One good turn from singer/musician Michelle Parry
PUBLISHED: 10:41 23 August 2016 | UPDATED: 10:41 23 August 2016
Bone disease means Bury St Edmunds singer/musician Michelle Parry suffers crippling pain most of the time. But she doesn't let that stop her performing. Tessa Allingham talked to her about her life and a charity concert she's organising
When you are rocking in the stalls at the Apex on August 27, your ears thrilled by the upbeat rhythms from headline act Turntable, spare a thought for the band’s lead singer, Michelle Parry.
You see, while you could spend Sunday morning reliving the fun of the previous evening’s One Good Turn gig, tunes lingering in your head, Michelle will like as not be unable to move. She’ll be on her sofa at home, waiting for her muscles to get over the physical exertion of live performance. It will probably take her a good few days before she feels even sort of normal again.
Michelle suffers from chronic pain caused by a degenerative bone disease in her spine. There’s a history of back problems in her family, but the situation has been made worse by two serious car accidents in 2003 and 2007 in which she fractured and refractured her neck, and twisted her back. She’s had three major operations in 18 months, spent weeks in a wheelchair, has permanent pain in her left arm and no feeling at all in one foot. A tattoo artist was intrigued by this back in May, as she worked on an intricate pattern of flowing script reminding Michelle to ‘inhale the future, exhale the past’, intertwined with a flutter of free-flying butterflies.
“I didn’t even wince!” Michelle recalls. But while her foot is numb, the rest of her body is riddled with pain.
“It is sometimes burning, searing, stabbing, dull. It’s imprisoning. Some days I feel optimistic, others I feel I won’t be able to get through the day. When it’s really bad I can’t speak – so I can’t sing either.” On those days she might play some Bach on the piano, finding relief in the absolute concentration that its mathematically precise form requires, or shut her eyes and listen to Mozart’s clarinet concerto, her favourite piece of music.
We meet at her flat in Bury St Edmunds, in a sitting room dominated by music. Her shiny black Minstrel piano fills one corner, her other instruments (Michelle is an accomplished clarinetist, flautist and saxophonist as well as singer and pianist) are propped alongside. Notepads, a busy-looking diary and open MacBook Pro hint that it’s been a busy morning.
“I’m a fixer,” she laughs. “I’m good at prioritising, breaking down what’s urgent and what can wait. I have to be like that to keep everything going.” She spends several hours a day managing Turntable, and bookings for Joe and Chelle, the acoustic duo that comprises herself and great friend and Turntable guitarist/singer Joe Taylor. If she’s not performing with either of those groups, or as lead singer of Roger Chinery and the Ballroom Dance Band, she will be instilling a love of music in her many local pupils. Music has always been Michelle’s life.
“My parents aren’t particularly musical, but my nan used to sing in shows. My earliest singing memory is performing Run, Rabbit, Run aged three. As a child I was the one turning pans upside down and banging on them with a wooden spoon, singing, always singing!” She badgered her parents for saxophone lessons, then clarinet and piano, and went on to teach herself the flute and cello and immerse herself in the rich Suffolk youth music scene before studying music at Cambridge University, building a career as a music teacher and performer, and setting up the eight-piece Turntable band with bass player Nick Reynolds in 2011. Even though she’s in pain, she won’t give up performing.
“I get through gigs on adrenalin and I’ve learnt to numb my body and imagine the pain as a black cloud that disappears out of the top of my head. I give absolutely everything to every performance. That exertion gets me through, and actually I find it easier to cope with a physically demanding set than a calmer one.”
She’s also learnt relaxation techniques, and has built up her core strength with yoga and with the support of a personal trainer. But when her back went again last summer, prompting another spell in a wheelchair, more painkillers and having to drop out of gigs, she turned to the charity Help Musicians UK.
“Last year, at my lowest point, the charity was amazing. They even sent me a £50 voucher out of the blue to cheer me up. They have supported me in practical, financial and emotional ways and now it’s time for me to say thank you.”
Michelle didn’t just pop a card in the post, though. She booked the Apex in Bury St Edmunds, putting the date in the busy Turntable diary, and lining up the acclaimed St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir to perform songs from the musicals and the charts. She also booked all-female choir Out of the Shadows, known for their own arrangements of rock, jazz, country and folk hits, and has pulled together a raffle packed with prizes donated by local businesses.
“The Apex is such a fantastic venue. We’re taking all the seats out of the stalls area so there’ll be room to dance, and plenty of wheelchair-accessible space too. It’ll be a much less formal set up than normal.”
Her Turntable band-mates are excited to be performing at the Apex, and this is as much a thank you to them as to the charity.
“They have supported me through operations and recovery, kept me going through gigs, and when I was in such pain I was vomiting backstage,” Michelle says. “Joe and my Turntable band mates are my best friends. They moved me into this flat when my marriage broke up last year, built the furniture, settled me – and Charlie, my dog – in. I wouldn’t have got through the last five years without them We’re like a family.” Is she looking forward to the evening?
“I’m absolutely petrified. I just want it to be a success, I want to raise some money for the charity, give the band the experience of performing at the Apex, have fun, and say thank you to so many people in the best way I know. I’m looking forward to putting my feet up when it’s all over!”
Tickets for One Good Turn, Saturday August 27, 7.30pm, are available from the Apex Bury St Edmunds box office (01284 758000), priced £7.50-£15. www.turntablefunctionband.co.uk.