Today I was listening to some live recordings of Clay singing in a concert 8 years ago, when he was just 19. Boy, some people have a natural gift, don't they? No amount of training could make somebody that young that good, unless there was something else at work, you know? I guess you could argue heredity, since both of his parents sang, but I've always thought it was more than that...a kind of magic, really. The stories Clay told in Learning to Sing made me think a lot about my own genesis as a singer (insert wavy flashback effect here)...
Everybody has something they do well. Me? I’m a lousy driver, a terrible cook, an indifferent housekeeper, and am so klutzy that anything involving coordinated movement on my part (dancing, sports, etc.) generally results in a lot of pointing and laughing.
The one thing I could always do -- in spades -- was SING.
From my first appearance in the kindergarten Valentine’s Day pageant, where I precociously belted out a lispy “My Funny Valentine” with absolutely no clue about the meaning of the words, the sound I produced was, shall we say, impressive (not GOOD, necessarily…just LOUD). Even, as Kelly Clarkson might say, “freakish.” It’s a real shame I came along about a decade too early for “Annie” -– I’d have been a shoo-in, even if the ushers would've had to distribute earplugs right before "Tomorrow."
(I sometimes wonder if the child Clay felt as I did when he was singing for his mama on the carpet samples at Sears. I wonder if he looked around and thought, "Where the heck is THAT coming from?")
My mom, perhaps in denial about my formidable lung power, inexplicably shipped me off to ballet class, where I consistently stunk up the joint. Maybe she thought it would make me more graceful. If she did, she was wrong. During one memorable dance recital, I managed to jette right into the scenery, knocking every piece of it down like dominos, much to the audience’s amusement. I wasn’t destined to be anybody’s idea of Pavlova, or Ruby Keeler, or even Elaine on Seinfeld. Eventually she must have seen the futility of this, and after flirtations with piano and guitar lessons, she threw in the towel. All I could do was sing. And was thereafter forced to do so at every big family gathering, usually right before dinner. (No tickee, no washee.)
God knows I tried to fit in. Over the course of junior high and high school, I was continually laughed out of madrigal, small ensemble and swing choir auditions, and the only groups that would take me were really large ones. Despite being of below average height, I was always stuck in the back row…maybe the choir directors were hoping singing into somebody's back would muffle the sound. It didn’t generally work too well – and pretty soon, they came up with a special signal just for me –- a “throat-slashing” gesture coupled with a death glare, meaning, essentially, “shut up, already.”
One day, we had a distinguished visitor. She was a local conductor, music professor and well-known composer of spirituals –- a very imposing African-American woman. She sat down at the piano and accompanied my choir as we sang one of her compositions. As soon as we started, her head shot up and, with a familiar sinking feeling, I could see her scanning the crowd. Then she stopped playing, stood up, walked down in front and pointed. At me. “You, sugah.”
“Yes, you. C’mon down here.” I did, amidst some understated grumbling from my classmates (“Freak!”). “Now, honey, d’you really sing like that?” Not sure exactly what she meant, I acknowledged that I did.
Nodding, she dragged me over to the piano, plunked out a note and commanded, “Sing this.” I did. “And this.” I did. “And this one.” I did. “Now sing a scale. I want to check somethin’ out.” I did, and she came around behind me, put her hands on my back and ribcage and pressed in, then moved them around to my sides. I felt like a horse she was considering buying. When I got to the top of the scale, she gestured imperiously for me to stop (I think her ears were ringing), a little nonplussed by this pint-sized Ethel Merman. Then she sent me back to take my place again, behind the tall baritone in the back row. The other kids were annoyed. As usual.
After class, I was called into the choir director’s office. “Ms. Composer thinks you could be an opera singer,” she told me, probably resentful that she hadn't come up with that idea on her own. “She wants you to start taking voice lessons.”
Well. How about that. I suppose I should have been flattered, but I didn’t know anything about opera other than that it generally featured large caterwauling women wearing breastplates and carrying a spear. I asked why Ms. Composer had said that, and the director replied, “Well, you’re barrel-chested, which means lots of lung capacity; you have a big head, so you can really resonate; plus you have a good ear…you may be loud, but you’re always on key.” Hmmm. None of these sounded like terribly attractive qualities, but I think that was the first time I ever thought of my big voice as something other than a liability.
The next thing I knew I was in some high-priced coach’s studio, standing on a chair, wearing a corset and singing with marbles in my mouth. One thing I quickly discovered: I HATED opera. (Marbles, too.) Eventually, High-Priced Coach, no doubt seeing dollar signs, began to enter me in scholarship contests, where my usual competition -- from another school -- was a self-centered and somewhat irritating future homosexual named Mitch, an operatic tenor. Usually one or the other of us, after placing bets backstage, would blow away the other competitors through sheer volume and pocket the scholarship money. But I knew enough by then to be convinced I didn’t want to spend the rest of my professional life in a stuffy windowless practice room, associating solely with divas like Mitch, despite our friendly rivalry.
At 17, I was sent on a European choir tour, where my most notable accomplishment was managing to get myself “detained” for belting out an emotional “Let There Be Peace on Earth” in German on the Berlin Wall observation deck. The East Berliners, judging from the sheets and flashlights I saw being waved enthusiastically from apartment windows on the other side, appeared to be digging it (some brave soul even had an American flag!). But I guess the machine gun-wielding guards at Checkpoint Charlie were less than enthused. Then again, maybe it was my German. (I was singing phonetically, since my "command" of that language was pretty much limited to "What time is it?" "How much does it cost?" and "An apple cider, Fraulein.") God knows what they thought I was singing.
You haven’t lived until you’ve nearly been shot for your art, I guess.
Today I sing with two other women in a jazz trio, and I’m pleased to report that at long last we’ve discovered the secret to me blending in: we turn my microphone WAAAAY down. And everybody’s happy. I only wish there had been a way to do that years ago.