Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

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February 23

Who Wears the Pants? operatic music from the Baroque and Classical eras

The Westgarth Ensemble presents

 Who Wears the Pants? operatic music from the Baroque and Classical eras

 In the mid 17th century the castrati dominated the operatic stage and were the superstars of the day. Their time is long past but many of the operas created to showcase their particular talents are still performed today. So who wears the pants now? Well, since the castrati voice was far closer to female vocal types, it’s only natural that these days it’s the girls!

In this program of soaring operatic quartets, trios and duets from the Baroque and Classical eras, all of the ensembles feature a mixture of female and male (formerly castrati) roles. Can you tell who’s wearing the pants?

Featuring works by: Monteverdi, Handel, Gluck, Vinci, Vivaldi and Mozart.

When: Wednesday 18th November, 1:00pm

Where: St Paul’s Cathedral, Flinders St, Melbourne.

Who: The Westgarth Ensemble –  Claire McDonald, Katrena Mitchell and Sian Prior (sopranos) and Kerrie Bolton (mezzo) accompanied by Greg Smith (pianist)

Background: The members of The Westgarth Ensemble have been singing together since 1997. Graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio, they have all worked for a range of Australian opera companies and ensembles. In recent years they have been presenting themed vocal concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2014 they performed ‘Secret Music of the Baroque’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral.

For more information:  Katrena Mitchell 0431 823 391 mitchell.katrena@gmail.com

The Performers:

Kerrie Bolton graduated from Melbourne University with a Batchelor of Music Performance, furthered her studies in the UK and completed a Master of Music Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts. Kerrie performs regularly with the choruses of both Opera Australia and Victorian Opera and as a soloist with many companies including Melbourne Opera, Lyric Opera, Chamber Made and with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.

Claire Macdonald commenced her tertiary studies at the Melba Conservatorium of Music and continued post-graduate study at the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. She is currently the instrumental department co-coordinator of voice at Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School and works frequently as a soloist in recitals and concert performances.

Katrena Mitchell is a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. A fellowship at the State Library of Victoria focusing on baroque vocal music has resulted in a series of concerts exploring aspects of this rich music period. As well as concert performances Katrena has performed various operatic roles with Eastern Metropolitan Opera.  She also programs music for ABC Classic FM.

Sian Prior graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio in 1999. She has performed with Operalive, More Than Opera, Opera Sessions, Divas Inc. and at the Macedon Music and Castlemaine Festivals. Sian is also a writer and broadcaster who can be heard presenting on Classic FM and 774 ABC Melbourne. Her memoir Shy was published in 2014.  sianprior.com

Greg Smith was born in NZ and studied composition at the University of Canterbury.  Despite his teaching duties he maintains a constant performing profile. His skills in Musical Direction have been sought in many professional productions, including “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Asia, NZ and Australia (Really Useful), “Hello Again” (Halogen), “Putting It Together”, “A New Brain” and “Falsettos”.  Greg has played keyboards in productions of “Mamma Mia”, “Cats”, “Les Miserables”, “Into the Woods”, “42nd Street”, “Me & My Girl”, “Pirates of Penzance” and “Evita”.  He has also performed the role of Manny Weinstock in Terance McNally’s “Masterclass” at the Court Theatre in Christchurch.  A versatile accompanist and repetiteur, Greg can play anything from figured bass to jazz and rock. His operatic highlights were playing in “Eugene Onegin” and working with Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Dame Malvina Major.

February 10

On reading ‘Voir Dire’

Out the front of my house stands a eucalypt whose bark is the same flesh-pink as those giant human babies sculpted by Ron Mueck. At least, right now it is. Sometimes the bark is as grey and slit-scored as a medical student’s cadaver. Every day there is an imperceptible change in the colour of the tree and sometimes months pass before I notice the transition. About twice a year the slits peel back and the tree does a slow-motion striptease for me, shedding its curled fragments all over my garden. In between long stints at my desk I head outside to sweep the dry scrolls off the path. It is a comforting Sisyphean ritual.

I have been observing this gum tree through my office window for nearly three years now, ever since moving into my new home. If I look left from the computer screen there it is, leaning away from the wind’s embrace. If I turn my head to the right I see a piece of paper stuck to the wall beside my desk, covered in bold text. The text is a long quote from an essay by Ander Monson called ‘Voir Dire’ and it begins with two questions.

‘How often is something actually at stake in essays, in memoirs, in most of the non fiction I read (and perhaps write), I wonder? How often is there actual risk involved, invoked?’                                                          

 

Inspiration has become such a flaccid word. It has been so degraded by careless over-use that reading (or writing) it induces in me a faint nausea. The thesaurus offers up a bunch of insipid synonyms (stimulate, motivate, persuade, encourage, incite) but none quite replaces the original.

To breathe life into inspiration (pardon the pun) I look to its other meaning: to inhale. When in doubt, return to the body. The body’s response to the world. The body’s manifestations of the mind’s travails. Sitting at my desk these past three years, writing a memoir about shyness and grief (about how it feels to live inside a shy body, to grieve inside a breathing body) I found that by looking first to the left and then to the right I could inspire and be inspired. A bare-skinned tree for whom shedding layer after layer is as natural and uncomplicated as breathing should be for humans. And a long draft of fresh words, an astringent for the thoughts flowing from my brain to the screen.

‘The action of telling is fine: kudos for you and your confession, your therapy, your bravery in releasing your story to the public. But telling is performing, even if it seems effortless.’

 

As a child my favourite game was hide and seek. I loved the strategizing, the mental measurement of small spaces, tall curtains, bulky bedclothes. I loved knowing that someone was searching for me. I loved the performance of being lost. Most of all I loved those moments just before my pursuer gave up on the search. The idea that I could draw out the suspense and then end it. I could choose when to reveal myself, and self-revelation would be followed by elation.

Monson’s essay ‘Voir Dire’ is about being lost in the no man’s land between fact and fiction. It is about the way memories peel off and fall away, leaving us vulnerable to mis-rememberings. It is about trying to find the ‘truth content’ in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. My memoir is about my attempts to make, or find, or prove, or approve of, my true self. Whatever that means.

When you are shy your natural state is in hiding. Just the thought of revealing yourself is enough to induce the anxiety at the heart of shyness: fear of negative evaluation. Your instinct is to cover up; your fear, your embarrassment, your deep certainty that you are unfit for human company. Even while you are in hiding, though, you long to be discovered. Like the human forms hidden under Michelangelo’s marble blocks, you wait for someone to chisel you out from under your rigid casing of self-consciousness. If you are lucky you will occasionally find a friend or lover with an artist’s eye and you will be discovered, and known.

With memoir, though, waiting doesn’t work. Writing is an act of will and life writing can be an act of painful self-exposure. You must choose to reveal yourself, with no guarantee of a happy ending.

‘I guess I want awareness, a sense that the writer has reckoned with the self, the material, as well as what it means to reveal it, and how secrets are revealed, how stories are told, that it’s not just being simply told. In short, it must make something of itself.’

 

I’ve never met Ander Monson. If we did meet I would probably blush because that’s one of the tricks my shy body plays on me. Blushing, according to cultural theorist Elspeth Probyn, is the body’s signal that it has an investment in the encounter. It is the physical evidence of how much you care about what others think of you. (When you’re shy, you spend way too much time worrying about what others think of you.) It is shame written on the skin. Shame can ‘fall back into humiliation’ Probyn writes in Blush: faces of shame. But shame is also ‘positive in its self-evaluative role: it can even be self-transforming.’

The other reason I might blush is because (although Monson doesn’t know it) our words have been intimate. The bold text stuck on my wall has beckoned my words out of hiding and onto the page. No, beckon isn’t right; too gentle. Watching me through the textual prism of his essay, Monson has curled his lip every time my story failed to ‘make something of itself’. Each time I edged politely away from telling about (performing) my shame, my embarrassment, my humiliation, imaginary Monson has closed his copy of my memoir and flung it into a corner of his imaginary office. And every time I wrote and re-wrote the sentences that made me blush, every time I forced myself to apply ‘a little fucking craft’ to my raw confessions, imaginary Monson nodded approvingly then left me alone.

When I first began writing my memoir I could not answer the questions posed by Monson in ‘Voir Dire’. I didn’t know what was at stake, what was being risked with the telling of this story. After all, shyness is not a life-threatening condition. It is a common temperament trait that manifests as social anxiety that leads in turn to physical and mental discomfort. Curiosity about the causes of my discomfort led me to an understanding that at the heart of shyness is a profound fear of rejection.

Then my partner announced that he no longer wanted me.

Suddenly I was immersed in a fear so deep it made breathing almost impossible. Lies were confessed but more lies were told. Love was professed but love was withdrawn. I was lost in the no man’s land between fact and fiction. Now, though, I knew what was ‘at stake’: surviving the thing I feared the most. Not just surviving it, but rising far enough above it that I could write about it ‘with a little fucking craft’. That I could ‘reckon with the self’ even while the self was at risk of disappearing.

Last year Shy: a memoir was published in Australia. Many reviewers expressed their surprise at how self-revealing the author had been, how she had stripped herself bare for the reader. The memoir’s rawness made them feel voyeuristic. The word brave came up often in the reviews and this shy memoirist fought hard not to interpret that word as negative evaluation; is brave not code for over-reaching or self-indulgent? Imaginary Monson raised an eyebrow and murmured ‘kudos for your bravery’. I felt more exposed than ever before. Then I began hearing from readers.

One by one their emails came in, shy missives from people like me, people who have spent a lifetime struggling with an irrational fear of other people. They wrote about their trembling hands and their blushing cheeks and their shortness of breath. About the abject terror they felt at parties, surrounded by people they’ve never met. About feeling so exposed they wanted to hide away where no one could find them. About their Sisyphean battles with their own temperament. And they wrote about how it had felt for them to read their story in my book:

     It was like listening to my own brain talking.

     It was so empowering to hear someone talking about the things I have felt over the years and which continue to plague me.

     It put a few more pieces of the puzzle together for me about my personal life.

     It occasionally made me sick in the stomach with a sense of recognition of my Self.

     Thank you for your courage.

This week I took down the Ander Monson excerpt from my wall. It has served its purpose. I have stopped thinking that perhaps brave is code for self-indulgent. Who knows if this memoir has ‘made something of itself.’ By peeling back the layers of my experience I have made something useful for some other (shy) individuals. And breathing has become easier.

 

Works cited:

Probyn, E. (2005) Blush: faces of shame, Sydney, UNSW Press.

Monson, A. (2010) ‘Voir Dire’ Vanishing Point: Not a memoir. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press.

Prior, S (2014) Shy: a memoir, Melbourne, Text Publishing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Mueck

 

(This essay was first published on the EssayDaily website; February 9th 2015)

January 16

Travellers must be content

We’ve been traveling: three and a half weeks in my new camper van. It’s a cubby house on wheels that has been providing me with the same kind of joy and fantasy-fulfillment as the cubby houses of my childhood.

We’ve listened to all twelve episodes of This American Life’s latest  podcast addiction, ‘Serial’. We’ve visited beaches, rivers and inlets, forests, mountains and hamlets – including a little place in country Victoria called Stratford. Which is to be found right beside the Avon River. It’s pretty quiet in this hamlet. Lots of shops closed down, lots of houses for sale. Not many reasons to stop in Stratford these days.

Except, of course, that it’s Stratford on Avon.

So in the spirit of post-Christmas generosity my companion and I have started a list of new business names to send to the Stratford Chamber of Commerce in the hope of inspiring a local tourism boom:

The butcher’s shop – The Merchant of Venison

The brothel – A Pound of Flesh

The other brothel – As You Like it

The coffee shop – The Witches Brew

The Country Women’s Association – The Merry Wives

The firearms store – Slings and Arrows

The bank – Outrageous Fortune

The art gallery – We’re for Art

The op shop – The Merchant of Vinnies

The surf shop – Once More unto the Beach

The dry cleaners – Out Damned Spot‬

The high-end homewares shop – Much Ado about Nothing

The maternal healthcare clinic – Mewling and Puking

The funeral parlour – All’s Well that Ends Well

The other funeral parlour – This Mortal Coil

The relationship counselling service – Loves Labours Lost

The greengrocer – Salad Days

The massage clinic – There’s the Rub

The audiology clinic – Lend me your Ears

The greyhound track – Let Slip the Dogs‬

The camping supplies store – The Winter of our Discount Tent

 

To be continued.

(With thanks to John Merkel and some Facebook friends)

December 17

Mentoring for Non Fiction Writers in 2015

In 2015 I will be offering a mentoring service for writers working on non fiction projects: memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, how-to and self-help books, immersions, histories, essays, articles, blogs, etc.

The mentoring will take the form of individual consultations (in person or remotely by Skype or phone) and/or small group workshopping sessions.

You will receive detailed individual feedback on your work-in-progress, including advice on: voice, tone, form, structure, research techniques, targetting a readership, developing disciplined writing habits, re-drafting, overcoming writers block, and finding a publisher.

You don’t need to be an experienced writer – just be willing to re-draft your work as a way of improving it.

Consultation schedules can be flexible – anything from once a week to once a month.

Details of my decade of teaching experience at TAFE, universities, writers festivals and with private students can be found on the ‘Teacher’ page of this website, along with testimonials from previous students.

Feel free to contact me by email for more information via the ‘Contact’ page.

November 18

Glenthorne Cadle Prior (1934 – 1964)

Fifty years ago today my father died. This is a chapter from ‘Shy: a memoir’ (Text Publishing) in which i wrote about his death:

 

On Mortality

 

Sometimes when I’m at a surf beach I half expect to see him out there, floating serenely in the waves. He’s enjoying the feel of the water on his broad shoulders, the warmth of the sun on his wet scalp. He’ll come in soon and towel off, squinting into the glare, and then he’ll smile at me with my own shy smile, my mirror-face. We’ll sit together under a striped umbrella and watch the families gathered in little clutches around their blue and white Eskies, or spread out in human join-the-dots patterns, playing with wet tennis balls. The children with sand clinging to their legs, women tugging at their bikinis, men standing in pairs at the water’s edge, arms crossed in identical poses as they exchange information about the latest cricket scores.

But that’s not how the beach looked that day. That day the beach was wind-whipped and empty, until the busload of blinking orchestral musicians piled out onto the sand. A day when no one should have been swimming but some couldn’t resist. That’s what I’ve been told. I think. I can’t be sure now.

There were two of them leading the way to the water’s edge, young ones, feeling immortal. I picture them hopping over the waves, their pale musicians’ arms flapping at the froth under the scudding clouds. Then quickly sucked out beyond the shallows by the furtive rip. Arms flapping harder now, salt water leaping into their mouths. Frog-legs kicking. Frog-voices croaking uselessly under the roar of the breakers.

And the father suddenly forgetting about himself and hauling off his shirt. Running now, running away from his wife and children and into the clutching water. Those trumpeter’s lungs breathing deep, that blonde head diving over and under the waves as he heads for the furthest immortal.

And the rest of the orchestra watching, not breathing, as the slow-motion father reaches the furthest immortal and puts his hand under a chin and hauls the young body backwards through the over-taking waves until he can feel the sandy bottom under his feet.

Is this what happened? Or was there a rope around his waist and a silent group of onlookers at the other end, slow-motion-tugging them back to shore? I’m not sure. I have to fill in the gaps for you. And for me.

The rest of the orchestra is watching, breathing again, as the first immortal staggers onto the shore. But the father turns (isn’t one enough? why so helpful?) and goes out again. He’s tiring now, trumpeter’s lungs seared with salt, legs kicking slower, but he makes it to the gulping violinist. Again that strong hand under a chin and the slow progress away from the horizon. The onlookers turn to each other, shaking their heads in amazement. A hero!

My mother looks down at her eldest daughter and mouths ‘yes’ in response to a question that can hardly be heard over the whipping wind.

And when they all turn back the second immortal is safe.

Safe but alone.

The father has disappeared.

 

I imagine it as an upside down pyramid of suffering in the remnants of our family that day, gradually diluting as it goes down the family structure. Margot first: pure scarifying misery. But how can I conjure that?

My five-year-old sister is next, the one who had asked our mother ‘is he coming back,?’ The one to whom Margot replied ‘yes’ (but did my sister really say that? Have I made it up? Embellished the story?)

Then my brother, nearly two years old and so like his father already, everybody says so, the spitting image. Holding onto our mother’s legs for dear life as the sand whips around his chubby ankles.

And at the bottom of the pyramid there is me, the three-month old baby, blissfully unaware. Safe in Margot’s arms, eyes shielded from the whipping sand by a soft blanket. But I feel her heartbeat. It thuds against my ear, too fast. I feel her chest rising and falling as the fear sucks the air from her oboist’s lungs. I feel her arms tightening around me.

Perhaps too tight.

 

There is a photo I’ve seen (or do I imagine I’ve seen?) in another yellowing news clipping. Pinned up at my grandfather Stan Prior’s place, maybe. A woman is standing on a beach. Standing where the wet sand meets the dry, looking out to sea. She looks so alone, in spite of the three small children with her. She’s waiting, as I sometimes do, to see those shoulders rise above the waves and begin the slow swim back to shore.

Perhaps it’s not a photo I remember but a dream. I wonder if all four of us have had variations of the same one. He waits until we’re asleep and then he appears way out beyond the breakers and he’s swimming towards us. Pretty soon he’s stumbling through the shallows to the shore, tired but safe. We’re relieved but we’re also angry. Where have you been all these years, we ask? Why didn’t you come back? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried sick? Did you think about us at all before you leapt into the surf to save someone else’s children?

Sometimes when I’m swimming in surf I dive under the waves and stay down there while the water pummels my legs. I try to imagine how it must have felt for him in those last moments. Did he crash into some hidden rocks and then know nothing more? Or did he feel that pummelling too and fight to be able to breathe again? I wait until my lungs are screaming and then I surface, gasping like a fish, and stumble through the shallows to the shore, tired but safe. Like my dream father.

 

 

November 5

Media Coverage for ‘Shy: a memoir’

Sydney Morning Herald and The Age - review by Natasha Mitchell

Life Matters (ABC Radio National) - interview by Natasha Mitchell

The Sunday Age - review by Owen Richardson

The Good Weekend - profile by Stephanie Wood

Readings magazine - review by Felicity Ford

The Saturday Paper - review by ‘HT’

The Canberra Times - review by Owen Richardson

Booktopia - review and interview by Caroline Baum

Radio New Zealand - interview with Kathryn Ryan

The Conversation Hour (774 ABC Melbourne) - interview with Jon Faine

The Big Issue – interview with Emily Laidlaw

Australian Book Review - review by Dina Ross

The Australian - review by Agnes Nieuwenhuizen

Books and Publishing – review by Emily Laidlaw

The Wheeler Centre - essay by Kirsten Krauth

The Wheeler Centre - interview with Francesca Rendle-Short

Australian Financial review - review by Simon Hughes

Artshub - review by Olivia Mayer

GoodReads website - review

Conversations with Richard Fidler (ABC Local Radio) - interview with Richard Fidler

Melbourne Writers Festival blog - interview with Emma Jones

Kill Your Darlings literary magazine - feature by Carody Culver

The Book Club on 4ZZZ FM - interview with Sky Kirkham

RMIT News - profile

Northcote Leader - profile by Julia Irwin

Otago Daily Times - review by Ian Williams

The Listener magazine (NZ) - profile by Guy Somerset

Shyness and Social Anxiety Treatment Australia - review by Catherine Madigan

Mama Mia Book Circle - interview with Cheryl Ackle

Wordmothers website – interview with Nicole Melanson

http://katrinalezaic.com – profile by Katrina Lezaic

‘Slightly Nutty’ blog – review by Adrienne McGill

Daily Life - column by Sian Prior

The Age - feature by Sian Prior

New Zealand Herald - column by Sian Prior

The Wheeler Centre - essay by Sian Prior

Washington Post - column by Sian Prior

TES (Times Educational Supplement) magazine - article by Sian Prior

Upstart magazine - feature by Erin Leeder

Victoria University blog - comment by Diana Gaba

Bookends blog – review by Michele G

The Age Spectrum - feature by Jane Sullivan

Meanjin website - blogpost by Jo Case

Abbey’s Bookshop blog - review by Lindy

From The Attic website - review by Louise Allen

Book Club notes for ‘Shy’ (via Text Publishing)

October 18

Shyness in the Classroom

(This article was published in The Age newspaper on October 20th 2014)

 

Imagine this: you are about to deliver a presentation to a classroom full of your fellow school students, watched over by your teacher. Perhaps your palms are sweating, your face slightly flushed. Perhaps your heart rate has increased. Perhaps there is a tremor in your hands as you shuffle the pages of your talk, anxiously checking that they’re in the right order.

Imagine yourself imagining that everyone in the classroom is staring critically at you, waiting for you to stumble over the first paragraph. Imagine yourself standing in front of that critical audience, wishing that you were invisible. Now imaginefeeling just like this every time you find yourself in a social situation with people you don’t know intimately, because you are shy.

I have had a lifelong battle with shyness. I know the intense distress this common temperament trait can cause for those of us born on the shy end of the spectrum, especially at school. And it is at school where shyness threatens to impact both social and academic development, preventing a person from full participation in school life. But can teachers actually do anything to help?

First, we have to understand shyness. Shyness is a state you inhabit physically as well as mentally. Shyness can freeze you over and refuse to let you thaw out until you feel safe. And feeling safe can be the hardest thing, when you’re shy. But what are we shy people afraid of? Why are our autonomic nervous systems telling us there’s a hungry lion about to pounce on us, when in fact we’re just minding our own business in the corner of someone’s balloon-strewn living room?

I have spent the last four years researching shyness for a memoir called ‘Shy’, published in June this year. According to the experts, shyness is just one of many temperament traits we might inherit from our parents. Shyness sits down one end of a spectrum from ‘approach’ to ‘withdrawal’. Picture a bird on an electricity wire. If you’re very shy you’re hanging around on the far left of the wire, staying away from the other birds. Every now and then you might chirp quietly at them, simultaneously hoping that they will ignore you and that they will chirp back. What you really want is to be hanging around with the other birds, but you’re afraid of them. You fear their negative evaluation and the possibility that, if you approach them, they might reject you.

So teachers should realize that shyness is not a choice, or a student acting up. It is a real problem and one that is likely to be inherited.

Shyness manifests as social anxiety and at its most extreme, this anxiety can become a form of phobia so severe you cannot leave the house. Social anxiety usually provokes a range of physical symptoms, from blushing, trembling, sweating, hyperventilating and feeling physically stiff. It induces hyper-vigilance, a hyper-awareness of one’s physical presence in social environments, and a mental preoccupation with how one is being perceived; in other words, intense self-consciousness. In social situations, the shy person’s body can easily become caught up in a distressing feedback loop of shame, awkwardness and discomfort.

Over years, even decades, these repeated experiences of anxiety-related distress (and the mere anticipation of these experiences) can become inscribed upon the body. For me, shyness is a kind of poison that enters my body, a toxic elixir of anxiety that eats away at my digestive system so I can only eat what I ate as a baby – comforting, squishy, easy-to-digest foods like potato, pumpkin, rice and porridge. Anything else hurts.

I also get a lump in my throat every time I feel acutely socially anxious, a lump that no amount of swallowing can remove. I have discovered this constriction is aptly called ‘globus hystericus’, but it feels like my own body IS trying to strangle me, perhaps to punish me for my foolish fears.

Finally, there is the sensation of liquefaction that can accompany the experience of social anxiety, when it seems your whole body has turned to water.

Teachers need to watch for symptoms such as this and note shyness as they would other special education needs.

But what can teachers do to help these students?

My own shyness became most acute when I spent six months in a London comprehensive school as a teenager. Transplanted from my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, I felt like an alien in that environment, and making friends was almost impossible. I simply didn’t have the skills or courage to insert myself into this new school’s social cliques. In the classroom, I was reluctant to speak up, even when I knew the answers, for fear of drawing attention to myself. Many long lunch hours were spent hiding out in the school library, reading books, avoiding social interactions, immersed in loneliness. No doubt you know children just like this in your school.

So is it possible that some of my distress could have been alleviated by my teachers? According to psychologist Barbara Keogh, the author of Temperament in the Classroom (Paul H Brookes Publishing Co, 2003), if teachers have a better awareness of individual temperament styles they can not only help their students but they can also alleviate some of their own classroom stress. Keogh uses the example of a shy teacher who may be especially understanding of a shy and inhibited child, whereas another teacher may be impatient with that child, not understanding why they are so reluctant to participate in class activities.

Another thing to bear in mind, says Keogh, is that shy and withdrawing children may have problems when they are faced with a program with many demands for quick adaptation to different activities. Hence, reframing your expectations of that child in those situations may be advisable.

There are other things you can do, too. My shyness research and my own experience as a teacher of creative writing (and as a shy person) has given me some insights into how to manage shy students.

  • Find alternative tasks: If a shy child is grappling with intense self-consciousness, having to present or perform in front of their classmates may be excruciatingly anxiety inducing for them. Offering those children alternative ways to demonstrate their learning may help them to achieve better outcomes.
  • Offer social opportunities Shy children often find it very difficult to approach others in social situations, for example in the free-form environment outside the classroom. Offering them structured opportunities in class time to interact in a more relaxed way with their fellow students (group projects for example) could facilitate better social interactions for them outside the classroom.
  • Manage your expectations Teachers should try to avoid making shy students feel even more self-conscious than they already are. Trying to force them to behave like extroverts when they have inherited a shy temperament will only increase their distress.
  • Help them understand the problem Helping students to better understand their own temperament could help them feel less socially incompetent. Since the publication of my memoir I have been inundated with emails from shy readers, thanking me for explaining their own behaviour for them, and expressing relief at the knowledge that they are not alone with their irrational fears.

Some might argue that to prepare shy children for adult life their teachers must insist they behave in non-shy ways. Gentle encouragement from empathetic teachers, though, will be much more effective than rigid insistence on confident performance in the classroom. Allowing shy students to take small ‘safe’ risks will help them to imagine their way into a less frightening world.

September 23

The Singers of Forbes

There were a few chapters that didn’t make it into the final cut of my memoir ‘Shy’. Somehow they didn’t fit. So i had to kill my darlings. But they’re not entirely dead. Here’s one:

Between the NSW country towns of Grenfell and Forbes the world seems to turn upside down. Through the windows of a Countrylink bus I watched flourescent fields of canola throwing sunlight up into the cloud-dark skies. Soon the skies would return the favour by throwing back rain. Which would no doubt turn the canola an even more lurid lemon.

As I pointed the camera, trying to capture proof of this improbable sea of yellow, I remembered a newspaper article about a canola farmer. His lush springtime crops looked perfect from ground level. But then he flew over them in a light plane. Looking down, he discovered field after field had great gaping holes in the middle where a mice plague had swarmed through. From above, those perfect paddocks looked like slices of Swiss cheese laid out on a giant open sandwich.

This was my first visit to Forbes and I was in extremis. A five week-long winter cough had left my lungs shrunken and my vocal cords shredded. Or so it felt.

And yet I was here to sing the most difficult music I had ever learnt.
The world premiere of a contemporary art song cycle.
In front of an audience of skeptical strangers.
With a chorus of amateur choristers.
At a first-time regional community arts festival.
Upon whose success the future of any further festivals entirely depended.

But, like, no pressure.

The evening of the day I got to town there was to be a get-together at the Forbes Bowls Club. The local choristers wanted to meet the visiting musicians who’d come from the big cities of Melbourne and Sydney; four instrumentalists and the opera singer. The Festival coordinator welcomed me with a hug at the caravan park where I’d be staying for the week. As she was leaving she mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that the singers were all worried about their parts and, in particular, about meeting the standards of The Professional Soprano.

Professional? This was only my second paid gig all year, and the year was almost over. The Pretend Soprano, more like it.

A party full of new people.
All waiting to meet me.

My anxiety went so deep I could scarcely access what was left of my lungs to inhale the crisp country air.

What if: my voice gave out entirely during the performance and I had to flee the stage in shame?
What if: my personal failure led to the failure of the entire festival enterprise?
What if: the locals didn’t like me?

I wanted Tom to be there with me. To tell me that I was worrying for nothing. To answer my what ifs with his but remember whens. To remind me I’d been in this pit of fear before and climbed out.

But he was on the other side of the world.

Sitting on the porch of my little cabin beside the Lachlan River, watching the birds flitting over the water, I thought about the singers I’d conducted in the Trade Union Choir all those years ago, the Fearless Boss-Slayers-by-day who reverted to Chastened Schoolchildren by night, who had come to me with their own shameful hoard of what ifs, their tales of music teachers who’d instructed them to mime in the school choir because their voices weren’t good enough. I tried to remember how it felt to play the Confident Choir Mistress, reassuring them they were gonna be just fine, that everyone could sing in tune, all it took was practice.

Then I tried to focus my mind on the choristers I was about to meet. To imagine their terror. Imagine not being able to read the notes on the pages of music. Imagine having to try and memorise the strange, unpredictable rhythms that the faraway composer has given them to learn. Imagine how they might be imagining me.

I remembered the fictional visiting soprano in Thea Astley’s novel ‘The Kindness Cup’, a bloated, attention-seeking diva who lords it over the local ladies in a Queensland country town. A middle-aged woman with a fortissimo laugh and poccissimo empathy. I wondered if that was what they feared from me?

And as I burrowed my way into the minds of the imaginary choristers I was about to meet, calm descended.

This was not about me, after all. I was here to reassure. To erase the anxieties of others. I was here to help in upside down world. My role would be The Humble Soprano. From this lowly position I would throw sunlight up towards the dark clouds of anxiety hovering over the caroling residents of Forbes. Helpful Sian.

When I arrived the partygoers were milling around in porch light out the back of the Bowls Club. Drinks were being served in plastic cups and there were platters of crackers and cheese being handed around. A dozen silver heads turned towards me as I made my way up the path.
My face was ready.

I lent towards strangers, shook their hands, gripped their arms, nodded and smiled. I tried to remember names – Marj with the matching green eyes and scarf, Beryl with the mannish haircut, Olive with the laugh-lines that reach from her eyes to her ears – and I told everyone about how hard it had been to learn the music, about my shredded vocal cords and my fear of letting them down. I laughed and wheezed and coughed and laughed again. I was self-deprecating and expectorating.
Soon their anxious chorus of ‘we’re just a country choir, you know’ faded away and they were reassuring me that it would be okay, that we were all in it together, that we-can-only-do-our-best and that our-best-will-have-to-be-good-enough. A woman with a South African accent and loud jewellery placed the palm of her hand on the middle of my chest, looked up towards the heavens and instructed The Good Lord to take away my cough. Another promised me lemons from her own tree to make a curative hot drink with honey. Handing around plastic glasses of champagne, I imagined that I was sharing the elixir of sympathy.

The choir members of Forbes would never guess just how much self-doubt was gnawing away at me like a plague of mice mowing through a canola field.

And as I took my leave, promising them that I would rest well and be fit as a fiddle in the morning, I could swear the scoreboard on the other side of the moonlit bowling green read:

Sian – 1
Shyness – 0

September 8

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

I recently attended the Brisbane Writers Festival, where i was invited to contribute a story to the ‘Jukebox Confessional’ event about the first pop song that made a strong impression on me. This is the result:

Three bleached blondes. Bare muscled arms, crossed defensively. Eyes to camera. Spiky percussive guitar riff. Spiky percussive ungrammatical lyrics. Short bursts. Unfinished sentences. Two word lines.

‘Wet bus-stop

She’s waiting.’

Bleached blondes with pouting lips. Teachers’ black capes flying behind them. Drum-sticks waving. Unplugged electric guitar.

‘Loose talk in the classroom.’

Not scenes. Not narratives. Fragments.

‘His car is warm and dry.’

Allusions to literary heroes. To books I’ve actually read.

‘Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.’

A pop song – a Countdown hit – that mentions Nabokov.

I’m in.

I wanted to part the pixels on my television screen and be IN the video clip of that song. To BE the schoolgirl who was making Sting chew his pen to death as he sat at a desk, pretending to be a teacher.

The Police were my first real band crush.

Oh yes, I’d loved Abba in the ‘70’s. We all did. Abba Arrival was the first album I ever saved up to buy with my own pocket money. Glamorous Swedes with lollipop harmonies and their own helicopter. But it wasn’t a sexual crush. Not for me. Not until The Police.

Not until the bleached blondes sang me a song about isolated people in steamy classrooms longing for – what?

I didn’t know what, back then. Back in 1980 I was 15 but I was an innocent. Oh of course I knew about sex, the mechanics, the procreative purpose. But touching men was something I’d never done, not in the way Sting meant in that song.

It was something I was terrified of, because I was shy, and therefore terrified of lots of things, but mostly of men. Terrified, and longing. Just like the people in those books by Nabokov. Just like the people in the song. Longing for the bleached beached muscled blondes I watched entering the water with their surfboards as I lay on my towel, waiting for my teenage years to end, waiting for my shyness to end. Waiting waiting waiting.

The song’s title could well be the title of a book about shyness: Don’t stand so close to me. I half wish I’d thought of it before I named my memoir ‘Shy’.

Except that it would have been a terrible cliché. A memoir about shyness which features a failing relationship with a famous pop star, named after a song by a bunch of famous pop stars? I don’t think so.

But still. Don’t stand so close to me. That’s how I felt, for most of my teens and twenties and thirties. At the same time as I was wanting that closeness. Wanting to do the kinds of things the teacher and his student in that song never dared to do. Or did they? I always wondered. Did they fuck?

It’s fiction, Sian. You’ll never know because it never happened.

The lyrics of that song seeped into my wannabe writer’s brain.

Short sentences.

‘It’s no use. He sees her.’

Lists of things.

‘Temptation. Frustration.’

Metaphors.

‘This girl’s an open page.’

Simple language hiding complex emotions.

And when I developed my last ever crush on a pop star, it was the same recipe that drew me in. The same kind of language. Simple. Complex. Literary allusions. Emotionally-nuanced ear-worms.

I had the same sense, listening to the music of my last ever crush, that the author of these words knew me, knew about my longings, knew that I wasn’t really wanting people not to stand so close to me. That what I really wanted was for them to stand so close that we would never stop touching.

Dangerous lyrics for someone like me. The stuff of school girl fantasies.

‘Inside her there’s longing.’

Two weeks ago I turned fifty. I don’t do crushes any more. They’ve been crushed out of me. And I’m kind of sad, and kind of relieved.

Because there is nothing as exquisite as a crush. And nothing as exquisitely painful, especially for a shy girl.

I don’t do crushes any more. I just do love.

June 18

Shyness isn’t nice but…

Shy people have quite a bit to contend with – not least the word itself.

It has a number of different meanings, none of which are flattering. To “shy away” from something implies avoidance; to “shy” can also mean to move suddenly in fright; to “be shy of” something can mean to come up short, or be insufficient.

And to be a shy person in our extrovert-worshipping age can be seen as being inadequate for the task of relentlessly positive self-presentation.

I recently wrote a memoir called Shy as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University and have been exploring the different definitions of the word “shy” as part of a quest to understand the impact of shyness on my own life story. As at least 40% of us would self-identify as shy, I suspect my deep interest in this subject will be shared by many fellow-sufferers.

Psychologists would say it is a temperament trait, one that can induce feelings of social anxiety ranging from mildly distressing to severely debilitating. I have been relieved to discover, though, that shyness is also accompanied by a range of socially useful and positive character attributes.

Part of my research involved interviewing my mother, Melbourne University psychologist Professor Margot Prior, who has been studying temperament for more than three decades. In her view, all children fit somewhere on a spectrum called “approach-withdrawal”, ranging from the most engaged and extroverted kids to the most withdrawn, fearful and anxious kids.

For the shy ones among us, this fear comes from our biology, specifically from the reactivity of our nervous systems. American psychologist Jerome Kagan has studied the physical symptoms of so-called “timid” and “bold” children and found in the timid ones a neural circuitry that is highly reactive to even mild stress.

In short, those children were shown to sweat more and their hearts beat faster in response to new situations. Some kids grow out of shyness but many of us carry this anxiety into adulthood, when this reactivity commonly manifests as blushing, trembling and hyper-ventilating.

I had two shy parents so it is hardly surprising that I inherited a large dose of shyness. As a child and teenager this shyness often got in the way of me initiating social contact for fear of rejection. As an adult I have grappled with social anxiety and been forced to find strategies to overcome my irrational fears.

One such strategy has been to create professional personas for myself, enabling me to function as an apparent extrovert in the workplace. In the memoir I label this persona “Professional Sian” and analyse how she has managed to perform the roles of environment campaigner, choral conductor, opera singer, broadcaster, arts critic and university lecturer.

I now call myself a “shy extrovert”. If I was an introvert, I might be quite happy to remain in the background and avoid social situations. Shy people long for social connections but have to fight through a thicket of fears to make those connections.

Managing anxiety often comes at a cost to the shy person’s body. Swinburne University psychologist Dr Simon Knowles has studied the “brain-gut axis” and its role in the fraught relationship between anxiety and the gastro-intestinal system.

Many of Dr Knowles’ anxious patients present with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), a bowel condition caused by the interaction between the gut’s nervous system and the brain. My own digestive system has reacted to decades of nervous stress by developing a broad range of food intolerances.

While the symptoms of shyness can be difficult to control, the distress of social anxiety can be compounded by feelings of shame and embarrassment. We shy people often feel like incompetent idiots in social situations.

English sociologist Dr Susie Scott believes this feeling of relative incompetence is central to the experience of shyness. But she blames these feelings on what she calls “the illusion of competence”: the mistaken belief that we all have to present ourselves as socially competent all the time.

In her 2007 book Shyness and Society: The Illusion of Competence, Dr Scott argues that shy people are perceived as failing to pull their weight in social situations and that, while non-shyness is seen as normal and acceptable, shyness is seen as deviant and undesirable.

The misperception of shyness as rudeness or aloofness plagues shy people, but in fact we long for social inclusion and connection.

But the news is not all bad. According to Macquarie University psychologist Professor Ron Rapee, shyness usually comes with a range of positive attributes, including greater sensitivity and greater levels of honesty.

When I interviewed Rapee, he told me shy people were often reliable, conscientious, and good listeners who demonstrated high levels of empathy. Many shy people can be found in the caring professions, working in roles that are generally non-self-aggrandising and non-domineering.

The social acceptability of shyness is also somewhat dependent on the culture in which you’re living. According to Canadian psychologist Xinyin Chen, while North American parents typically react to their children’s shy-inhibited behaviour with disappointment, in group-oriented societies such as China, shy-inhibited behaviour may be encouraged because it is conducive to group organisation.

Back in the 1980s the lead singer of British band The Smiths offered a succinct summary of the situation for shy people. In the song ‘Ask’, Morrisey sang:

‘Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to’

My autobiographical quest to understand shyness has not “cured” me of this temperament trait, as I had hoped. But it has erased my shame and embarrassment about my social anxiety and reassured me that without shy people the world would be a far less compassionate place.

(This article was first published on The Conversation website on June 18th 2014)

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