“You should be…”  “I should be…”  “You should have…”  “I should have…”  ‘Should’ and its little friend ‘shouldn’t’ – may be the most invidious words in the English language.  They take you down dark paths, whether you are saying them to others or to yourself.  And who hasn’t said them to someone, either as an imperative or an accident?

This blog could be the sequel to ‘The arrogance of certainty’ – ‘Should’ is such a certain word, isn’t it?  It implies that the speaker knows the secrets of the universe; that whatever they say is sure to be acted on.  It can be as simple as me being told (this is true): “You shouldn’t use a white cup if you don’t clean it properly.”  Why shouldn’t I?  I like white cups and I know how to clean them, but sometimes I choose not to scrub them back white again as soon as I’ve finished with them.  I choose.  In my own time, and in my own way.  Yay me.

This is also true – said to me, by me. “You should have written another blog by now.”  and “You should have submitted to the next literary agent.”  and “You should do more/be more all the time.”  and “You should be happy.  You have a house, work that you love (most of the time), a family, friends, you aren’t living in Syria, you didn’t get flooded, you should be happy.”  And if I’m not happy all the time because I should be – if I don’t do everything my perfectionist, slightly obsessive head-mind tells me to because I should, I am not happy.  I am anxious, exhausted, striving for more and more, not really stopping because there’s always something else I should be doing.

I’m telling myself a story.  We all do that, we tell ourselves – and others – stories.  All the time.  We change them to suit whoever we’re telling.  We love embellishing, to make ourselves look good or bad or funny or tragic.  We want people to listen to our stories and feel sorry for us, or understand us, or we just need to tell them in order to have some kind of validation.

A man named Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a book called The Four Agreements.  I’ve bought this book for quite a few people now – one of them happily says to me, when I do the ‘Should’ shit – “Time for the Four Agreements,” and she’s right.  He says this: “At a certain point, all the opinions of our parents and teachers, religion and society, make us believe that we need to be a certain way in order to be accepted.  They tell us the way we should be, the way we should look, the way we should behave. We need to be this way; we shouldn’t be that way – and because it’s not okay for us to be what we are, we start pretending to be what we are not.  The fear of being rejected becomes the fear of not being good enough, and we start searching for something that we call perfection.  In our search, we form an image of perfection, the way we wish to be, but we know that we are not, and we begin to judge ourselves for that.”

The first Agreement is this: “Be impeccable with your word.”  And on first glance you might think, oh that’s OK, just don’t be nasty to people.  But it isn’t only that.  It’s about the word you use to others and the word you use on yourself.    It’s bloody hard and when I’m anxious/angry/frustrated/unhappy/depressed, it becomes even harder.  You want so badly to pull yourself out of this state  –  you know that you can, you have the tools to do it, you’ve spent years getting to this point of being able to do it – and your head goes: “You should.”  And there you are again.

February is a ‘should’ month for me – I find it difficult, not necessarily because the weather’s shit.  It’s got a couple of things going for it – short, and no council tax.  But there’s that Imbolc time of new beginnings, spring appearing, crocuses, snowdrops – and the feeling that I should – there I go again – be more galvanised and spring-like.  So why aren’t I?  I just. Am. Not.  Sometimes I am.  Sometimes I can be.  Yesterday I was – I had a brilliant evening with writers and readers, and it’s given me the kick up the arse I needed to rediscover the joy of possibility.  I think that’s the worst thing about ‘should’.  You lose the joy; there’s only other people’s ‘should’s’ and your own beating a path through your head to the heart.

March is looking good though.


The one about singing with Danny Elfman (part the first)

I’ve done some jobs in my time.  These include singing Christmas carols in a Dubai shopping mall  (a blog in itself), producing a charity gala starring Hugh Jackman (before he was Wolverine), Richard Wilson, Annette Crosbie, Paul Scofield and the Fabulous Tiller Girls and the worst piece of acting I have ever pulled off — a Roman senator in a fringe production of Camus’ Caligula.  I actually feel queasy thinking about it now, twenty years on.

But in October last year, I toured with Danny Elfman.  Danny Elfman!  Did I say, Danny Elfman?  It wasn’t only me; there were 45 of us singing ooh aah, the BBC Concert Orchestra, an angelic and terrifyingly composed boy soprano and Helena Bonham Carter.  When Christopher Dee, chorus master of the Maida Vale Singers and a great mate of mine rang to drop that little nugget into the conversation: “Hi Shaz, how are you, fancy touring with Danny Elfman?”, it took a while to sink in.  “Gosh,” I said, or something like it.  “That’s exciting.”  The more I thought about it, the more exciting it became.  Were we actually going to sing Edward Scissorhands/Batman/Alice?  His music for the Tim Burton films were so much part of my geek landscape that it seemed inconceivable that the other MVS wouldn’t be as excited as I.  And some were – Facebooking variants on ‘OMG, Danny Elfman’.  But when we arrived for the first rehearsal, I was frankly stunned by the amount of people who said they’d not only never heard of him, but had never watched a single Tim Burton film.  How could this be?   How could anyone alive not have seen Nightmare Before Christmas, or listened to the theme from The Simpsons?  “Oh, did he write that?”

VIP choir

We were handed our music, some of us treating it as holy writ until we actually opened it.  As expected, plenty of ooh aah, with occasional made-up Latin-sounding words.  And no cues.  None.  Lots of 85 bars rest and then an expectation that you could pick, say, a high C out of the air at the right moment.  Columbia Artists (DE’s management) and, presumably DE himself had booked us from the circling shark pool of other singers, so cocking it up wasn’t an option – certainly not for long.  The charming and patient Marc Mann, DE’s official choir trainer, wearing a trademark flat cap and increasingly tense expression, attempted to fast-track us to competence before the orchestral rehearsal that afternoon.  A mood of controlled hysteria hung in the air as we sang/bluffed our way through Mars Attacks! (ee-oh, ee-oh) and the angelic but tricky Scissorhands notes.  Then we hit Beetlejuice.  Remember the singing in that?  No, me neither.  Marc put it to one side to worry about later, a bit of a mistake.  By the end of the three-hour session, there were two pieces we hadn’t even looked at, Beetlejuice being one.


After lunch we joined the BBCCO, visibly enlarged for the occasion.  John Mauceri, American maestro and fully deserving of the title, looked like the Central Casting version of your favourite uncle/young granddad.  Silver-haired, funny and unflappable, even when faced with a click track, film clips to time everything to, full orchestra and a group of singers who’d only laid eyes on the music that morning.  We immediately adored him.

And then the orchestra started to play;  the world lit up – I was in a Tim Burton fairytale.  The first thing we did was Sleepy Hollow – lovely score, not too shabby singing.  We glanced at one another.  Might we actually pull this off, with the Royal Albert Hall gig in two days’ time?  Batman was up next, a true “OMG!  Batman!  By Danny Elfman!” moment for me.  The piece we all fell for was Alice’s theme from Alice in Wonderland – not the best Burton film, but god, how we loved singing it.

I then fell in love with the theremin, a DE staple, iconic in 50s SF film, The Day the Earth Stood Still and of course, Mars Attacks! (don’t forget the !)  I badly wanted one and immediately checked out the price on eBay.  Imagine one of those in a Streetwise Opera workshop.  The woman playing it, Lydia Kavina, is one of the world’s leading theremin players and was taught by Leon Theremin, the cousin of  her grandfather.    Did you know that the theremin was originally invented for Russian-sponsored research into proximity sensors?  No, me neither.  I stalked Ms Kavina throughout our time together as she patiently answered my stupid questions and suffered my puppy-eyed adulation every time she stroked her hands up and down the crazy, fabulous instrument.

Back in the rehearsal, just when we thought we were home free, John Mauceri said: “OK, let’s look at Beetlejuice.”  We looked at it.  And that was all we did, pretty much.  Hardly a note, hardly a pick-up.  45 singers mouthing like fish.  Astonishingly, no-one appeared to notice, or if they did, were too polite to say anything.  We finally got it right at the RAH gig which was fortunate.

DE turned up the following day, nervous as hell, not having performed live for almost twenty years.  Black-coated, bright red hair, pale skin and geek-chic glasses, he looked exactly as expected.  Then he sang ‘What’s This?’ from Nightmare Before Christmas (having sung the role of Jack Skellington in the film) and another OMG moment.  Everyone cheered and he smiled for the first time.  We immediately adored him too.

During the break, I was sitting on the stairs outside the studio, looked up and saw Helena Bonham Carter.  She drifted by, wearing a black net dress, black lace-up boots and looking like a star.  She smiled at me.  I smiled back.  Then, naturally, I tweeted about it.  She was performing Sally’s Song from Nightmare, just for the RAH gig.  Now she’s no singer, let’s be honest, but it looked great and she is whoppingly beautiful and married to Tim Burton, so who cares?  Love her.

The RAH gig had been sold out for some months and the roar that went up with every piece played was spectacular.  Film clips and Tim Burton’s own hand-drawn sketches were being shown behind us on a huge screen; we craned round to see, although I had been warned by several of my ‘dog-watch’ friends that the dog in Frankenweenie dies not once but twice, so when the sweet, sad music started, I stared resolutely ahead, trying to think of something else.  For I will not watch any film where a dog dies, as many of you know.  I still cried, though, because I knew the dog died.

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The films that got most screaming adulation were Mars Attacks! and Batman, but when DE stepped on stage it suddenly became a stadium rock concert, or perhaps the Second Coming.  He was fabulous, flawless, hilarious as he sang Jack’s Lament, What’s This and Oogie Boogie Man (look it up).  A cry of “I love you Helena” came up from the circle as HBC came on, and she smiled and waved and was also fabulous.  At the curtain call, Tim Burton came on to join them and the place erupted.  By this point, even the ‘Who is Danny Elfman?’ brigade of the MVS were cheering.  “This is the greatest moment of my life,” he said as he received a triple standing ovation.  And it wasn’t over yet, for the next morning, we were off on tour.

World Premiere