Phantom of the Metro

Much like the one that kicked this whole blog off, this post is being composed at some ungodly hour of the (wrong side of the) morning, largely in the hope of appeasing my overly-busy brain so I can finally get some bloody sleep. We shall see.

“Why is your brain so busy?”, I hear you ask. Well, to be honest, there are a fair few things buzzing noisily around my head (more than a couple of them are recipes), but I’ll share with you the most relevant one to my day. This isn’t a cooking blog, after all. I do tell you (in lurid detail) about the food I eat, but I don’t tell you how to make it. (Sorry.)

To explain why today was exciting for me, I have to go back a couple of weeks. And before that, I have to tell you a little more about myself. So here that goes: I love to sing. Not just in the shower, or my little galley kitchen (although I do enjoy both of those forums immensely), but also in public. I used to do quite a lot of it; another love of mine is musical theatre. I’m sure you can see how the two passions go quite well together. All through my teenage years I performed in shows, interspersed with the odd concert, and I loved every minute. With the exception, perhaps, of the necessary evil of the auditions which naturally preceded the shows – I get truly terrible stage-fright, and it’s never worse than when I’m auditioning. Nausea, numb hands, cold sweats, shaking head to toe… the works.

The last show I performed in was ‘Oliver!’ – I played the female lead, Nancy, and it was hands down my favourite role to date. SO much fun. (Never mind that I couldn’t shake the ‘Nancy stance’ of standing feet apart and hands on hips for about two years afterwards. It didn’t look that odd.)

That was a fair while ago now, though, and my musical theatre performing has been woefully thin on the ground since then. I did try my hand at another sort of performance for a bit, though: for a year or so during my uni years, I became a regular on the busking scene of Birmingham and her surrounding towns.

That was a very interesting experience. I learned a lot just from the doing, and my voice changed in ways I didn’t know it had the capacity to, without me actively trying to change it at all. For one thing, my range somehow expanded significantly; I also accidentally learned to spontaneously harmonise. As an extra bonus, making money doing something I enjoyed so much was pretty gratifying, to say the least. I couldn’t help figuring out what my ‘hourly rate’ amounted to at the end of each session, and then comparing it gleefully to my former waitressing wages. I wasn’t using the busking as an actual source of income, but I certainly wasn’t complaining about the financial boost!

Unfortunately, that came to an end when I broke up with my ex, who had also been my busking partner. He’d provided our instrumentals with his guitar – I didn’t play an instrument myself. I toyed with the idea of creating tracks to sing to, but said ex had always been very disparaging about people who did that, and I (foolishly) let myself be deterred by that. I was also more than a little scared of going solo on the street!

So that was that. My mic and its stand became a permanent fixture at the back of my wardrobe and my little street amp was only saved from the same fate because (unsurprisingly) it made really decent home speakers. Eventually, I got over my aversion to singing to a track – far better than not singing at all – and I resolved over and over again to get back on the proverbial horse. But I simply couldn’t find the courage. The idea scared me silly. I got butterflies just looking at my amp. It was never “a good time”.

Anyway, fast forward to 2018, anglaise living and loving her vie parisienne. New life, pretty much, new resolve. I had a specific goal this time, busking-wise: I wanted earn my right to perform to the halls of the Metro.

Sounds a bit of an odd one, as goals go, but that’s pretty much the Holy Grail of Busking as far as Paris is concerned. Rules above ground are patchy, and acceptable pitches are pretty hit-and-miss. But the Metro promises a steady audience and delightful acoustics, not to mention protection from the elements. My research promised those underground spots were by far the most lucrative for the aspiring busker.

One problem: it’s no free-for-all. Busking in the Metro requires a license in Paris, and it is heavily policed.* Furthermore, one cannot simply obtain said license by asking for it. Ohhh no. They’re serious about this stuff. You want the Metro Powers That Be to let you perform in peace on their patch, then you’ve got to prove yourself.

How?

By audition, of course.

Remember the aforementioned audition “truly terrible stage fright” which is “never worse than when I’m auditioning”? Mmm. Tricky. And it really had been such a long time since I had auditioned for anything at this point. Years had passed since I had undergone the veritable ordeal of singing for a po-faced panel. Still, I’m not one to shirk a challenge on the basis that it promises to be… well, challenging, so I did a bit of research and pinged an email off to the organisers of the license-allocating scheme – ‘Musiciens du Metro‘ – reassuring myself that a request for further details was no binding contract.

What I was not expecting was the swift response which informed me that in order to apply for an audition, I would have to submit the required information by the end of that week. This was a Wednesday. I did not have long to make my mind up. Which, in hindsight, is probably just as well, since that also meant I didn’t have long to talk myself out of my shaky resolve. And besides, even if I applied, they might not give me an audition. AND, even if they DID give me an audition, I wasn’t obliged to go. In theory. Reassured, I applied. 

The letter from RATP (the transport agency) came the following Friday. They had decided to invite me to audition. On Tuesday 12th October. I.e. in four days time. I’m fairly sure I physically felt the colour drain from my face as I worked this out. Shit. What was I supposed to do with that? I didn’t even know what I was going to sing yet. Four days was nothing. Practically a heartbeat. A really long heartbeat. Shit. Shitshitshit.

Turns out the answer to “what was I supposed to do with that?” was: annoy the hell out of the neighbours all weekend by singing the same song over and over and over and over and over again. Said song being ‘Think of Me’ from the Phantom of the Opera, by the way; a beautiful song when done justice, but also not what anyone would categorize as “easy background listening”. It’s rather high, for one thing. Gets quite powerful, for another. 

My least favourite part of living in an apartment (rather than a house) is that it makes me very uncomfortable singing at home, for fear of bothering those on the other sides of the walls. When I do sing in the flat, it’s done in the constant dread of a sudden hammering on the door and/or a bellow to “STOP THAT BLOODY RACKET”. Or whatever that would be in French. But on this particular occasion, I had no choice other than to send all trepidation (/respect for my neighbours’ peace) flying out the window, in my best efforts to be audition-ready by Tuesday. At least I didn’t have new lyrics to contend with – I was pretty much raised on the music of Phantom,** and have been word-perfect on this particular song for well over a decade.

Predictably, Tuesday came around far more quickly than it had any business doing. I beat my alarm out of bed and started warming up more or less straight away, pacing the apartment singing scales and arpeggios with a steaming mug of honey-infused water clutched in my quivering hand. Sorry, again, Next Door.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave, and I spent the entirety of the hour-or-so journey to (literally) the other side of Paris humming quietly under my breath and attempting to keep my very trembly knees under some semblance of control. Quite the crazy lady, but I was MUCH too far into the realms of nauseatingly nervous to care in the slightest. This only worsened as I left the metro, and walked the hundred-or-so metres to my destination. I took a deep, shaky breath and buzzed the intercom.

Oui, ‘allo?

*translated from French into English now*

“Er… hello… My name’s Jodie Hughes, I’m here for my Musiciens du Metro audition”

“Your audition’s tomorrow.”

“…But my letter says Tuesday. Today’s Tuesday.”

“It says the 12th. That’s tomorrow. Your audition’s tomorrow.”

~ I will interject here to add that I actually realised the previous night that my letter did say both Tuesday, and the 12th, as I mentioned above. The problem with this, however, was that Tuesday was the 11th. Too late to contact the organisers, or change my last-minute day’s holiday booked off work, I had decided there was nothing for it but to go along and hope~

“Well, I know tomorrow’s the 12th, but you see I’ve booked today off work and…”

“Everyone is coming to audition tomorrow.”

“Umm, right well, is there anything…”

“Did you confirm attendance?”

“Yes… for Tuesday…”

“Wait.”

So wait I did, getting increasingly het up by the minute, lump building in my throat, frustrated tears threatening to escape my eyes (I was ridiculously overwrought with nerves, and the intercom lady was being unnecessarily brusque). She kept me waiting for the longest five minutes, and then suddenly, with no warning at all, the intercom buzzed, the door clicked open, and the owner of the brusque voice was standing there impatiently, wearing a brusque expression. Someone would see me, she informed me irritably; clearly, she did not approve of such an ostentatious display of benevolence. I started to apologize for the confusion, brandishing my letter, which said ‘Tuesday’ in very large letters in the middle of the page, but she waved me off with a sharp “c’est un bug“. As if it was my fault for not realising something so glaringly obvious.

She waved at me to follow her, which I did, down a narrow, spiral staircase at the back of the small room I had entered from the street. At the bottom of the stairs, I found myself in a room which was clearly purpose-built; there was nothing in there, but a tiny sofa, a camcorder on a tripod, three microphones in stands, and a fairly fancy-looking sound system of some description. In case the furnishings left any room for doubt, the back wall, behind the mic stands, was splashed with the blue ‘Musiciens du Metro‘ logo. 

After establishing that yes, I had brought my track, and yes, I did have something to play it from, and yes, I had my own a cable (she really didn’t seem to have much faith in my being at all prepared) I was told to wait, again, and the woman (whose name she did not deign to share) disappeared back up the stairs, leaving me alone to prepare. I.e. attempt to flatten the lump that was still sitting uncomfortably in my throat. It disappeared surprisingly quickly though, when I attempted a few shaky warm-up notes and realised that the acoustics in the audition room were gorgeous. Drawing some semblance of confidence from that, I tried a few scales. They rang beautifully in the little space. Suddenly, I almost felt as if I could do a decent job here. Almost. 

And I did. Not just almost, actually. At risk of blowing my own trumpet here, it was genuinely the best audition I’ve ever done. Maybe the best I’ve ever sung that song. By the time the last, long note was fading into the space, I was high on the kind of adrenaline rush that only a successful performance can bring. Now the shaking started again, but this time, it was from the buzz. The gentleman who had watched and recorded my audition – the head of the scheme, it transpires (his female colleague had not reappeared) – asked me some questions, about my busking set, whether I sang only in English, about the equipment I needed for my ‘act’. He also wanted to know about my training. His assumption was that I had trained at a music school, and we had to go back and forward a good few times, him trying to establish where I had learned to sing, before he eventually asked, with a touch of incredulity that I know I did not imagine “So… are you saying you taught yourself?”. I conceded at this point that my mother is a wonderful singer, and he nodded, understanding now: “So your mother is a professional singer…”. Again, he was surprised when I responded in the negative. 

I hope you can excuse the touch of self-indulgence in sharing this exchange with you, but for someone who has such fragile self-esteem when it comes to singing ability, this was truly the greatest compliment I could have received and I was just so ecstatically happy about it that I couldn’t not tell you about it. Truly, when I left that audition room, I did not care in the slightest whether or not I got my license, because I just was so pleased with how the audition had gone, and with the reaction of the ‘judge’. It was all I needed to relight the flame of enthusiasm for performing and I promised myself there and then that I would bloody well find somewhere to busk in Paris, even if they wouldn’t permit me to do it underground. 

Turns out I won’t need to get creative with my pitch, though. My letter arrived a couple of weeks later: the license was mine!

So, to my delight and slight disbelief, I am officially a Musicienne du Metro. Owing to a particularly hectic couple of weeks, I am finishing this post a week later than I began it (oops), BUT to take you back to my opening paragraphs, my brain was so very busy on the night I started writing because that was the day I went to pick up my badge (and the various other paraphernalia I’ve been given to prove my right to my chosen pitch/es) – and I was just too bloody excited to sleep. I can’t get started for a few weeks – I’m flying to San Francisco for a fortnight tomorrow, and I’m barely back a week before I return to England for my childhood best friend’s wedding  (two more reasons for late-night restlessness) – but I am absolutely bursting with impatience to get going as soon as I can.

I hope the public-transport-users of Paris like Phantom of the Opera….

 

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* Or so I’m led to believe by overwhelming internet consensus.

** Along with Miss Saigon and Les Miserables…

14 thoughts on “Phantom of the Metro

Add yours

    1. Thanks Dennis! I still haven’t been able to get out there yet due to various travels, but I definitely intend to blog about it when I finally do. And I hadn’t thought about posting anything of me actually singing, but I won’t rule it out… Thanks for the idea! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I love singing as well- but can’t sing. I am a musical theatre fanatic- people keep on asking me “how can you be passionate about musicals and you never will be in one”- I have to tell them- I can’t sing. Being passionate for me is shown different- by going to them, listening to the soundtracks, blogging about them, and the way I actually talk about them. As an audience member, if its a musical I love, I get so immersed in the experience that I forget I am looking at actors- I feel like I am looking at characters and those characters continue to live in me long after the curtain falls and I feel like I become a character.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Always nice to encounter another Phantom fan 😁 I envy anyone with a naturally strong voice – I could always sing ‘nicely’, but it took me a long time to get any sort of power behind the sound. My mum used to get me to stand on a kitchen chair and sing at the top of my lungs, just to try and get some volume into me!

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