St Augustine said ‘When we sing, we pray twice’ – for Sue Conway, Publishing Co-ordinator at Alive Publishing, is never happier than when she is singing her heart out. She recently fulfilled a life-long ambition to produce a CD of her favourite Christmas Carols, the proceeds of which are being donated to International Prison Outreach.
From a very early age I’ve always loved to sing. My first memory of singing my little heart out was when I was seven. I had been asked to play the part of Judith Durham in a school nativity play at St John Fisher’s Primary School in Alvaston, Derby. Judith Durham was the lead vocalist for the Australian folk group, the Seekers. The shepherds and the three kings were not the only visitors to the baby Jesus that year – as the nativity play finished with me singing ‘The Carnival is Over.’ Not a usual ending to a Nativity play I grant you!
I started having piano lessons when I was eight but only got as far as Grade One. The truth is, like many children, I just didn’t enjoy the practising and gave it up when I was eleven.
I have very fond memories of singing with my dad. He was a good singer and had a deep rich bass voice. He was always very encouraging and got me to sing into a tape recorder and used to give me lots of tips.
I have a vivid memory also of sitting around the breakfast table one Sunday morning and crying because I found Mass dull and boring. It was really because I wanted to join in more. My brother Andy said he would take me to a different parish. He took me to St Hugh’s in Borrowash and there I joined a really lovely folk group and started singing and playing the guitar at Mass. I loved every minute of it. I loved singing to God and for God.
I am actually quite shy but found that my shyness disappeared whenever I sang. In fact, I discovered that I really enjoyed singing in front of other people. They say that Eric Liddle, the Olympic sprint Champion and the subject of the film Chariots of Fire, said that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. That is how I feel when I sing, I sense something of the joy of God’s love, his glory and majesty.
I remember going on pilgrimage to Lourdes when I was seventeen. Lourdes was very different back then. There were very few of the current big buildings/chapels/churches that are now on site. It was just the main Basilica; the underground basilica was a work in progress at the time. At the far end of the Domain, now known as the Prairie, was a big camp site and this is where we pitched our tents (no hotels for us) and we sang and picnicked and had Mass on the banks of the River Gave with my brother Fr Paul Watson who was a curate at Great Barr in those days and newly ordained Fr Graham Wilkinson. In our party was Fr Eamon Corduff who was only nine then and is now parish priest at Kingstanding, Birmingham. They were very fun and formative days! Our group would often lead the singing standing to the side on the steps of the Basilica for the Marian procession or for the Anointing of the Sick in the square.
I was a member of a Charismatic Prayer Meeting for a number of years and really enjoyed being part of the music ministry. I also enjoyed singing solo at weddings and at other events too. I got married when I was twenty-eight and raised my four children and worked for Alive Publishing. I sang to my children and have passed on to them a love for music. However, at the back of my mind was this hankering, a nagging desire, a longing if you like, that would not go away. I wanted to produce a CD of my favourite Christmas Carols. I made contact with Anthony Menezes, a piano teacher based in Liverpool, and started having lessons to prepare my voice. After several months I felt ready and made contact with Shaun Lowe, Prism Studios. He is a music producer and has a studio in Stoke-on-Trent. He has produced music for The Drifters and Stevie Wonder’s daughter Aisha and also produces at Abbey Road Studios, London. It was such a thrill to have a music studio and to see the music we were producing being mixed and worked on by Shaun. He could not have been more encouraging or supportive and recording Emmanuel with him, with Anthony on keyboard, was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.
I love singing. It fills me with so much joy. I have an eclectic taste and enjoy singers like Barbara Streisand, Karen Carpenter, Celine Dion and Adele. My favourites, though, are religious hymns because I believe God gave me my voice and I want to use it for him. I enjoy old hymns and new. When I sing I feel like I am in God’s presence and my heart lifts and my spirit soars. I have to be honest and say that I enjoy singing what would be considered old traditional hymns the most. I am not sure what it is about them but their melodies and lyrics speak to me very powerfully indeed. Hymns such as: O Jesus Christ Remember, I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary, O Bread of Heaven, Bring Flowers of the Rarest, God of Mercy and Compassion, Soul of my Saviour and so on.
Christmas can be such a busy time of year that finding time to pray, be still and prepare for the season can be difficult. During this time the traditional Christmas Carols come alive for me. I can find myself singing and humming them as I go about my day. There is a beauty about them which puts me in touch with the wonder of the birth of Christ. Of course, as we all do, I love singing in the car and hope that those who purchase Emmanuel, Christmas Carols from the Heart will do also.