From childhood, I trod the well-worn path into musicianship. After singing tunelessly in school assembly after school assembly, I took up the recorder (or wooden tube of pain as I’m sure adults call it), and squawked my way through Three Blind Mice and London’s Burning until I discover the wood and wire wonder of the guitar.
With this musical master, us school kids were able to do damage to a much broader range of melodies. I’m not sure what The Eagles would consider most painful, recounting their acrimonious break up in 1979 or listen to a load of 9 years commit homicide one of their greatest hits.
Not content with the wanton destruction of music history, I took up the drums when I was about 13. When I say took, what I actually mean is, I locked myself in the music store cupboard one lunch time and played the same beat over… and over… and over… and over again as loud as I could.
The little drummer boy, had a longer career on the skins than I did.
In the meantime, my musical teacher suggested I take up a proper instrument and attend Newham Academy, a music college especially for local kids who showed the vaguest interest in staying out of trouble and not getting pregnant. Having long ago committed to being a bespectacled geek, Newham Academy was the perfect place for me. Here I took up the oboe – possibly the uncoolest instrument ever created, falling several places behind the kazoo and the stylophone (you have to remember, Tanita Tikarum had yet to release Twist In My Sobriety which would put the oboe firmly back on trend again).
I soldiered on with the oboe but the irritating constant with all these stupid instruments was that they required this one crucial element - practice. Damn it. If you wanted to get good at something, you really had to put the hours in.
For me what practice looked like, circa aged 14 was being really enthusiastic for the first 3 months then slowly dwindling down to the least commitment I could give without being kicked out of the class.
One year, I was asked to play the recorder at a Christmas Concert and I just couldn’t be bothered to practice. Even on the day I thought I’d wing it and decided to mime my way through the performance. I got away with it. Or so I thought. Years later, I realised my music teacher would have totally known I was miming because, whilst all the other players fingers would have been moving in yule tide unison, mine would have been doing something completely different like a freestyle jazz muso in the middle of a Vivaldi recital. All I would have needed was a cravat and a heroin needle sticking out my arm to complete the pictures.
I pushed on with the oboe until one day my school music teacher said there was a college that was offering music lessons in contemporary instruments. He sent four of us and each could choose either drums, bass, keyboards or guitar.
I chose the bass. It was a no-brainer. I was intoxicated by Level 42 and the brown-haired one in Bros (I know his name but the idea of no-one remembering him still makes me laugh).
The only problem was, I had to break up with my oboe teacher. Our relationship was pretty toxic. I was like the shitty boyfriend and he was the girl who just couldn’t help but love me.
I went to Newham Academy, oboe case in hand. He came down to collect me as usual but I told him, I wouldn’t be coming up. I just wanted to drop the oboe off.
“What’s this?” he said quietly, worry creeping across his face.
“It’s not you” I said. “It’s just not working anymore”
“But… but…” he stuttered “I can change. I’ve got the sheet music for Twist in My Sobriety”
“No” I said. “I’ve… I’ve found another instrument. I want to learn to play the bass guitar”
I reassured him he’d find someone else, someone that loved the oboe and that he should forget about me. I went and bought a wham bar because I felt so awful about letting him down. It was pitiful. I challenge Tarantino not to have teared up at the scene.
The new college was awesome. It had adults there (well, 16 year olds). As well as taking my bass lessons, I joined a band, met the incredible Yolanda Charles (who unlike me, carried on practicing bass and went on to play with all kinds of amazing acts like Paul Weller, Jimmy Somerville and Robbie Williams – I know!).
I wasn’t so applied and played alongside my Bros poster and a Mark King mural in my bedroom I never completed and ended up painting over.
Whilst I dipped in out of playing instruments, the one consistent in musical life was singing, which I loved. Once I managed to generate a bit of volume (I sang like a melodic mice for the first 13 years of my life), I really found my voice – pun intended.
I remember auditioning for a part in a school play and managed to belt out a song from Grease. My music teacher stared at me like Whoopi stared at the boy in Sister Act II when he hits that ear piercing note, like “damn, where did that sound come from??”
I joined the school choir which not only gave me huge fulfilment but was also a welcome respite from the feral jungle that was secondary school life. If you haven’t guessed by now, I was something of a sensitive kid!
The Sarah Bonnell Singers, even though I do say so myself, were pretty friggin hot. We were this rag tag gang of girls from an East London school, led by this Lovejoy character of a music teacher. Our uniform was jumpers and jeans and we’d rock up to these choir competitions and eisteddfods with these private school kids in their lavish dresses and gowns and we’d kick their arses.
I wonder if that’s why I love Sister Act II so much. The choir would still be going strong if the teacher hadn’t been a perv, having affairs with other teachers and school girls alike. Well, at least he didn’t discriminate.
Luckily the only thing I took from the experience was a love of singing and a knowledge of music.
Since then, singing has very much been part of my life. It’s only in writing this blog that I realise, it’s actually my hobby. I never really thought I had one until now but I do and it’s singing.
I’ve created a capella groups and bands, been the choir mistress for my mum’s church singing group and I even did a one-off show of music and comedy at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern a couple of years ago.
Last year, a friend of mine asked me to take part in a jam at her place as she wanted to work up some alternative cover versions for a film.
I went over and was very nervous. As much as I love singing, I’ve done very little professionally. I was in a rather awesome version of Rumpelstiltskin one year (shut up) and played a jazz singer in another play but most of my singing had been for fun. You can’t exactly put karaoke on a CV.
The jam session was even more intimidating because it was with this incredible jazz pianist and on top of everything, we were going to improvise.
Piano and vocals were to be recorded together so there was very little that could be done in terms of editing. What you did was what you got.
This was going to be interesting.
It took a while to get stuck in to it and I was starting to worry about what they were thinking but as the afternoon went on, it all became a bit… well, magical. It was a rainy October afternoon and the drizzle made it feel timeless.
I let go of self-concern and just listened to the pianist and sang. I think we cook up something very special in the moment.
Were we able to edit these tracks we could have taken some of the rough edges off it, but all things considered, it wasn’t too offensive to the ears (unlike my recorder playing).
It made me realise, no matter how hectic work can be and how little time you think you have, it’s so important to make time for a hobby. Making space for something that has no consequence is good for the spirit. With work, there’s always an end goal – to get paid, to complete, to achieve but with a hobby, it’s just for the love it.
The happiness being part of this session brought me, stayed with me a long time after that Saturday afternoon.
When I think back on all my failed attempts to learn instruments, I see that actually, they weren’t failures to learn, they were success at keeping me musical which is really, all I’ve ever wanted. And if you’d like to hear one of the tracks from the jam session, here’s a link.
Oh, and finally, finally - a little plug for a night of British stand up comedy I’m hosting at The Hollywood Improv (Los Angeles) next Sunday (15th September). The show features the best of LA-based UK comedians including Gina Yashere, Matt Kirshen, Lynn Ferguson and Chris James. Click here for ticket info and use promo code: CRUMPETS for a 50% discount.