After being shamed in my sixth grade music class and not being allowed to sing with the class, for years I avoided singing unless I was by myself in the car or could hide my voice in a large group, like at birthday parties. Even then, I sang softly, so as not to offend anyone. Generally when I write, I describe success; this is not a success story.
Decades after that sixth grade class, I attended a weekend workshop by master musician and cellist, David Downing, offered for those with any level of expertise with any instrument, including voice. It invited me with a promise of improvement, to which I happily responded by enrolling. It was not that I expected to become an excellent singer; it was simply the thought of being with musicians and sharing music with them that excited me. I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, spent with a group of people with hugely different skill levels. David was able to guide each of us, miraculously, on many instruments, with skills ranging from none (me) to professional level. Between listening to him on his cello and being guided to sing simple melodies as others played their instruments, his clear gentle style of correction and encouragement resulted in success for all of us. By the end of the long weekend, we performed a concert that ended with generous applause by the audience and joy for each of us. And for me, hope.
Some years later, I signed up for a week in a Costa Rican resort with Claude Stein, described as the Natural Singer, specifically saying that anyone could learn to sing. How could I pass on that?! At the beginning of the week, we were each asked to sing a song of our own choosing, so he would know our skill levels. Among the others, there were several beautiful voices, two with professional skills. When I sang for Claude, his response was that I couldn’t hit a barn with the right note.
During the week, we learned several songs that we all sang, a few sung by only the most skilled individuals. Claude recognized our varying skills and chose music that allowed each of us to learn and grow. He assigned me melodies with a narrow note range and voice exercises that encouraged a narrowly directed focus. It was a difficult week, much more difficult that I had expected, in part because when we hear an excellent singer, there is no evidence of the work of it. It looks effortless. Somehow, when I see ballet, I understand that both an enormous amount of effort and a certain amount of natural flexibility are required for a good result. But for voice, I had no innate awareness of the work that is involved. That week, I learned about some of the work required.
Among the songs that we sang was one that we sang in pairs, each of us singing directly to one other person. That song was, “How could anyone ever tell you,” always leaving me in tears. At the end of the week, we performed a concert to genuine applause and I returned home believing I had learned something important. But, away from Claude and without constant feedback, practicing the routines he had suggested became nearly impossible.
Shortly after returning home, one of the local chorus groups whose performances I had attended for years advertised for additional singers, saying that no audition was required. I was so excited! I joined, religiously attending every rehearsal, and after several weeks, gradually increasing my voice volume, then buying the requisite long black skirt and white blouse. The week before our first concert, the concert mistress asked to speak to me. She asked me to sing alone for her and, after hearing me, suggested that I should join a different chorus, one that sang simpler music. She attempted to soften the blow by saying that their complex music was challenging, but I got the message. I returned home crying and broken-hearted and never attended their concerts again.
So, you may be thinking, why don’t you try a musical instrument? Here’s my musical instrument history. When I was about thirty, I bought a guitar and took lessons for about a year. It felt like so much work, with little to show for it. Then, when I was about sixty, my son, at my request, bought me a concertina, a beautiful instrument like a small, round accordion. I bought a lesson book and learned to play a couple of tunes, then, for some reason, stopped practicing. Why is it that, during my life, I have done the work of securing a degree in physics and math, plus two masters’ degrees, yet have not done the work of learning to play a musical instrument, when I love music so much? Is it related to an innate talent that I am missing? I have no idea.
There’s still another short chapter to this story: private voice lessons. When I was about seventy, I learned that a friend of mine, Isabella, had given voice lessons for years. I gave her a little of my musical history and asked if she would be willing to give me lessons. She said yes! We met at her house, next to her grand piano, while she asked me to feel how my body, mouth, throat, and diaphragm, moved to make sounds. She was totally encouraging as I sang, ‘Ahhhh,’ ‘Eeeeee,’ and ‘Ohhhh.’ She provided exercises for me to practice between lessons and I bought a small recorder, so I could record and play back my melodies to aid my learning. After about six months, I realized that it was more work than I wanted to do and ended my lessons.
So, this is probably the postscript: Last month, at a folk festival, one of the vendors had handmade instruments for sale. I bought a soprano ukulele made from a South American cigar box, just because it was so beautiful. I thought that I would just strum it, enjoying the sound that it makes. But now, I’ve found online simple lessons for playing it. So, who knows, maybe …?
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