Pop star’s singing teacher says she regrets being a judge on BBC talent show “All Together Now”
PUBLISHED: 17:28 19 March 2018 | UPDATED: 09:29 20 March 2018
Saffron Walden singing teacher, Joanna Eden, whose pupils include the young Sam Smith, says she regrets taking part in the BBCs All Together Now talent show.
In a piece called Confessions of a TV Judge she writes: “Last autumn I was asked to appear on BBC One’s new singing show, All Together Now as one of “The Hundred” panel of judges. The rules are simple: if I like what I’m hearing, I stand up, press a button to vote and join in. The contestant then receives a score out of a hundred. It was a job on a prime time BBC show and I took it.
But it was a mistake.
In agreeing to be part of this programme, I had to ignore a belief that I’ve held deeply for years: that singing competitions are unhealthy, flawed...just wrong. So why did I do it?
Well, simply because I couldn’t resist the chance to be on TV and to get my face into the mass media market place. Also for the public to know that I had been chosen. I persuaded myself that as a professional singer, I would be doing my career a disservice if I didn’t do it. Unfortunately, I hurt myself in the process. I ignored my inner voice; I stepped blindly into the light and wilfully ignored my misgivings.
Now, four months on, as I watch the series being aired, I find myself wondering why we are drawn to these singing shows. Fundamental questions bubble up: what is singing for? What does it actually do?
Singing turns our breath into sounds. These sounds convey our thoughts and our stories via language. They also convey something else. That other thing. Ah yes, the sound of the soul, the ebb and flow of extended vowels and percussive consonants dancing in the air from the deepest hollows of our lungs via the intricate tunnels of our mouths and noses to the tiny bones of our inner ears. Our singing voice gives life to the invisible; those mysterious, integral parts of our psyche which can only otherwise come out as laughter, squeals, sighs, or sobs.
And what about the listener. What does it do to us?
Singing moves us, mentally, emotionally, physically. Music is transformative. Things happen to us when we partake in music. We are not the same afterwards. Its effects are both quantifiable and mystical. We are not ourselves, we are warmer, our heartbeat changes pace, we are heightened or we are soothed. And sometimes we fly, our earthly cares drift away, we are living in the moment, we are risen, closer to Heaven maybe?
Parts of our brains fire up when we hear a song. Neural pathways damaged by dementia are reawakened. A song can take us back to specific times in our memory or can lift us out of our daily cares and anxieties into a state of bliss.
Song can bind us with others. When society works well, we call it living in harmony. Harmony is a kind of joined separation, a sum greater than its parts. It teaches us how to live.
Song is ephemeral. It is the ultimate expression of living “in the moment”. It’s hard to worry about anything when you’re singing, surely?
But singing in public comes high on the list of common fears.
Why? How can something so pure, natural and joyous create fear?
I believe that humans have tainted this beautiful gift of song with judgement. We have taken what is given to us all for free and we have made it transactional. A singer in a TV talent show represents a pitched battle between the open, loving heart and the closed mind. Between a heavenly gift and earthly cares. The singer wants and needs to stay ‘in the moment’ and release their voice without the anxiety which can constrain it with muscular tension. But their brain is all too aware of society and its proclivity to judge, to ridicule.
So the winner is the person who can rise above those fears; to sing with an open heart and an unfettered voice in the face of judgement and possible humiliation. The winner has the strongest soul. The winner looks the harshest judge in the eye and sees nothing because they are in a heavenly world of song. A safe place; untouchable.
The Simon Cowells of this world have turned this David and Goliath battle into currency. They have created media machines which exploit our contradictions. We queue up to hear singers; we can’t resist the chance to catch a fleeting moment when the human soul can fly from a stranger and connect directly to us.
We’re addicted to it. But we’re also addicted to its failure. We can’t look away from those gladiators who fail to transcend. Who remain earthbound. They are living out our daily struggle to be good, to be better than our weaker selves, to conquer our fears.
When they fail we are encouraged. “Maybe I’m not that bad after all?” And Cowell knows that when we listen to songs we are at our most suggestible. We are entranced and susceptible to fairy tales, parables, goodies, baddies, hard luck stories. We lap them up as we sleep through these lazy programmes. They capture the beauty of the voice like an entomologist captures a delicate butterfly and pins it down to a board. And the wings are trimmed. There is no place for eccentricity. How would Tom Waits score? Or Leonard Cohen, Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan, Kate Bush?
Last week, I watched the movie The Greatest Showman and found it almost physically unbearable because the voices of the singers (who I can almost guarantee were all highly skilled) had clearly been hugely digitally altered and manipulated.
It was like drinking over-sweetened, saccharine tea. It was not a human sound. It was cold, brittle, thin and mechanical. Worst of all, these digital “improvements” were completely unnecessary.
It was as if someone, somewhere had decided that the frailties, the uniqueness, the humanity in the human voice were no longer desirable, that they were something to hide, to obliterate with digital noise. Our weaknesses and our efforts to compensate, to overcome them make us courageous and fascinating. Ironically, that was the main message of the movie but its creators had no faith that we the audience could bear to listen to fear, strife, pain, triumph, grace in the unfiltered human voice. The sound team on that movie denied us all of that. And time and time again, in the highly digitalised music we consume, we are denied this humanity. Songs and stories of human endeavour sung by humans, filtered and made bland by machines. We are misrepresenting ourselves. More fake news, less palpable truth to hold on to, more fear.
Are we really that insecure? That we can’t even hear ourselves any more? We Photoshop-fix our beautiful models and Melodyne-fix our beautiful voices. Our young girls and boys are being exposed to the aural equivalent of body dysmorphia.
I recorded my new album Truth Tree live. I am a singer-pianist and perform at my best when I do both together. Piano and voice are recorded at the same time and cannot be separated. This has the welcome effect of making it impossible for me to digitally tamper with the tuning or the timing of my vocal performance. And I love my album.
I even love my ‘pitchy’ moments because I feel my pain in those moments; my humanity; my struggle. Is our desire to cover up that struggle a denial that we are imperfect? Like someone who is so insecure that they brag all the time. We’ve all met people like that. We sense they are covering up deep-set insecurity. And actually we know that these people are invariably the bullies. Maybe our society’s relationship with singing is similarly dysfunctional?
I have met too many poor souls who, in a moment of cruel comparison from a crass teacher, have had the joy of singing sucked out of them. They have nursed their wounds in songless, solitary silence. But the desire to sing doesn’t go away and they turn up at a singing group, choir or open mic night decades later, sometimes in old age, fearful but fighting to do what they were born to do before it’s too late.
Next time you hear someone sing, remember they are offering up their inner self. Before you judge, remember they are probably at their most vulnerable. If you hear something coarse or not to your taste, remember that judgement or ridicule will only serve to hurt. I deeply wish that all singing teachers were aware of the weight of responsibility they carry. Wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone was encouraged to love and nurture their natural sound? If the human voice was prized for how it reflects our bodies, our souls, our stories? Humans are distinguished from machines by our flaws and idiosyncrasies. We can be flawed and yet beautiful. And so can the human voice.
Please let’s stop judging. Let’s acknowledge that singing is a healing gift, for the singer and listener alike.
I’m sorry for being a TV judge, (albeit a pretty ineffectual one as I found myself on my feet for nearly every singer) And I’m sorry that I let my hunger to fast-track my career get the better of my conscience. I did myself a disservice and I feel I have given my own students mixed messages because I haven’t practised what I am preaching here.
But worst of all, I have done my voice a disservice. It has given me so much. I sing every day. I write songs that heal me. I meet wonderful people, receive so much love, witness such beauty in musicians, students and in audiences alike. Last week, I sang with a dying friend; it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I knew then what the voice can do. We both transcended this world.
So, apart from being grateful to have made 99 inspirational new friends, I now want to move on from my brief foray into the world of TV talent shows and to savour every moment of being the world’s slowest overnight sensation.”