Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The first time I ever sang for anyone...

I grew up in a very musical family.  My mother was a church organist from the age of 14 and my dad is a singer... or at least he was until his voice was ruined by spending too long on a ventilator.  I have aunts, uncles, and cousins who are musicians.  My sister took piano and played clarinet in the school band, though music didn't really stick with her.

Me?  Well, I started out playing piano.  When I was six years old, I started taking lessons.  It turned out I had really good tonal memory.  The teacher told my mom I had perfect pitch.  I hated practicing, though, and eventually quit taking piano.  When I was ten years old, I joined the school band.  I started with drums, because I auditioned and it turned out I had rhythm.  But I could never get the hang of using the sticks and ended up switching instruments.  I played my sister's clarinet for a year.  I was okay at it... even took summer band that summer.  But for some reason, I decided I'd rather take art, so I dropped out of band.  It might have had to do with the fact that my mom was playing piano for the chorus at my school and had regular interaction with the music teacher... who had actually recognized that I had some talent, even back then.

I spent most of my childhood around horses, not music.  I was really into riding and had dreams of making horses my career.  As I got older, I realized that I didn't really have a lot of natural talent for riding.  I was successful enough at horse shows and it was a lot of fun for me, but I wasn't a "natural".  By the time I was seventeen, I was ready to do something else.  I left the horse world, though I have to confess I miss it today.  I hope someday I can make horses a part of my life again.

I never sang in front of people when I was growing up because I knew how much it annoyed me when people sang in front of me.  I knew I could sing on key, but I didn't know I was any good at singing.  I was very shy about my voice and wouldn't even sing hymns in church.  I'd hear my mom play them at home and in church when she was the organist at the church where I attended.  I'd hear my relatives sing and play music at family reunions.  I never joined in.

Then when I was eighteen years old, I went off to Longwood College.  I had to take an arts class for my degree.  I needed four hours, so I took music appreciation, which was a three hour course.  Then I took a one credit voice class.  Voice class was designed for non singers.  It was fifty minutes and there were about five of us in the class.  The teacher was a woman named Ann Brown.  She happened to be the daughter of a woman who was good friends with my dad due to his many musical pursuits.  Ms. Brown's mother, Mary Lirette, was an accompanist for one of my dad's musical groups and had obviously passed on her passion for music to her daughter.

Ann Brown was an adjunct professor at Longwood and the University of Richmond.  She had graduated from Westminster Choir College, had perfect pitch, played piano, and was a wonderful singer in her own right.

Ann Brown was a neat lady for so many reasons.  She was really tall and wore really cool, stylish clothes in bright colors.  She had big hair.  And she was very nurturing and encouraging.

I remember we had a book called Basics of Singing that had some very simple songs in it.  There were a few show tunes, a couple of simple arias, a few art songs, and a light pop song or two.  We were instructed to pick out a couple of songs.  The first one I chose was "Summertime" by George and Ira Gershwin.  I had heard some girl sing it when I was in sixth grade and I always liked the way it sounded.

Ann Brown worked with me on that song, as well as several others.  I seem to remember singing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from The Sound of Music and "Almost Like Being In Love".  I remember that singing came very easily to me.

One day, I asked Ms. Brown if all the music majors had to do senior recitals.  I was intrigued after having watched a couple of people do theirs.  Ms. Brown said they did and then asked me if I wanted to study music.  I said I was an English major and wanted to be a writer.  Ms. Brown told me she thought I had a natural talent for singing and that I should study voice privately.  I realized how much I enjoyed music.  Private lessons would mean extra lab fees and I would have to hire an accompanist.  But when I pitched the idea to my parents, they were supportive.

Over Thanksgiving break 1990, I went to the annual family reunion at my grandmother's house.  As usual, people were standing around the organ singing.  My mom was playing and my aunts, uncles, and cousins were harmonizing.  Some of the others were playing cards and/or watching football.  Though I was only 18, I'd had a couple of beers and was feeling a little giddy.

Having heard that I was taking a voice class, someone asked me to sing.  I kind of giggled and said okay.  My aunt played "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" for me.  I sang it... and people were really pleasantly shocked.

People who know me offline know that I'm often saying and doing shocking things.  I used to make my parents blush with embarrassment for outrageous things I used to say that embarrassed them.  My mom used to yell at me because she never knew what was going to come out of my mouth.  I've always been outspoken and obnoxious.

This time, my mom was shocked again... but this time it was because she was overwhelmed with pride.  My mother was blown away.  She had never known I could sing and she was absolutely floored that I was good at it.  I remember her eyes were huge and she was actually speechless for a couple of minutes.  She barely choked out "I didn't know you could sing."

I will never forget her reaction.  It was something I had never seen from her before.  She was very proud of me.

I later realized that if I had studied music growing up, I might have done something with it professionally.  But I also would have had to deal with with my dad, who was very competitive about his singing.  I clash with my dad anyway... not so much nowadays, but years ago when I was growing up and he was still coherent.  I remember signing up for voice lessons from a teacher in Williamsburg, Virginia when I was in my mid 20s.  I did it to help get over depression.

My dad signed up for lessons, too... from the same teacher.  He brought my mom with him to play piano.  It pissed me off because it was something I had done for myself and I didn't want to share it with him.  I remember singing at a recital and he was performing too.  He didn't understand that I didn't want to compete with him.  In fact, my goal was not to join music groups and become known for being a singer.  My goal was to feel better and do something that came easily to me.  I resented that he had horned in the way he had.  Of course, once I quit studying voice to go off to grad school, so did he.

I never got the sense this was something he wanted to share with me.  It was like he didn't want me to steal his identity.  I guess I can understand that on one level, but at the time, it really sucked.

Looking back, I totally see why, as a kid, I chose horses instead of music.  My parents did not care at all about horses and had no expectations of me.  If I had chosen music, it would have turned into a big contest.  My mom would have pushed me and my dad would have been jealous and competed with me... or pressured me to join his groups so he could show me off to his friends.  I have always gotten the impression that my parents valued me most when I did something the could brag about.  They have always been concerned about other peoples' opinions and impressions more than they have the opinions of their loved ones.

Despite all of that, I still love music today... and I still share it, though I try to be sensitive about how I share it.  I post recordings on SingSnap which I sometimes put on this blog.  I've gotten good feedback, which is a nice thing.  I'm still kind of shy about my voice, though.  Get me in a karaoke or piano bar with the lights dimmed and lots of booze, the shyness goes away somewhat.  ;-)

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