I had my first voice lesson on Friday. My teacher was trained as an opera singer, then lost her voice, and her career. “I learned a lot from my training, but I learned more from having to find my voice again,” she told me. We sat in her small office downtown. There wasn’t much in the room except for a piano and a giant jungle gym for cats. Her cat couldn’t have cared less about either. Instead, it sat at our feet, rubbing herself silly on my boots. (Did I tell you that I used to be terribly allergic to cats and now I’m not? One of the bizarre outcomes of my surgeries is that I don’t seem to be allergic to anything anymore: cats, feathers, dust, perfume. Nothing bothers me. I don’t recommend two craniotomies and a neck fusion as a solution to hay fever, but it is a nice bonus.) I digress. This is a story about our voices. And the moral is: ease over effort.
“I am hoping you can help me speak without pain,” I told the voice coach.
“What’s the problem?”
“I have to force air out to make a sound that people can hear. By the end of a five-minute conversation, I’m exhausted.”
“Oh honey, I’m going to have you singing in no time,” she responded.
“No, no, I don’t sing. I’m here to learn to talk,” I corrected her.
“Can you do this?” she ignored me and lip trilled like she was a baby blowing a raspberry.
I laughed and did my best lip trill which sounded like a very weak, unripe raspberry.
“Now, lip trill We Three Kings with me,” she said and moved to the piano.
I had no idea what this had to do with speaking clearly. But I was a little bit scared of her and did what she said.
I lip-trilled “We” perfectly, but “Three Kings” came out sounding like a sputtering motor with no fuel.
“There is damage to your tongue and vocal chords, but it doesn’t sound permanent. Your enemy is tension. Your voice is obstructed because you are straining to be heard and using muscle tension to force the sounds,” she said.
“If I relax, can I go home?” I asked.
“Again,” she said and moved an octave higher on the keyboard.
I tried. But I squeaked and sputtered and could not make it through the first phrase. Even the cat seemed to give up on me. He stopped nuzzling my leg.
“Hear that? You are straining to get the right sound. I want you to find your voice, not someone else’s. Forget about what you think is a good voice,” she stopped playing the piano and said to me directly.
There was that message again. Ease over effort. Brave over perfect. My voice, not someone else’s. Remember this?: “The opposite of joy is not sadness, but perfectionism. When you are straining to do all parts of your life so well with the hope that you will rise above confusion and criticism, that’s what I call perfectionism. The world doesn’t need you to be perfect, it just needs you to find the courage to contribute to the common good.” I wrote that. And yet I need to learn it again and again, apparently. It’s especially easy for me to forget around the holidays when everyone else seems to decorate and cook and bake cookies with ease, and I am trying to be someone I am not.
“I don’t have enough air,” I protested.
“You have the same amount of air as a Met opera singer,” she said.
I took a full breath, and tried again. This time, I made it through the first verse on a single exhale.
“Girl, you have a BIG voice,” she smiled.
It was that flattery that landed me, a day later, at a public sing-a-long. And not just any sing-a-long, but a two and a half hour version of Handel’s Messiah. I was not raised in a religious or musical family. I knew nothing about the Messiah.
When I told my friend Christine, she said, “Most of us sing Jingle bells and Silent Night and call it a day. You have one voice lesson and sign up for the Messiah?”
We started at two in the afternoon. The church was packed with believers and non-believers, lovers of the Messiah, and others, like me, who thought Why not? The minute I sat down in the balcony of the church with its vaulted ceilings and listened to the eighty-person choir and thirty-person orchestra perform the overture, I knew I had made a big mistake. The soloists were holding notes for six, seven, eight bars and I couldn’t even hold the two-hundred-page vocal score; it was too heavy. I passed it to my friend Teresa who was raised Catholic and knew exactly how to hold that thing. She also knew when to stand, when to sit down, when to be silent, and when to sing.
The program let us know that there would be 53 songs, divided by a 20-minute intermission. The sun was shining high in the sky when we arrived. By the time we left, it was so dark out, I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face.
Teresa held the score and danced and sang her way through the first three songs. I tried to sing with the altos, but then the sopranos and tenors came in and I couldn’t hear the altos anymore. So then I just tried to sing whatever part I could hear. I squeaked high, I bottomed out low. I ran out of air singing the single word, “Rejoice!” My neighbors in the pew, a family with three young girls, gave me smiles full of pity. They knew every word and sang along beautifully. Except their little sister, who rolled around in the pew and threw her shoes on the ground. I gave up and sat down next to her. I mumbled something about being tired. She responded by patting my hand. Then she steamrolled over her mother’s lap to her father. I read the program.
The story behind this sing-a-along is worth telling; Handel wrote the Messiah in 1741 as a gift to the orphans of Dublin. Since then, it has been shared as a gift to the world. In our Colorado town, this event started thirty-four years ago by an air-and-space engineer. He was not a musician or a singer. In fact, he had no musical training, but he loved the Messiah. He pulled together a choir and an orchestra and then invited the public to sing along with them. He said in the program that it wasn’t enough to give a concert; he wanted to co-create the piece with an audience of willing voices.
My friend who plays second violin gave me my ticket. At intermission, he admitted that the first years of performances were rough.
“How do I bring you in?” the engineer-turned-conductor asked the string section.
“You count to three and we’ll come in on four,” they suggested. For years the engineer tried something, face-planted, got back up, asked for help, and kept going. Tonight was his 101th Messiah sing-a-long. If he could be so brave as to learn to be a conductor before thousands of people, I could lend my voice for a few hours.
So I tried to sing. I didn’t care what part; I even joined in with the baritones when I felt like it. I actually made some pretty decent sounds that weren’t like a duck dying. When I was lost, I hummed and looked at the beautiful light coming through the stained glass windows. I thought of the orphans Handel wrote this for over two hundred years ago, and how many voices have sung these notes. Then I noticed that if I only listened to one part, the tenors, say, it sounded quite average. What made it sound so good was the layering of all the parts and voices, as if what mattered was our diversity, not our ability to sing. The music wasn’t perfect, but it was something I could wrap both my arms around and love.
When it was finally time to sing “Hallelujah!” I could feel the audience gearing up to sing loudly. I wasn’t sure I would have enough volume. I thought I might feel small, or left out. But I remembered the voice coach telling me in her office, “Take a full breath and think easy does it. If it feels full of effort, you’re doing it wrong. Think joy. Think yes!” I stood up tall and inhaled deeply. Then I heard loud sounds coming out of me. I was shocked by how much volume and fullness came from my vocal chords. I felt like celebrating. Which is exactly what we were doing–all of our separate voices joining together into one triumphant, joyful sound.
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