Voices in the wilderness
‘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