Voices in the wilder­ness

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‘Get that gob open,

Liz,” says Peter. “I’m not see­ing any teeth.” I obey, stretch­ing my jaw wide as we’d done in an ear­lier “howl­ing wolf” ex­er­cise, and find that not only can I hit a top F# with­out squeak­ing, I’m thor­oughly en­joy­ing my­self.

When I booked a three-day singing re­treat at Peter Evans’s farm­house in ru­ral France, I had been ap­pre­hen­sive about dis­play­ing my piti­ful abil­i­ties to some in­tim­i­dat­ing Ox­ford choral scholar type. But in­stead I found my­self war­bling to a skinny for­mer punk gui­tarist with a strong “sarf” Lon­don ac­cent and an ar­ray of truly ter­ri­ble jokes.

While I’ve al­ways en­joyed singing in choirs, I still half ex­pect to be taken aside at any mo­ment and told gen­tly that it’d be best if I didn’t come any more. So when I read that Peter’s method is about help­ing peo­ple find and trust their voice, phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally – and that he’s also a med­i­ta­tion teacher – I’m sold. He claims to be able to teach any­one to sing, and that there’s no such thing as tone deaf.

It’s a bonus that his re­treats – for groups of up to six, with daily med­i­ta­tion and two singing lessons a day – are held amid the forested hills and lakes of the Mill­e­vaches parc na­turel in

La Creuse, France’s sec­ond-least pop­u­lated de­part­ment. Peter and his wife Ema, also a mu­si­cian, bought their 19th-cen­tury farm­house five years ago and are grad­u­ally mak­ing it the per­fect med­i­ta­tive, mu­si­cal es­cape. A barn at­tached to the house is a stu­dio/ per­for­mance space in warmer weather, and there’s a heated work­shop be­low for win­ter use. (It’s not too re­mote though: for our be­spoke re­treat, Peter picks hus­band and me up from Li­mo­ges sta­tion, 75 min­utes’ drive away.)

The house, in the ham­let of Soumeix, a short walk from many-fin­gered Lac de Vas­sivière, is com­fort­able and wel­com­ing rather than lux­u­ri­ous. Our room is cosy, with a huge Ikea bed, but two guest rooms in the at­tic are un­heated, so are used only in warmer months, and there are no en suites: guests share an up­stairs bath­room and shower and a down­stairs loo with their hosts. But they also get to share in Ema’s in­spired cook­ing – three meals a day, with wine at din­ner, served at a long ta­ble by the wood­burn­ing stove, with dogs Eric and Gary at your feet.

The first morn­ing, after a break­fast of eggs and toast with Ema’s homemade ap­ple but­ter, we head to the work­shop to get in the zone with some med­i­ta­tion: con­cen­trat­ing on the breath and us­ing a so hum (“I am” in San­skrit) mantra. A fur­ther ex­er­cise called kir­tan kriya (“song ac­tions”) in­volves in­ton­ing “saa, taa, naa, maa” – aloud, whis­pered and then silently – while touch­ing each fin­ger in turn to the thumb. It ab­sorbs all my aware­ness and when we stop I couldn’t say whether we’ve been at it two min­utes or an hour – it was 12 min­utes. (Alzheimer’s re­search, I later learn, has shown that daily kir­tan kriya med­i­ta­tion im­proves cog­ni­tion and ac­ti­vates parts of the brain cen­tral to mem­ory.)

I hadn’t con­nected med­i­ta­tion and singing, but of course breath­ing is fun­da­men­tal to both – and the way the mind gets ab­sorbed in song has med­i­ta­tive qual­i­ties. The first thing Peter gets us to do at our voice les­son later that morn­ing is to take a deep breath. We get this sim­ple task wrong. For good singing, breath­ing must be deep in the chest and belly; the shoul­ders shouldn’t be edg­ing to­wards the ears, as mine keep do­ing. We spend time iso­lat­ing the di­aphragm mus­cles be­fore singing a note.

Peter fell into teach­ing by ac­ci­dent after bounc­ing around the punk rock scene in var­i­ous bands through the late 1970s and 1980s. But he has found his metier. He’s in­spir­ing and en­cour­ag­ing yet thor­oughly down to earth. There are a lot of ref­er­ences to bod­ily func­tions as well as the bad jokes. Melody maker Peter Evans, far right, with his Bri­tish cho­ris­ters

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