You are in a neighborhood singing group, you are singing with the others for recreation, for pleasure, not in order to perform. You enjoy it, but you are not satisfied with the way you sing. You would like to learn, at least, better control of your legato, your dynamics, your phrasing, and maybe, if you can, how to produce a better quality in your voice itself. You can read music quite easily, and you do sing on pitch, but your voice is thin and weak. One of the group suggests, after a while, that you might want to find a good singing teacher. She has a name for you.
You think it will be simple to learn to sing better. You will go to this good teacher, take lessons and practice. She is in the next town to the north, the wife of a minister. She is very experienced and was once the coach, down in the city, to singers of opera. The lessons will take place in a room in the parsonage. You think that over time you can’t help, then, but learn to sing better.
But it is not so simple. You discover during your very first lessons that the problem of singing better involves overcoming many other problems you had not ever imagined: the problem of your breathing, of how you stand, how you hold your body, how you hold your neck.
You try blowing on a candle. This is to teach you to control your breath. She has you blow steadily on the flame of a candle to see if you can make it flicker evenly. The weather is too hot to do this, it is the middle of summer, and it is, or feels like, the hottest summer you have ever experienced. But you do it. She has you expel all your breath before you inhale and sing. You should inhale as though you were sucking in the air through a straw. She asks you to watch yourself inhale in the mirror while holding your shoulders with your hands.
You are tense. You are so tense with yourself! she says. She asks you to turn your knees out and bounce, and to keep your knees slightly bent and flexible. Then she brings out a small trampoline and has you jump on it. She has you sing as you jump up and down. This is supposed to loosen you up. She says, Yes, yes! She lends you the trampoline, you take it home, and jump up and down on it in the living room as you sing your scales.
You sing scales and practice the song that she has assigned you, an aria by Handel. It is a famous one, though you had not known it before. It is a beautiful aria that begins with the open syllable La–, and the first notes are comfortably within your range. You are moved by it. But when you sing it, the sounds you make are not pleasing. There on the page, as you read them, are notes that form a beautiful piece, but it is beyond your ability to create that beauty. It is your voice that is in the way. Your voice skips like the needle on a record. It squawks on some of the high notes. It is like something broken. She asks you to imagine that your voice, as it sings the melody, is a continuous golden thread.
Your teacher lends you a book on how to relax. But you are too impatient to try the exercises. You like to be active, and learning to relax is not active enough. Day after day you do not try them. You are aware of the book lying there in plain sight. Then you try one, and it seems to work. You make a good plan: you will do one exercise each day before you practice your singing. Now you begin to dread practicing and you begin to avoid it. So you drop the relaxation exercises. Some days you are pleased, when singing at least a few notes, by the sound of your voice. On other days you are very distressed, feel your heart sink and want to cry. The unpleasant sounds are so audible, so loud, so public, even in your own living room, in private, in your own ears.
Your teacher recommends that you try the Alexander technique. You make an appointment to see the teacher of the Alexander technique, but she is very late for the appointment, too late for the lesson. You go again to see her. She discusses with you the problem of your tension, how tense you are in your life, but, more importantly, the problem of how you regard other people and how you regard yourself. You are so tense with yourself! says the teacher of the Alexander technique. You are so tense with yourself! says the singing teacher again.
And why are you so critical? asks the singing teacher. Who was critical of you in your life? You think about it, but not for long. Of course, you know it was your mother. But it was your father, too – he did not disagree with your mother. It was also, sometimes, your older sister – though not your brother.
Your teacher assigns you a song by Schubert. You know his songs very well, and many of them you like – they are satisfying in their harmonies and structures, though not moving to you. But you are holding your breath before you sing, and you shouldn’t. You are taking a breath, a shallow breath, and holding it, and then singing. You should expel all the air first, take a deep breath and immediately sing, as if immediately rolling down the other side of a hill. You are trying too hard, your teacher says. Who made you try so hard, in your life? You are assigned a song by Stefano Donaudy and then another song, one by Fauré you have never heard before. In fact, you did not know the songs of Fauré, only the Requiem, and they become a new love. They are more moving to you than the songs by Schubert. You listen to them over and over again, as sung by Véronique Gens.
Your throat is dry, so the teacher has you take a drink of water. You take sips of water, then you burp in the middle of a scale. You can’t practice without sipping water, but you can’t sip water without burping. Your teacher suggests that you drink more clear fluids throughout the day and eat fresh horseradish.
Then she suggests that you see a doctor to check your nose and throat, to make sure nothing is wrong with your throat, because sometimes your voice skips.
You make an appointment. You sing more songs by Fauré. You have not forgotten to think about your tension and why you are tense. But you have one small worry: if you cease to be tense, perhaps you can’t go on doing the other things in your life the way you have always done them. Do you really want to change? Do you want to relax enough to be able to sing better, but lose the tension you need to do everything else? But perhaps that won’t happen.
You hope the ear, nose and throat specialist will find something wrong, but not very wrong. It should be something simple enough for you to correct it, so that then the quality of your voice will improve.
You sit in the specialist’s office with a small camera up your nostril. A young resident watches your larynx and asks you to sing a note and then a higher note. The doctor who is training the young resident sings along with you. The voice problem turns out to be, possibly, not a voice problem but a stomach problem and you are given some pills to take, one each morning. You take one the next morning. Then, when you read more about the possible complications of continuing to take them, you put them away and never take another one.
The weeks are passing and you are practicing quite regularly. You practice in the living room, standing up, always when you are alone. If someone comes into the house, by chance, they are startled by your voice, so loud in the small house, and you stop. You may be improving, very slightly. What this actually means is that most of the time, you are singing in just the same way as always, your voice thin and weak, even tremulous, but that every now and then a few notes are round and full, though not yet rich.
Your teacher tells you that you must learn to sing from your chest, specifically from your breastbone. She tells you about what she calls appoggia, which, she says, means leaning into the sound.
She tells you to sing sitting down, to sit back on your spine. She has you sing sitting down, with the weight of your torso on your distal – though you don’t know what that means. When the singing is better, she asks you, What did you do? But even when you like the sound you are making, it is thin, which to you means young.
You think what is involved is also to sing more like a woman. Maybe you have been singing like a young girl. Maybe you are in fact more like a girl than a woman. You don’t know exactly what you think you are. It could also be that you think you’re a boy, but it is almost certainly not that you think you’re a woman. It is hard for you not to feel like a young girl, anyway, standing in front of this teacher, who is larger than you and also seems older because she is a teacher, even though in fact she is younger, though only by a few months. In the first lessons, she kept saying how small you were, though you would never describe yourself as small. You are almost sure, though you don’t want to ask her, that singing better also involves being more womanly, or more like a woman. You wonder if it would help to be larger. Or at least to think of yourself as larger.
The teacher of the Alexander technique, when you see her one more time, tells you to put two pillows under your T-shirt, one in front and one in the back, and practice your singing that way. The singing teacher points to a buxom statue on her piano, in order to give you the idea. It is too hot to do that, you think, it is the middle of summer, and the hottest summer in many years. You do it anyway, but there is no change in the way you sing. You remark on this to your teacher. Your teacher laughs, because you expect everything to happen right away.
She asks, another time, if you are patient. Within certain limits, you can be.
You are trying to learn to stand up straight and keep your chin down, as she has instructed. You tell her this. But not too far down, she answers. On the other hand, you keep forgetting to let your voice ‘drop’ into your chest, into the area of your breastbone – that is, you keep forgetting about the appoggia, which means ‘leaning in’.
How does she have the wisdom, you wonder, not to comment until now that you should not be singing the triplets, three against two, quite so deliberately, so correctly? You don’t understand how to fix that. Then, you think you see what she means, when you listen more carefully to Véronique Gens singing the first Fauré song. You wish, yet again, that your voice were good enough so that you could concentrate, with your teacher, on musical interpretation rather than on simply producing an acceptable sound.
Then, after some months of this, on through the winter and into the spring, it is time to prepare for a recital. You are not the only one who has been studying with your singing teacher. Most of her pupils are high school students – there is only one other older woman. Some of them sing well, especially one tenor with a truly beautiful voice. Listening to him sing, you understand what it means to be moved almost to tears just by the quality of a voice. All her pupils will take part in a recital. You are willing – you know it is a good thing to work toward a performance. Now there is more practicing and then there is rehearsing.
In the recital, you are to play the part of a lady attendant on the Queen of the Night, one of three attendants. That is all right with you. You like singing in harmony, which was why you joined the neighborhood singing group in the first place. Each pupil, however, is also to sing a solo and your teacher has asked you to sing the Handel aria that you learned in your first lessons. You agree to do it, because you think that this, too, must be a good thing for your musical practice, and also for your character, but you are nervous. She teaches you the small ornaments you should add when phrases are repeated, and she works out certain expressive hand gestures for you to use, though these seem to you rather artificial.
In addition to singing it from memory, there is another challenge. It has one rather high note that you must land on after a leap of a large interval. There is no way to make sure that you will land on it successfully, without squawking. About half the time, practicing at home alone, you don’t squawk when you sing it, and half the time you do. You can guess that you will be tenser than usual onstage, in the church, in front of the assembled audience, even though they will be mostly families and friends of the young performers. You will be alone there, except for your teacher accompanying you at the piano nearby. You will be alone with a fifty-fifty chance of emitting an embarrassing squawk. Still, you are willing to try.
The recital takes place, and as it goes along, each pupil does well. The teacher has prepared them carefully. After the piece in which you play the part of the lady attendant, you change out of your costume and into your formal clothes and stand in the wings waiting for your turn to sing the aria. You are certainly nervous, but you expected that. Then you walk out, and you sing the aria. You don’t forget any of it, though you come close. You remember the hand gestures and the ornaments. When the moment comes for you to land on the high note, you do land on it without squawking, though not with a lovely sound, and you finish singing the aria, to your great relief. After the polite applause dies down, your teacher unexpectedly addresses the audience and lets them know that you began your lessons only the previous summer and have never before sung a solo onstage in public. She is proud of you, you know. The audience applauds politely again.
After the recital, there will be a break in your lessons, since summer has come again, the high school students are away, working at their summer jobs, and you, as well as the teacher, need to rest for a little while from the intensity of the practicing and the rehearsals. Several weeks later, you return to the parsonage, but now you are preparing to move away from the area, and when you do, that will be a natural end to your singing lessons. You are left with the knowledge that improving your singing ability would not be a simple matter, if you tried it again. You no longer have the illusion that by taking lessons and working diligently you could steadily improve your singing. Still, you may try again.
As for the recital, when you think back on it you still experience the same dread and nervousness, since there was never any guarantee that you would land gracefully on that note. It is true that you worked hard on the piece, and you did all you could, out there on the stage, to sing every note of the aria as you had been taught, but there was always an element of chance about your singing it successfully. You might just as well have made a dreadful squawk as you landed on the high note. That note would have been completely isolated in space, and in the attention of everyone listening, as isolated as any sound you had ever made, and it would have echoed through the vast spaces of the church, to your great embarrassment. That is why you continue to hear it in your imagination, and suffer it, though the recital is by now safely in the past.
Artwork © Lucas Dupuy, Lookingoutof, 2018, UNION Gallery