On Singing

I used to harmonize to the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher as a child.  I was a devoted hairbrush singer.  If only I hadn’t been quite so shy!

I have always been deeply in love with music in general and singing in particular. I remember being young and harmonizing to the noises around me.  For fun, I would sing a third over the vacuum cleaner, or a fifth over the dishwasher.  My mother tells me that I was often humming away to myself as a child.

As I got a little older, I happily explored everything in my parents’ music collection.  I played every one of their CD’s.  I listened to all of their records.  From Mariah Carey to Frank Zappa to Tchaikovsky to the Grease soundtrack, I ate it up.  I also went through all of my mother’s cassette tapes, and basically took possession of the one Motown cassette she owned.  It was this amazing sampling of 60’s hits. I had no idea what an education I was giving myself at the time.  All I knew was that the tape was amazing.  So much so that I wore it out!  I played it over and over.  I especially focussed on “Baby Love” and “Please Mister Postman,” rewinding again and again so that I could practice singing them (complete with choreography, of course) into my hairbrush.

When I was around age 10, I pushed my parents to let me audition for a fancy local children’s choir.  Thinking back now, I was in such a beautiful, innocent stage in my relationship with singing.  I wanted to sing because I wanted to sing.  There was no baggage and no other agenda.  Singing was just a super-fun thing to do.   

That said, I had seen the ad for the choir in the paper, and I was absolutely insistent.  Honestly, I don’t remember the audition itself. What I do recall is later receiving a letter at our house, indicating that yes, I had made it into the choir.  I was thrilled!  My mother, as she later admitted, was breathing a sigh of relief. She’d had no idea how this audition was going to go (I had no training), and she was nervous about having to console me when I didn’t make it.

I joined the fancy choir, which is the first time I learned the basics of what I’ll call “proper” singing.  I call it that because this was absolutely the traditional “stand-up-straight-and-sing” approach to singing.  We did all kinds of warmups and breathing exercises.  We sang in four part harmony.  We were expected to sit up very straight at the edge of our seats and to open our mouths wide when we sang.  It was honestly a very rigorous and work-focussed choir.  I learned about reading music, I learned how to hold my own in a group, I learned how to focus on a conductor, breath support, enunciation and much more.  It was an amazingly good foundational experience.

Which is not to say that it was fun.  I honestly don’t recall making a single friend in that choir.  My mom dropped me off, we worked our little asses off for a couple of hours, she picked me up, and once in a while we held impeccable concerts.  There was no social aspect to this weekly gathering.  None. There were no games.  There were no icebreakers, and very few breaks.  I barely knew the kids around me.  Since I was pretty shy and there were so few chances to interact, that didn’t change!  

In retrospect, I do wish that the choir hadn’t been quite so strict.  (Singing, after all, doesn’t have to be a mere mechanical act.  It tends to sound better with a little emotion!)  Still, I am grateful.  That choir gave me the basics and taught me to work hard.  Can’t fault ‘em for that!

While I was singing with that group, I convinced my parents to sign me up for voice lessons. 

By fancy children’s choir standards, I was way-late.  I began at 13, while a lot of those kids had started music lessons while they were still in OshKosh.  Still, I was hungry to learn.  My parents found me a teacher within walking distance, and every Saturday I would make the short trek to her house.  

My teacher was this striking woman with a dramatic appearance and a full, operatic voice.  Initially, I was in awe.  This fabulous lady, with dark hair and flashing eyes, both intimidated and amazed me.  She was honestly the type of woman you might picture when you think of the word “diva,” in the traditional sense.  When she sang, she was powerful.  Her entire presence commanded a room.  I was nearly silent during our first lessons.  She’d play piano, and I would mumble out some notes.  This is partly because I was nervous, and partly because I had a fairly small voice. 

My teacher was at least more fun than the choir!  She had a sense of humour, and I have to say that she was always encouraging, even though at the beginning she had to coax the notes out of me. We also sang in a really similar range, which made it pretty easy for her to help me pick songs.  I believe that her encouragement was key to my vocal development and to me eventually “finding” my voice.  (I remember her having me sing while lying down to work on proper breath support.  Try it!  It’s challenging.) She also got me competing in a local music festival, which was good for giving my singing an overall goal.  

When I say I “found” my voice, that’s pretty much how it went. I was warming up with my voice teacher during our Saturday lesson one day, and something strange happened.  Out of seemingly nowhere, a much bigger voice erupted from me while I was singing.  For a second, my voice was big, clear and strong.  After a moment, my teacher stopped playing piano.  I stopped singing, and we both stared at each other, stunned.  She was actually wide-eyed as she asked “What was that?”  

My voice was never the same after that.  I don’t know what shifted, but after that day, it was huge.  A monster.  A thing that I could barely control and sometimes didn’t.  My singing would often leave me shaking.  It felt like a tap sometimes. I now had to spend my time learning how to control it.  Not every song should be belted, as it turns out, and that’s what seemed to happen when I didn’t rein it in.  It felt like a force that was bigger than I was. (Which makes perfect sense to me these days, as I now see that singing has always been spiritual for me!)  it was a thing that left me feeling raw and a little embarrassed afterward.  It came right from my boots.  

Maybe it was because of my teacher, but I was also taking on an operatic sound.  

The thing is, I was an insecure teenager, and I was mortified.  Of course I wanted what I didn’t have.  I wished to have a high, delicate voice.  I wanted the type of voice that would make you think “ethereal” when you heard it.  That wasn’t what I had!  I had this over-the-top, loud voice.  It commanded attention whether I wanted it to or not.  It was anything but “ethereal.”   

I felt very self-conscious about my singing sometimes.  I also had a hard time pushing myself forward for things, and asserting myself in general. (Making auditions and important conversations with the right people very hard!)  I wanted to be known for my singing, but I was pretty incapable of speaking up.  I loved singing so much, but it still left me feeling seen and vulnerable. Teenage me had a hard time with the push and pull of simultaneously wanting to be noticed and wanting to hide.

The children’s choir I was in wouldn’t let you stay past a certain age.  Once you got to be 13 or so (or if you were a boy, once your voice broke) you were out.  But, not to worry!  They had another choir for older teens.  All I had to do was audition.

Audition.  Now there’s a word that makes my palms sweat!  For me, every audition (yes, even now) is a complete crapshoot.  I find that I either wow ‘em (love when that happens!), or I wind up feeling like I want to slink out of there on my belly.  I swear, I’ve never in my life had a mediocre audition. It’s either beaming smiles or gritted teeth and “no thanks. I think we’ve seen enough.” 

Even though I had been with the super-strict fancy children’s choir for THREE WHOLE YEARS, and even though I had learned so much, (and I sat up super-straight, and I always listened, and I sang my part week after week) I still had to audition.  I was scared!

I really wish anxiety hadn’t gotten the better of me that day, but this audition I DO remember, and not for the right reasons.  It was awful.  I was awful.  I wouldn’t have been able to sing “row row row your boat” if they’d asked me.  I froze. I was horrible.  To make matters worse, for some reason they had me audition alongside another girl.  She was great.  I wished for a pit to open up beneath my feet.  The worst part?  No second chances!  I wouldn’t be moving on. Thanks for playing.  Damn.  

That one hurt.  You’d better believe I kicked myself afterwards.  Within 5 minutes of getting out of that room, I swear I could have turned around and nailed the audition, but it was too late.

The sting was lessened by the fact that at that point I was doing school choir anyway, and I still had voice lessons.  I still got to compete in the music festival.

Ok, I am gonna spill a little tea (ha ha, am I doing this right?) on this local music festival I keep referencing.  I used to sing in this yearly festival as a kid, and I am telling you, it was so flippin’ predictable, it was practically rigged.  You see, as these competitions are age-based, year after year I would find myself competing against a lot of the same soloists, and year after year I would watch the same girls win.

I know this sounds like sour grapes, but hear me out…a lot of these girls came from well-off and well-known families.  I’m not going to say that certain people always held sway over the adjudication, but I won’t believe that it never happened, either.

Yes, I saw some well-deserved wins, but I also saw girls win with mumbled-through performances, or win when they were so sick they could barely squeak out the notes, or win, as in one particularly egregious example, while chewing gum and looking bored throughout the entire performance.

I began to get the idea that even if I worked like crazy, I wasn’t exactly a favourite to win.  The effect of this was that it really helped to solidify the idea that I had  that I was some kind of underdog.  I already knew that I wasn’t a cookie-cutter pretty soprano.  Now it was becoming clear that I didn’t have the “right” family background either.  In addition to that, because I would get so nervous, I came into those competitions as a bit of a wild card; sometimes impressive, but often kinda awkward! 

 I wasn’t nearly as confident as I should have been.  The other girls weren’t always super friendly with me either, and that definitely reinforced the whole “underdog” feeling.

Anyway, I kept it up.  By the end of high school, I was in love with two things; singing and writing.  I wanted to make my life about either or both those things.  (As you can imagine, my parents were thrilled.  Not!)

I eventually went away to University, and I did not choose music.  To gloss over the rest of the story, (as this is getting to be quite long) I had a very unpleasant series of experiences with a voice teacher at the age of 18 and I quit.  I never really went back to voice lessons. 

Since then, I have had plenty of other things to occupy my time!  I’m not sad about it now, and I have never totally abandoned music.  I’ve auditioned for things of course.  I’ve jammed with bands,  joined choirs, and sung a frightful amount of karaoke since that time. (I’m actually part of an amazing local women’s choir here, and they are both work-focused AND fun…imagine that!)

Yes, I wish I had done more with it, but at least I always still have it as an outlet and hobby.  It’s nice to have as a life skill.  (A friend of mine once said: “being able to sing is like being secretly good-looking.”  I think that’s pretty spot-on!)

Anyway, if you’re still reading this, I thank you for allowing me to indulge in such reflective navel-gazing. (Whoa, it’d be weird if your navel was reflective! 🙂 ) 

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