I used to be a little ham. (You don’t look surprised.) Here’s me, singing on board the S.S. United States in their “Teen Talent Show,” Christmas 1968.
Our waiter, Jose, talked me into it.
“What are you going to do?” asked my mother.
“Edelweiss.” I’d only seen “The Sound of Music” once, but I liked the song. My grandfather, whom I adored, loved the song – it always brought tears to his eyes to hear me sing it. He was originally from Germany, and left his homeland before WWII.
I loved to sing, and memorized things quickly.
My aunt, a talented pianist, accompanied me; she was one of those rare musicians who was able to sight read music, play by ear, and transpose music in her head. She discovered that I was most comfortable singing Edelweiss in the key of G. I barely remember singing, though – what I most vividly remember was that man in the white jacket, and the woman standing beside him, worrying that I would drop the heavy microphone. I didn’t. Easy as pie.
When I was done, my mom (who had an ulcer) was so relieved that everything went well, I think she tossed her cookies. Overboard, with any luck. My grandmother, beaming with pride, stood up and took bows. Me, I got to eat a chocolate-covered ice cream bar out on deck without having to change clothes first. You know you’ve done okay when you’re five and the grown-ups let you eat ice cream while wearing black velvet and white chiffon.
After that, I didn’t hesitate to sing with the piano player (or accordionist) at the Topps Restaurant in Canton, Ohio; we ate there often enough with my grandparents that I felt comfortable and utterly uninhibited. At five or six, I was blissfully unaware of the awkward effect that might have on other diners – though they always acted as if they were thoroughly charmed by the added “entertainment.” Perhaps they were just entirely too polite and too indulgent to say, “Please, child, sit down now and be quiet.”
Of course, that thought never would have occurred to me had I not received a tape recorder for my tenth birthday. I was delighted! (Hey, that was the latest technology back then, and not every ten-year-old was so spoiled as to have their very own cassette tape recorder. No, it wasn’t reel-to-reel; I’m not that old.) I recorded my own impromptu, extemporaneous “radio show” right then and there. I sang “Happy Birthday to ME!” and declared “I’m ten today! I shall never be nine again!”
Oh, joy! Oh, bliss! I would sing, or be a radio D.J., or…
Or…I don’t know what I was thinking. The grown-ups got hold of the tape and chuckled. They declared it “charming,” and “adorable,” and gushed, “don’t you have a lovely voice?” And a little, previously-unheard voice – the nascent inner critic – whispered, “They’re your family. They have to say that. They just don’t want you to feel bad.” I heard myself on that tape, for the first time, you see. It was nothing like the voice resonating inside my head. It was…embarassing.
And still, I loved to sing. I would shut the door to my room, lock it, turn on the radio or the record player, crank up the volume, and sing – as softly as I could. Later, I’d learn that this led to bad habits and horrible breathing technique that would have to be painstakingly unlearned, but it was a survival skill, at the time. If anyone happened to overhear and comment, I would flush red and hot and cry tears of humiliation and frustration, and muffle my mouth with a pillow.
At fifteen, I recognized all this for the psychological disorder it had become, and enrolled in voice lessons at the community college. Private lessons. During the first one, my instructor demanded that I sing a scale, so that she might get an idea of my range. I managed to squeak out a passable “Do – re – mi…” before dissolving in tears. Someone walked into the classroom, and I spent the rest of the hour sobbing, trying to explain to my teacher why.
She didn’t kick me out. She handed me a Kleenex and gave me homework. “I’ll see you Wednesday,” she said. She didn’t ask if I planned to turn tail and run, to drop the class, to drop off the face of the earth. I nodded. I’d be there Wednesday, and every day we had class for the rest of the semester. Jo N. was tough; she didn’t sugarcoat anything. If I missed a note, she told me I was flat, or sharp, or breathy. She demanded that I project and sing to the back of the room. She dragged out of me what was dying, literally, to come out. And then came a precious word of praise. “Not bad, not bad at all. Let’s see if you can do even better next time.” I’d earned that, and it was wonderful. I could trust it. Jo didn’t love me. She didn’t have to say nice things about me. My confidence grew as my trust in her grew. Constructive criticism from someone who knew what they were doing began to silence the inner critic and heal whatever it was I’d broken, hearing that tape, years ago.
My heart sank, though, when Jo explained to me what I’d have to do for my final exam. “Voice juries,” she told me, involved singing three songs in three different languages for the entire music faculty; they would grade my performance. Oh, no no no no no…
“You’re ready,” she assured me.
Inside, a little voice whimpered, “No I’m not!” and the critic sneered, “Why don’t you just give it up and go home? Sing in the shower, when no one’s around to hear you.” I looked at Jo and felt trapped. She had faith in me, and I had no idea why. But I didn’t want to let her down. She was a good teacher. She wouldn’t let me stand there in front of her peers, her colleagues, and embarass her. “Okay.”
And I managed to get through it. One look at those instructors, and fear turned me to stone. Once I figured out how to breathe again, singing was easy. I even argued over my pronunciation of German with the head of the music department. He had almost given me a failing grade, until I stood up for myself and told him he was wrong – that my pronunciation was just fine, thank you – I’d learned it from my grandfather. “Where is your grandfather from?” he asked.
“Germany. Tauberbischofsheim. I should think he knows German, and how to pronounce it properly,” I said, indignant at the suggestion that my grandfather might not know his own native language.
“Ah, Bavaria. That explains it. When we sing, formally, we use the Hochdeutsche, or High German, not the softer Bavarian dialects. But you’re correct, if that’s where you learned it, so I won’t count off – you didn’t know. Just remember this for future reference.” He didn’t flunk me. I got a B for the semester.
I got cocky and enrolled in chorus, and group voice lessons. We sang Vivaldi’s Gloria, that year. I chose “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” for my final exam. “You’re kidding, right?” asked Jo. First hint of non-confidence I’d seen from her, though I’d spent much of the semester hiding between strong alto voices and trying to blend in.
“No, that’s what I’ve chosen – is that all right?”
“It’s fine.” The expression on her face said, “It’s your funeral,” but she placed the sheet music on the rest and began to play. In truth, it was the only sheet music I could find in a key I could comfortably sing, and the only thing I knew well enough – the night before the final – to hand to her that day. I began to sing, and Jo stopped playing. I stopped singing. Wrong move.
“Why did you stop?” she asked.
“So? Did I tell you to stop if I stopped?”
Oh, dear G-d. She couldn’t seriously expect me to take my final exam a capella? In front of people!? “Sorry. Can we start over?” Please don’t stop, please don’t stop, please, dear G-d in Heaven, don’t stop…
She stopped. I didn’t. My voice became a prayer. “Domine Deus…agnus Dei filius patrii…” I forgot that there were other people in the room. I forgot Jo was in the room. I forgot I was in the room. I just let it fly – straight up to G-d and beyond. And when the song was nearly finished, Jo joined back in with the piano (I felt like saying “A day late and a dollar short,” but why be petty?) and looked at me with cold fury. “It’s about damned time,” she said.
“You finally sound like a real Alto.”
And that’s a good thing, right? “Thank you?”
“Now I know what you’re capable of doing, I want to know what the Hell you’ve been doing all semester until now?”
Ummm…ooops? I didn’t have an answer to that one. That was the most wonderfully backhanded compliment I’d ever received, and one that would stick with me forever. And I was so elated that after class, I joined forces with another Alto, and we talked Jo into playing piano for us while we attempted “Laudamus Te,” a fairly challenging Soprano duet.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope!” The other girl and I laughed and attacked the duet with gusto, if not skill. We pretty much managed to hit about 87% of the notes, too, I think. Jo just grinned and shook her head.
Later, she told me that I didn’t have the voice to be a voice major. I was crushed. “Have you considered majoring in Music Education?” she asked. I was too young and too stupid, at the time, to see what a compliment this was – coming from a tough-as-nails instructor with a Masters in Music Ed.
I still don’t sing in public. I sing – loudly – in my car. I’ll even roll the windows down on a summer day, and risk other drivers hearing a few bars. I’ll sing in the shower – if no one’s home. But it’s okay; I’m not turning my face to the pillow and stifling the joy. I still wish I sounded like the voice in my head, but my real voice will do.
I don’t, however, do karaoke.
I would – I told my husband, once, that I would, if only he’d ply me with three stiff drinks, first. He obliged – and I figured he must really want to see me get up on stage and make a fool of myself, to take such a risk at his own company Christmas party. “Well?” he said, as I finished the third drink and eyed the stage longingly. “Are you going to do it?”
“If the next person who gets up there is worse than I think I could ever be, I’ll go for it.” Most had been; I was just working up the last of the nerve required to make my feet move. But damned if the next person to get up and sing wasn’t a mentally handicapped busboy. He took the microphone and made a heartfelt, joyful noise unto the Lord with his cockeyed but sincere rendition of “Away in a Manger.” There was no way I could follow that act, after what I’d said, and not go straight to Hell.
I guess my husband had the exact same thought. He leaned over and whispered, “You can’t do it now, can you?” and laughed softly.
“No way.” We smiled at each other, and at this radiant young man on-stage. I’d get my shot at karaoke some day; for now, let it just be Christmas.
Photo Credits: William Ferguson (aka, my dad). 🙂
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