grace for the time you are singing. It feels like being in a bubble of exultation, a giant, comforting hug of sound. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling a spiritual connection to something bigger than myself. It’s easy to see why so many religions use singing in their daily ritual. It lifts you up, and inspires a sense of glory and wonder. The words are part of it, the music is part of it (singing anything in the pentatonic scale is moving beyond words), but the biggest part is the group. When everything comes together, for that brief moment in time, it is truly transcendent.

Learning to sing is pre-eminently learning to listen, the hear notes in your own voice, to hear them in others and then to bring them into the relationship – for example, harmony – that you desire.

Any how does it fit into secrets?

Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903), philosopher and advocate of positivism, said that music is

one of the few things the rational mind cannot explain; it is ‘an incomprehensible secret.’

How it happens may be a secret. But thankfully it does happen. And anyone can do it. Really! Your voice is an instrument that can be improved with training and practice.

If you can talk, you can sing….It’s the desire to sing that matters, at least at the beginning.

Just sing!

Title: Secrets
Authors: Drusilla Modjeska, Amanda Lohrey & Robert Dessaix
ISBN: 9780330360883
Imprint: Picador
Published: 1998 (originally published 1997)
Format: paperback
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

8 thoughts on “The Clear Voice Suddenly Singing | Amanda Lohrey #AWWessay

  1. I last sang in a choir in 1959 at St Peter’s CofE, Leongatha, it’s ending one of the many reasons I’m still angry with my father for constantly moving us around. The singing I most remember though is the farm community in my grandparent’s little weatherboard church in Berriwillock. It had a special resonance and every now and then I wish that I could be a believer and back there.


    1. Those old weatherboard CofE churches do resonate beautifully. I went to Sunday school in a little one right beside Ettalong Beach in my much younger years (it was probably about 1974/75). We would finish each session with Amazing Grace. It was magical. Like you, the religion didn’t stick, but the singing part obviously did.
      Your dad was a teacher wasn’t he? Mine was a banker. We moved around a lot too. It can lead to some belonging issues later in life I found….

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read anything by Amanda Lohrey, but thank you for your truly wonderful memories of singing in a choir – perhaps there is touch of that transcendence in many creative endeavors when a person doing it is in the ‘flow’.


    1. I think you’re right Julie. I’ve had some similar moments when potting, writing and cross-stitching and even public speaking, but I must admit, not to the same degree as when singing in a choir (or dancing, slightly drunk with a group of friends!!)


  3. I remember reading this, and yes, I also bought it because of Dessaix’s name on the cover.
    The only time I ever sang in a choir was at school. I was a soprano and one of the few who could hit high G and then high B in the opening bars of The Swan (Carnival of the Animals). it was our party piece for the school concert. For years afterwards, at home with my recordings, I would join in with the sopranos singing those high As that go for 15 bars in the 9th symphony. But alas, after pneumonia and pleurisy in the 1980s (soldiering on with a chest infection at work when I shouldn’t have), I can’t get enough air into my lungs to hold the tune in Happy Birthday.
    Isn’t it wonderful when reading a book triggers these memories!


  4. I have also loved singing in a choir! I did it for a long time, but for the past several years my voice has gotten worse. I have hardly any range at all any more. So now it’s just regular hymn-singing at church, and of course Covid took that away for a while. My best memories are of a couple of multi-choir performances my husband and I did, my high school choir, and the ‘party choir’ we were part of as newlyweds….just so many wonderful people and so much fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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