For every other month of the Year of Living Musically, I have had a specific project or goal : discovering an instrument from scratch, challenging my knowledge of an instrument by taking myself in a new direction, or assigning myself a piece of music that could reflect the process of learning to play, as well as the art available for that instrument.
The voice is different. Every day since I officially ended Guitar Month, nearly halfway through December, I have sat down in front of the computer or the video camera, and made a recording. I have sung pop ballads, rap choruses, Christmas carols, Romantic lieder, Gregorian chant melodies, and of course showtunes. And I have erased every recording (except the rap chorus because it cracked me up, and no, you don’t get to see it), and come to this blank page and sat back and thought – I have nothing to say about the voice.
It isn’t true. I have a lot to say. But what I do have to say is overshadowed by my fear of saying it. I sing all the time : alone in my house, sitting in my office on campus grading papers, driving in the car with the windows down, wandering through the aisles of the supermarket, while running on the treadmill, at church even when the rest of the congregation mumbles or remains silent, in my choir … my head is full of songs and lyrics that punctuate my days. I love to sing, and most of the time I think I’m pretty good at it. Not opera diva quality, but enough to make someone reconsider me when s/he thinks s/he knows all there is to know. I love to sing. The thing is, I kind of hate my voice. No, not hate. Fear. I kind of fear my voice. Fear letting it ring out completely free. Fear where it might take me if I let it take over.
I have sung all my life. When I was growing up, the girl down the block and I used to tie kitchen towels around our hair and act out The Sound of Music in my front yard, with the record player spinning faithfully and the window thrown wide open so we could hear the accompanying orchestra from inside the house. (Sometimes we did this on roller skates, which added a whole new dimension to “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”.) I still remember vividly the day I finally hit the high sustained note in “Climb Every Mountain.” It felt as though a door had just opened in my brain, to the world, and stepping through it brought a new level of possibility to the world, like a shimmer. Then, telescoping forward through time, there was the year in grad school when my choir sang the Bach B-Minor Mass, and I understood how to reach the high D in the alto line in “Sanctus.” I heard my own voice belling out around me like a whirlpool of light, and the sound grew and swelled. I had never heard myself that way before, not in that register. It was exhilarating. It changed me.
At the same time, I have years of memories of performances that my Dad attended, when the high-school choir would perform complex choreography to medleys of James Taylor or the songs from Footloose or Bye-Bye, Birdie, interspersed with solos when one hopeful Southern California golden child after another got up and belted out the latest Madonna hit or a tear-jerking Christmas carol. Sometimes that kid was me, on the stage, only I never felt golden. Trapped and self-conscious, I stood in the pool of the spotlight terrified that I would forget my lyrics or lose my footing or, God forbid, have my voice break (a fate worse even than farting). Given the number of performances we did, statistically there must have been a time when I let go and enjoyed singing on stage. I don’t remember it. I don’t recall ever forgetting myself enough to stand there and, simply, have fun. I was always too afraid of getting it wrong somehow, of hearing myself go nasal or flat or hiccupy or forgetful or whatever. And in the car on the ride home Dad would kvetch about the fact that we never sang classical music, and then he would offer criticism. Of the performance, of my performance. Other kids’ parents brought flowers, hosted cast parties. My Dad brought knowledge about how to be a better musician. And he never seemed to realize that his comments took all the air out of the evening for me, so that the next time I stepped into the oval of light in front of the microphone I was even more afraid of screwing up.
It feels like betrayal to say, but my happiest performing moments probably came during the summers, up the mountain at Arrowbear Music Camp, because I could sing my heart out in front of other musical kids on our Tuesday- and Thursday-evening talent nights and know I was safe. Dad wasn’t there to hear me.
This changed in grad school and, later, when I lived in France and conducted a choir, and later still, when I came back to Boston and sang the Tenebrae for Holy Week, and later than that too, when I moved down to Louisiana and auditioned for the Symphony Chorus and we performed Handel and Bach and Rimsky-Korsakov and Verdi and Orff. All I wanted, those years, was for my Dad to come hear me sing. I wasn’t afraid anymore : the choir was good, better than good, and I had found my anchor. The song moved through me, fixing me inside the music the way a lightning bolt would nail a person to the ground, and while onstage all I was was music, sound like fire. One year I had a solo in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. But Dad was too stubborn, and then too ill, to travel for the concerts. I sent him CDs he never listened to. I called him from rehearsal, every week, during our 15-minute break. I would walk outside into the steamy Louisiana night, and press the buttons that pulled up Dad’s inimitable “Rosebud!” when he answered. Minutes would tick past and I’d catch myself grinning as I talked about the struggle for an in-tune soprano unison, or the one bass who sounded like Kermit the Frog and never could blend, or the conductor’s little jokes – about “hairy alto sound,” for instance. Dad would give his wheezy chuckle, a short bark of laughter that led to a coughing fit, and I’d look back at the door to the music building, over which hovered a chorus of tiny white-bodied night insects, and we would tell each other “I love you” twenty times apiece and then I’d dash back in, hanging up as I took the stairs two at a time, scurrying breathless to my seat among the other Alto 1s, thinking what a luxury it was to run and make myself breathless as my Dad struggled for air, as we launched back into the evening’s rehearsal piece.
I am carrying all of these memories with me, the bittersweet and the breathless, the hard and the holy. So my goal for Voice Month is not to perform anything in particular, but to sing a multiplicity of things that I love, in different styles and with different backgrounds – classical, rock, folk, Broadway (the answer is still no about the rap chorus). Because the most important difference about this instrument is that I cannot simply say “the” about it. This is not an absolute, nor a televised singing game show. This instrument is intimately, intricately, mine. And more than the process of learning to read sheet music or a new clef or developing better finger technique or even a new way of breathing, the main thing I need to do with this instrument is let it sing. Accept its limitations and open myself to its offerings, its possibilities. Because though I’ve carried it with me all my life, we are still learning each other.
To begin with, since December is the beginning of the liturgical year and full of gorgeous somber traditional music, I recorded some Gregorian chant : a favorite Marian hymn, the “Ave maris stella.” I did this on 17 December, and so combined one of the great “O” antiphons into the verses of the hymn as a separate track. In the recording, you’ll hear my voice amplified and reflected back – Gregorian should not be a solo venture, but sung as part of a communal celebration. So I did what I could – Garage Band helped – to increase the number of mes singing. And since I made only an audio recording, I decided to set the music to a little photo-anthology video. The photos come from monastic settings and secular places on my map of the world; they represent Christmas and winter (on three continents), along with scenes of holiness from any season, scenes of beauty. The sacred is all around us at all times. That’s part of the Advent message, I believe – learning to see the numinous qualities of every leaf, every spark, every stone, and in every face, every sound, every voice.