ON WINGS OF SONG
Sally Roos waited restlessly in the line of contestants auditioning for the pop singing competition. Only ten more to go and then it would be her turn. Nobody had made it to the next round for quite a while. She watched the live broadcast of proceedings in the audition room on the giant TV screen: the judges were not at all forthcoming, sometimes even downright rude, making no allowances for the nerves of the contestants. Many were told bluntly, ‘You can’t sing. Promise me you’ll never sing again.’
Sally could see that in many cases they were right, but it was mean to deflate people’s egos so completely. Singing is such an integral part of a person, and it takes courage to sing in public, only to be callously ridiculed. Each failed contestants did a doleful walk of shame, trailing past the waiting hopefuls to the exit door. Many were tearful at having their dreams and self-confidence shattered so abruptly; others were angry and voluble, promising to show everyone that they could still be stars regardless of the flash opinions of the four powers-that-be. But most of the rejects were simply numb from their ordeal, longing for the comfort of home where they could pretend the lowering experience was a nightmare that had never happened. After the excitement of preparing for the competition, the only thing they had to look forward to was that their failed audition would be repeated over and over on TV, reinforcing the debilitating experience in their own mind and the collective mind of the nation.
Worse still, for those still waiting, were the whoops of delight from the few who were given the nod to the following round. Everyone cheered the victors with seemingly unselfish delight, although each one knew that another person through meant there was one less place for them.
Despite the disastrous audition process, most of the crowd were still full of hope. Sally was amazed at the confidence of some of the contestants, who thought nothing of singing in front of everyone at the top of their voices. She wondered whether being a complete extrovert was a prerequisite to becoming a pop star. Some could sing, but many others, equally confident, should never have been there in the first place.
Sally was wearing jeans and an emerald green top to match her eyes and complement her auburn hair and translucent skin but she realised that her mode of dress was conservative in comparison with the girls with pink hair, bare midriffs, low necklines and tight jeans or micro mini-skirts.
Sally had been studying piano since she was small, and classical singing for the last three years. Although Sally loved classical singing and had a pleasing soprano voice, she enjoyed pop music and could party with the best of them. She was doing music for matric, and only three weeks ago she had sung the final ABRSM singing exam. Her teacher, Barbara Boucher had been pleased with her performance and thought she would do well. But her schoolmates egged her on to sing the pop songs of the day. She knew she could do passable imitations of Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Cher or Britney Spears, in voices quite distant from her own natural soprano. They all thought she was great and encouraged her to enter the pop competition.
She had decided to sing Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, which had certainly been a popular song in its day, and Charlotte Church had sung it in the film she had made recently. It had jazzy rhythms and she could use her own voice rather than do an imitation of a pop star.
On one side of her was a confident girl with synthetic red hair, dangly earrings, and full stage make-up, her skimpy sequined top and a pink mini skirt barely covering her neat behind. Her shapely legs were clad in fishnet tights and she was frozen on this cold morning. But her spirits were warm and hopeful.
‘I’m ready for this,’ Lauren told Sally, as she rubbed her cold hands together. ‘It’s been my dream since I was a little girl to be a pop diva. I was born to be the new pop idol of South Africa. After that I’ll take on the world.’
Sally was impressed at her new pal’s supreme confidence. She wished she felt as positive about her own pop singing ability, but she knew she was a bit of a sham. How could a classical singer expect to become a pop star overnight? She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be one. She was certainly not as hungry for such a title as she was meant to be.
The boy on her other side was wearing a bright orange woolly hat. Unlike Lauren, he was nervous and twitchy. Periodically he had been up and down to visit the gents, which was no wonder, as apart from his nerves playing havoc with his bladder, he was drinking copious amounts of water from a large bottle.
‘My mouth is so dry,’ Sizwe told her. I’ll never be able to sing properly when I get in there. The judges don’t seem to know what they want. I’ve only just started with a voice trainer. She says I just have to get my voice more mature, and then there’ll be no stopping me. But I’ve only had lessons for three months. Maybe I’m not ready for this. Who’s your voice trainer?’
Voice trainer reminded Sally of a dog trainer. She had a singing teacher, which she presumed was the same thing as a voice trainer, just in different parlance.
Suddenly it was her turn. Lauren had shrieked her way through a Whitney Houston hit with the appropriate accent and ornamentation. She had been suitably berated for imitating her idol and emerged deflated from the audition room, leaving without a word.
Sally wondered what she herself was doing here. At least at the classical music exam she had been well prepared and confident that the examiner, a music professor from the Royal Academy, worked according to the rigorous standards set by the examining board. He had been polite and had not made her aware of his feelings – approving or disapproving – of her singing. The examiner would have written his report with due care. Whatever she achieved in that exam would be her true worth as a singer and musician.
This competition was simply entertainment for a TV audience of couch potatoes, slopping on their sofas, swilling beer, smoking fags, and munching chips and chocolates. A singing competition made a change from Rugby, ‘Big Brother’ or ‘The Weakest Link’. The potatoes could mock the bad singers and laugh at the antics of the cocky know-it-all judges, who were playing up to the cameras by being rude and dismissive to contestants. Even at a cut throat theatrical audition, the director was never rude to those auditioning.
It was too late to leave. She had been called to say a few words to the energetic presenter before her ordeal. Now she was going into this audition room where fairness and politeness were not to be expected from those in authority. Some good singers had been rejected, while poor ones had gone through to the next round. Sally did not rate her chances highly.
‘Just enjoy yourself,’ said the hearty presenter. ‘Show them what you can do, girl!’
Sally walked into the vast audition room, feeling cold, and nervous despite herself. After the preliminaries, she launched into ‘Summertime’. She had more or less found the right key for her unaccompanied performance. Eventually she was aware of a peremptory hand waving to her to stop in the middle of a phrase.
‘You have a good voice,’ admitted the female judge grudgingly. ‘You can sing.’
She was relieved to hear that much.
‘But you’re too operatic,’ said the next one. ‘And that’s not a pop song. Maybe you could make it in musicals, but not pop.’
‘You sing too high,’ said the third judge. ‘You’re not a pop singer. You should stick to opera.’
‘It’s a ‘no’,’ growled the chief judge, yawning and bored.
Sally felt quite dispirited to be turned down so uniformly. At least they hadn’t told her to stop singing under any circumstances. In her case, the judges were right. She wasn’t a pop singer. She didn’t long to be the second Madonna. She had only entered the competition because her mates had persuaded her to do so. Classical singing was far more satisfying and challenging, and what she had been trained to do. She would stick to it in future.
As she gathered up her belongings, she could see Sizwe on the TV screen, adopting a pseudo-confident stance to face the judges, still clutching his water bottle. She wondered what he would do with it while he was singing. Perhaps he would pretend it was a microphone, or the object of his serenade.
They wasted no time with him. He managed to stumble through a few lines of his song. She could hear the judges’ belligerent voices following her as she did the walk of shame.
‘Why are you wasting our time?’ the cocky young judge asked indignantly. ‘You can’t believe you can sing?’
‘And why do you sing in that false accent when you’re a home boy from Soweto, Bru?’ asked another.
‘Don’t even sing in the shower,’ said the third.
‘It’s a no,’ the other mumbled, making no attempt to hide his giggles at the boy’s egregious performance.
Sally was glad she didn’t have to see the crushed expression on Sizwe’s face when he emerged from the audition room. Her boyfriend, Pierre, squeezed her hand sympathetically and led her to his waiting car.
‘The judges don’t know what they’re talking about, Sally. You were the best singer there!’
‘But not a pop singer. They’re right about that.’
One look at her pale tired face told her parents that she hadn’t made it through to the next round. Her mother made everyone a strong cup of tea and brought out her special homemade ginger bread, still warm from the oven. No doubt, she had made it as a treat to celebrate if Sally had gone through to the second round. Now it was comfort food, complete with melting butter.
‘The results from the Board arrived,’ said Mrs Roos casually. ‘Can you face them after that awful audition? I’ll save them till tomorrow if you like.’
‘No, Mum. Where’s the envelope?’
Some colour reappeared in Sally’s face. If she was a flop as a pop singer, perhaps she had fared better in the classical singing exam. She opened the envelope and glanced through the examiner’s report, looking for the all-important mark.
‘It’s Honours!’ she cried. ‘I’ve never had such a high mark for an exam before. At least I’ve managed to do something right.’
Enclosed with the results was a letter asking her to sing at a gala concert for high scorers. There was even a chance she might qualify for a scholarship to one of the British music academies as a result of her high marks.
Pop singing was forgotten as she phoned her singing teacher excitedly to tell her the good news. They planned some extra lessons to prepare for the forthcoming Concert at the Linder Auditorium, where there would be no electronic instruments, no microphones or screaming teenagers in sight, just the grand piano, the accompanist, the singer and a quiet appreciative audience.
Sally would not forget this harrowing day in a hurry. Her musical journey might lead her along a different path to the one followed by pop singers. She might not be destined to be a pop idol, but singing would still play a large part in her life. She could not wait to begin.