I’ve never been able to hold a note. I failed the audition for my school choir and, even today, my go-to karaoke tune, David Bowie’s Moonage Daydream, still has my family reaching for the noise-cancelling headphones. But I’ve always wanted to connect with the musicality of my Welsh roots, so I’ve come to the land of song to discover if, somewhere deep inside, there is music in my heart.
Wales has a proud tradition of music. The non-conformist chapels of the mid 1800s reverberated to traditional Welsh hymns while the miners and slate workers of industrialised Wales used folk and protest songs to stir an early political awareness throughout the 19th-century. Today music continues to keep the Welsh language alive with the likes of Gruff Rhys, the former lead singer of the rock band Super Furry Animals, performing bilingual gigs.
Keen to find my own musical mojo, I’ve checked into Cwm Moel, a 17th-century stone guesthouse in the Mid Wales village of Aberedw. But this isn’t just another traditional farmstead B&B. It offers a uniquely Welsh twist: one-on-one vocal coaching in the music room.
Owner Eleanor Madoc Davies, a retired music teacher, has been coaxing tunes from nervous singing students for over 40 years. Having discovered a passion for Mozart at an early age, she went on to perform and conduct choirs at musical events, including the eisteddfod, an annual celebration of Welsh culture and music. In her younger days, she was renowned for hitting the Katherine Jenkins-style high notes. “When I first met my husband, Mervyn, I was singing at the local pub. He would finish all my drinks lined up on the piano,” she smiled, a twinkle in her eye.
After a welcoming pot of tea by the traditional Welsh hearth, we retired to the music room for some vocal warm-ups based around nursery rhymes. Eleanor teaches in the classical tradition, believing breathing and posture are integral to building confidence. It felt pretty daunting at first, hearing my own voice naked against a piano accompaniment, but we tried the songs in different keys to establish I was better suited to a baritone or top bass range. By the end of the first session, I was struggling. I don’t read music and staying in key was proving challenging. “Don’t give up,” encouraged Eleanor. “It’s the sound I’m chasing. A rich, round tone.”
I felt in need of some inspiration, so that evening went to watch the Builth Wells Male Voice Choir at their weekly rehearsal. The choir was founded in 1968 and regularly performs on stage and on television. I found the 50-strong group of men, ages ranging from thirties to 83, in the upstairs room of The Greyhound Hotel. Arranged in rows from the baritones at one end of the room to the second tenors at the other, they ran through an eclectic set list of traditional hymns, Broadway show tunes and spiritual songs.
“You've got to work together as a unit. Listen to each other and the piano,” said Musical Director Adrian Morgan, advising the choristers to build the volume towards the crescendo of Elvis’ American Trilogy. Even harder to master was Do You Hear The People Sing from Les Misérables, whereby the bass and tenors must weave together to build the harmony. But, after a couple of run throughs, the room started to vibrate with voices in powerful unison and the members even passed me some sheet music to join them for the final number.
Over a pint of Brains Dark in the bar afterwards, I asked the clearly dedicated members what they loved about being part of a choir. “It’s about inclusivity. There’s no audition, so anyone can come along and we’ll help them find their place in the room,” said estate agent Trevor Morgan. For retired electronics engineer John Carruthers, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer a year ago, it’s the bonded sense of community. “Singing is the best therapy for me. It frees up my mind from the everyday,” he smiled, as we finished our pints. “When I’m singing, I never feel alone.”
The next morning, after a Mervyn’s home-cooked breakfast of farm-fresh eggs and cured local bacon, I was back in Eleanor’s music room with a new sense of determination. A bust of Wolfgang Amadeus watched over us as I resumed my place at the music stand. We started with Land of My Fathers, the Welsh National Anthem that heralds the start of Welsh rugby internationals. Afterwards I tackled the military march Men of Harlech, a favourite tune of my maternal grandfather whose side of the family connects me to Wales.
It took time to get a feel for the emotion behind the music and I was still a bit pitchy at times but, with Eleanor’s gentle patience, I started to grow in confidence. By the end of the second session, I opened my mouth wide to let my voice fill the room.
I know my limitations. I’ll never duet with Sir Tom Jones on The Voice, joining him for a patriot rendition of The Green, Green Grass of Home. Nor will I be taking the support slot on the next Cate Le Bon tour. But as I drove back through the Mid Wales countryside, occasional sunbeam daffodils breaking cover for spring from the hibernating kerbside, I resolved to try a local community choir at home and broaden my range.
I had finally started to find my voice.