Thursday, September 01, 2005

Laudate Dominum

As an undergraduate, for a brief while, I took some formal voice lessons. I did the same in high school. I think about doing it again every now and then, but my aspirations tend more toward jazz lately.

It happened in college like this: Someone mentioned at the dinner table one night that some people she knew had to find students for their pedagogy class. This particular mentioner was a graduate student at the music school. I told her to pass my name on. I had no idea what I was getting into.

My teacher, a marvelous tenor, met me in one of those little box rehearsal rooms. I've always hated these rooms. The painted cinder blocks. The buzzing fluorescent light. If I'd ever gotten more serious about singing, I would have practiced in the dark instead of in that horrible light glaring against pale painted yellow walls. At our first meeting, we talked, went through scales, etc. He was kind and noted that I was very breathy. Too true; when I get nervous, I feel like I can't breath and it's clearly obvious when I sing.

At the end of the lesson, I joking did one of the exercises a la operatic diva.

"Wait a minute," he said, his eyes suddenly alight. "Can you do that again, or was it a fluke?"

"Yes, I can do it again, but I'm not going to." Suddenly my high school voice lessons flashed back to me. My voice teacher in high school realized with just as sudden alacrity that my voice was potentially more than breathy renditions of old show tunes and folk songs. She made me practice breathing, would try very hard to make me sing "full." Now, as a bona fide nerd, I've always liked opera, but at sixteen and very attuned to the fact that this would set me apart in a way I didn't want, I reacted very passive-aggressively against singing in this manner. When it didn't work, I stopped voice and my evil choir teacher, not the voice teacher (who insisted on being called a voice coach) neglected to promote me to the chorale. I stayed in the choir since I liked to sing and when we had to choose solos to learn and perform to the class, I always chose pieces that were far to far beyond me in an attempt to convince the evil choir teacher I belonged in chorale, not choir. The selections I chose required me to sing with the formal voice I knew was in me, but I never did that. Occasionally in church, I would belt our hymns or carols in the opera voice, and I almost always got complimented from those seated around me.

Still, the whole thing felt incredibly stupid. I couldn't even (and still can't) read music.

And my "rejection" from chorale has always stayed with me. My role in the choir quickly became the clown, and adopting a serious voice was antithetical to my singing experience.

All these things and more I thought as the college voice teacher exhorted me to please please please sing like that again. He kept hitting a key on the piano and looking at me hopefully. Pling.......silence.... "C'mon, Katie, one more time." Pling........ silence. So much for the pedagogy of hope, eh? He finally got my number. "You must not be able to do it again," he said disgustedly and closed the lid on the piano. And without him looking, although he must have been smirking while facing away from me, I let another opera Katie out of the bag. "HA!" he exclaimed turning rapidly to face me. "You will never, ever, sing that old way when this comes out of your mouth."

We had our second lesson on the spot. His previous kindness had changed into excitement and seriousness: here was a student he could mold.

I stopped half an hour into the lesson. "When I sing like this," I told him, "I can't hear myself singing. It's like plugged up."

He took his hands off the keys. "You can't hear yourself?" he said softly. I shook my head. "Oh my GOD! That's perfect!" At the end of the two hour lesson he told me I needed to practice everyday. I practiced exactly once before the next lesson. After that, I practiced not at all between lessons. One day he told me I should think twice about going to the bar; all the smoke was bad for my voice. I nodded, but knew my habits weren't about to change. He continued to be enthusiastic. And then he decided he was taking me to his professor-- And I agreed.

Jesus. It was like a salon-- her office was huge with a baby grand in the room, soft couches lined the walls and grad students lounged about. After hearing a few others practice, she took me up the piano. She went through some exercises. She looked around the room. "Like a young Maria Callas," she said. I felt a tingle. Maybe, just maybe I could do this? She put a piece of music in front of me. "I don't read," I said. A few students around the snickered. She waved her hand in the air, "Neither does Pavarotti." The laughing stopped. I sang with a chopstick between my teeth. "Why do you open your mouth like that?" she questioned me. "Your mouth never needs to open like that. You must have been singing with a choir." She forbade me to sing with a choir-- choirs were in her estimation, a bastion of bad singing habits. She made me sing my scales with a white handkerchief, rolling it out to the back of the room with each note. "Make your notes follow the handkerchief," she yelled at me. My own music teacher smiled gleefully. I was scheduled to appear before the whole class and he'd run through a lesson with me there.

On the day of the class, he met me outside the room. "How do you feel?" he asked. I peeked into the room. I wanted to tell him I could hardly talk, but instead I nodded, which was meant to be an affirmation to him. Really I couldn't even open my mouth to say "I feel like puking!" The lesson was disastrous. The teacher's professor was aghast. "But you can do these things," she said to me as my own guy floundered and I kept making breathy attempts to sing like Maria Callas again. Finally she dismissed me and shortly afterward I ended my lessons.

I've flirted with lessons again since that time-- formal voice sounds interesting, but it's freaking hard work. I even had someone who said he'd work with me on jazz and blues, but I failed to follow through. I'll karoke at the drop of a hat. I'll belt out with the best of them in the car alone, or with partner, but put my brother in the car and I'll suddenly be a quiet singer, worrying excessively about the notes and if I've got the words right.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you this story, other than this morning was glorious and pure and I put on Mozart's Laudate Dominum and thought about singing it. I listened to it three times through and remembered all these emotions: my rejection from chorale, my disastrous forays into classical voice, breathing through straws, singing arias with a chopstick between my teeth, the anxiety ridden rehearsal rooms. And then about the second time through the Laudate, this all got lost and the music felt like the perfect answer to the green and blue outside the windows. "Laudate Dominum omnes gentes: laudate eum omnes populi."

And so I sang.


Blogger Suz said...

This is an amazing story...sad but so hopeful & true at the same time. In singing the Laudate Dominum in your voice and your terms, I think you're using your gift in the best possible way.

2:37 PM  
Blogger LilySea said...

Ah, you bring back my college voice-lesson days!

On a sucky note, my best friend got her period toady, 10 days exactly after her first IVF transfer. Just wanted to share with someone who gets it.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Katie (WannaBeMom) said...

Suz-- Thanks-- I think there's something positive about singing on my own terms too! ;)

Shannon-- Oh, your friend. That's really shitty for her. I am so sorry to hear that news; I can't imagine how much that sucks.

9:46 PM  
Blogger frog said...

Choirs start Tuesday. :)

The new one meets every other week...

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Manuela said...

Wow... I seriously hope you develop this talent in a way that feels right for you... yet still challenges you!

3:18 PM  

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