This beautiful story comes from Scrubs. The author prefers to remain anonymous.
My musical journey started when I was seven years old. My dad, a jazz pianist, had left suddenly a few years earlier and my mom was a broke single mum raising three kids in a tiny two-bed council house in Suffolk. To make ends meet, she took a job as a breakfast waitress at a hotel. That meant she couldn’t take me to school in the mornings, so she auditioned me to be a chorister in the local cathedral choir on the condition that after morning rehearsals the choirmaster would drive me to school himself. I quickly fell in love with singing and found I had a real talent for it. It was a baptism of fire in music education. We had to learn and perform about five hours of new music every week, so I learned to read music fast. By the time I was nine or ten, reading sheet music was as natural to me as reading words in a book. I learned so much that a few years later I managed to get a musical scholarship at a top university. Even though my degree was in English literature, I did so much music that by the time I graduated I knew I wanted to be a classical singer. After a year of postgraduate study at music college in London, I started to get work as a singer all over the world, either in professional choirs or as a soloist, as well as doing quite a lot of opera.
My first professional job was in an opera at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It was well paid and they covered all my travel, hotel and food expenses too. Not bad for a kid from a council estate! By the time I was 30, I had performed in Buckingham Palace twice, Paris Opera house four times, the Albert Hall five times, and travelled all over the world as a singer, all expenses paid and more.
In one year alone I performed in New York, Boston, Berlin, Mexico City, the Forbidden City in Beijing, and Milan. Another year I did backing vocals in a gig with Annie Lennox, met Desmond Tutu, recorded the vocals for an IKEA advert, and was on the soundtrack for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I’ve also travelled to the West Bank in Palestine five times to give music workshops and concerts in refugee camps, once literally over the sound of nearby gunfire.
I’ve always hated the idea that certain genres of music (like classical) are only for certain types of people. Good music that speaks to the heart can be found in any genre. So too, by the way, can bad music be found in every genre. Ask any serious jazz musician who the greatest musician of all time is and most will say Bach. Those four chord harmonic phrases perfected by Mozart – without them there would be no Beatles, no Ed Sheeran, no pop music. The more styles of music you listen to, the more you can discover and enjoy. To me, people who only ever listen to one genre of music are like chefs who only ever cook with one single ingredient. Why would anyone limit themselves and miss out on so much?
John Muir once wrote, “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread.” In prison we get plenty of bread, but beauty is much harder to find. Music is one way that prisoners can bring a little beauty into their cells. Sometimes I replay some of my favourite pieces in my head: that moment in Gerald Finzi’s Eclogue when the strings come in; Robert Lucas de Pearsall’s Lay a Garland; the second movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. When I hear these I find that after a lifetime of music opening doors for me, for one brief moment – if only in my head – music can open one more door for me. The heavy metal cell door at the end of my prison bed.