Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Voicing Needs

My father taught me to sing. People used to assume that I got my voice from my mother, the actress. But it isn't true. The truth was that, though my mother was musical and had a fine appreciation for music, she really had no instrument for singing. Some do, some don't. She didn't. It was my father who had the voice (and still does, even at 76). He is a natural musician, who taught himself how to play the guitar and had (has?) a lilting, unstrained tenor that filled the house with snippets of Fats Waller, Puccini and Gershwin when I was young. I'm the only one of his three children to have inherited, if not the voice, then at least the desire to sing. Desire? No. Need to sing. For it is a necessity, like breathing and sleeping. I don't remember not needing to do it.

Somewhere in the cavernous, gelatinous confusion that is my father's house, there exists an old tape -- a reel-to-reel type -- that has me singing the first two songs I ever learned -- the ones he taught me. One was California, Here I Come. The other was Hava Nagila. We are not Jewish. We are as white Anglo-Saxon Protestant as they come. But my father thought that was funny, to have the little schiksa girl singing in Hebrew. I refer you to the Sowards family motto -- "If it gets a laugh, it's not in bad taste." It got laughs, too. I was freakin' adorable. We have the pictures -- and the tape -- to prove it. I still remember most of the words.

From there, it only got worse. Entire Broadway shows were staged in my bedroom, courtesy of the record collection that my mother amassed from her days of being a New York actress. She bought the original cast album of every musical that she saw. So, not only did I have the good fortune of memorizing The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but I was privileged to have committed slightly less appropriate fare, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Irma La Douce, to memory as well.

Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon came later, and Heart and Pat Benatar later still. By age 21, I'd decided that it was time to actually push my voice to see how far it could go. It was a big voice -- wild and untamed. As a child, I had vibrato, a la Andrea McArdle from Annie. But this was before Annie, when children weren't supposed to sound like little adults when they sang. Vibrato in a child was considered unseemly. My voice had potential, or so they told me. Still, it was all over the map, and big chunks were missing. This is hard to explain to people who haven't studied the soprano voice, but well-trained, it stretches from head to chest voice, and uses a whole bunch of different muscles in the process.

What training does is build a voice from the outside inward. The top gets stronger, the bottom gets stronger, and sometime around the one-year mark, the two come together. A diligent soprano who works hard to bring both voices together and stitch them together can find her reward, after months of tedious effort with seemingly precious little reward, in one lesson. That's how it happens, usually -- just a regular lesson. One ordinary Wednesday. At around 2 o'clock. While singing (for the seventy-fifth time, mind you) Adieu, Notre Petite Table from Massenet's Manon. You're standing in your teacher's living room, after having vocalized for twenty minutes, so now you're "ready to sing," whatever the hell that means, because this stuff is still a mystery to you, really. And the accompaniment starts, and you open your mouth, and....


There's this voice. Who the hell is making that sound? you think as you keep singing. And that's not easy, either, because that sound is damned distracting. Where is that incredible sound coming from? Because it can't be you, right? You can't sing opera. In French, no less. You sing showtunes. You sing Linda Ronstadt. Other people sing opera. But there you are, singing opera. In French. (Bad French, admittedly, but that's a job for another kind of teacher.) And it occurs to you that this is how it happens, not just for you, but for everyone. One day, they're singing Italian pop songs. And then after singing O Mio Bamino Caro for the four hundred and eleventh time, they're singing it at La Scala, in a gorgeous dress with some wicked-fine lighting.

Oh, I get it, you tell yourself. It's a job.

Because it is a job, like any other. Just like streetsweeping, and basketweaving, and open heart surgery. It is a job that requires diligence, patience, fortitude and tenacity to learn and to perfect.

All of this, I bring up because, after years of abandoning my voice -- that voice -- the one that showed up for Massenet so long ago -- for nearly ten years, I'm working on classical music again. Someone has asked me to prepare Glitter and Be Gay from Bernstein's Candide. For those of you who don't know the music, Dick Cavett used it as his theme song on his PBS series. (And the first person under 40 who asks who Dick Cavett is gets a serious whomping, so stop yourselves now!) Suffice it to say the piece is, for me anyway, very challenging. Forget that I've never been confident at coloratura (the "running up and down the scales" type of singing that sopranos are so smug and self-congratulatory about); I seem to have misplaced my D above high C. I had it here a while ago. Yes, yes... I remember quite specifically. It was 1996. I had that D, and it was my D and it belonged to me. Then I set it down somewhere and walked away, and when I came back to get it, it was gone. Ds above high C are like that -- very capricious and impatient. They don't like to be ignored. They're liable to leave you in search of a soprano who appreciates them and treats them tenderly. The irony is, while my D is missing in action, my coloratura technique seems to be coming out of hiding for the first time in my life.

I called my former voice teacher (also my very dear friend), Kim, who promptly reminded me that the D hadn't really gone anywhere. Since teaching me voice, Kim has earned her doctorate in music. She's a doctor. We can trust her when she tells us that there's a D in there somewhere. "It's not like it just got up and walked away on its own," you can almost hear your mother saying. "It's probably right where you left it. Just retrace your steps." Retrace my steps. Remember to vocalize the way I was taught the first time. And one day, I'll be standing in another voice teacher's living room (Note to self: Call Billy for voice lesson ASAP), and it will all come back again, by surprise, as it did before. It's all about punching the clock. Clock in. Do the work. Clock out. Come back tomorrow and do it all over again.

Got it. Done it. Can do it again.

I have until the fall to pull it all together, so I'll be punching the clock for the next several months. Meanwhile, if you happen to see an errant D out there, running around without a collar or tags, it's probably mine.


1 comment:

  1. Saw a herd of 'em over in the next valley...hmmm, maybe thinking of something else.
    Enjoy the perspective from inside a voice!


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