My First Singing Lesson

4 Aug

Monday morning, Peter and I telephone our middle son, who is traveling in Israel, and sing him happy birthday.  Or Peter sings, and I do my best imitation of singing.

A bit later in the day, Peter asks what time the first singing lesson is.

“Four thirty,” I say.  “Why?”

“Oh, just curious.  Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ reminded me you were going to be starting that.”

What he means is, “I’ve been wondering how someone who stumbles through ‘Happy Birthday’ as pathetically as you can ever hope to learn to sing.”

Good question.

So it was with great trepidation that I approached Patty’s door at 4:30.  What if, at my very first voice lesson, I am a total failure and Patty has to gently tell me that it is hopeless?  My Year of Living Daringly will spontaneously combust, flame out into a small pile of smoking ashes before it is even a Week of Living Daringly.

Perhaps, I think, as I stand on Patty’s porch, I can reframe the month, choose a different activity for August and chalk the singing attempt up to unstable hormones and a wild attack of chutzpah.

But that is what it means to live daringly: to endure anxiety and uncertainty and awkwardness and discomfort.  This year IS about trying new things, and new – when you are fifty, and your routines and circle of friends and general flexibility have ossified a bit – is, by definition, uncomfortable.

Patty opens the door and welcomes me into her beautiful Victorian home and then into her music parlor.  In addition to teaching voice, Patty is a yoga instructor.  I have taken a few yoga classes with her, and am a bit in love.  She is beautiful, and radiates joy and kindness.

She asks me what I hope to accomplish.  I don’t even know how to say what it is I am trying for.  I want to be able to sing, I say.  What exactly do I mean by that? I don’t know.

“Would you say, maybe, that your goal is to join your synagogue’s choir?”  Patty asks, trying to help me frame a goal.

Sing in a choir?!?  She really has no idea how bad I am.

I shake my head emphatically.  “Oh, no.  I could never do that,” I say.  “I just want to be able to sing a song.  I want to be able to hear a note and match that note with my voice, I guess.”

So we begin.

Patty has me stand and breath deeply to feel my lungs and expand my chest.  I stretch to open up my right side, breathe in, breathe out, then stretch to the left and breathe in, breathe out.

Then we move to the piano.

“Remember when your children were little,” Patty asks, “and you blew bubbles with your lips?”  She demonstrates.  I nod.  I try.

“Great!”  Patty says.  “Now I’ll play a note and you make that note with your bubble lips.”

Patty taps a piano key, and I try to match the sound through my vibrating lips.  I feel silly, which, I think, is the goal because feeling silly distracts me from feeling terrified and mute.

“That’s exactly right,” Patty says.  She hits another note and I try to match it again, still with my bubble lips.

After Patty has played four or five notes, she stops.  “You’re completely matching the pitch, you know.”

It’s as if I’ve been handed a gift I wasn’t expecting.  I don’t know what to say, so I say, “Oh.  Okay.”  I think I smile.

We continue with the bubble lips, moving up the piano keys, the notes getting higher and higher.

After bubble lips , Patty has me do the same exercise singing with an O mouth.  On the third or fourth note, I hear myself miss.  I’m off.  I make a face.

Patty lifts her hands from the keyboard and turns gently toward me.

“Each of us has two sides,” she says.  “Two selves.  We have a self that learns all the steps of a process, that acquires knowledge and skills by careful study, that takes notes and organizes information and judges and self-corrects.  That self is an important self, but there is another self.  The other self is the self of experience, the self of the body that feels how to do something without needing to think and analyze.

“You can do this, Cathleen.  Your body can do this.  You just need to get your critical self out of the way.”

I nod and take a deep breath and begin again.  I have to close my eyes and actually tune out the keyboard and Patty’s hands, and just hear the notes, trusting that I can match them.  I decide to let Patty to correct me when correction is needed; my job is to keep making my O’s.

After the O exercise, Patty thinks I’m ready to try singing a song.  I think this is ridiculous and a recipe for certain disaster, but I say, “okay.”

We start with the Shaker Hymn, “Simple Gifts.”  I “sing” it first with bubble lips and then with an O mouth, and finally with the words, which I don’t entirely know.

After “Simple Gifts,” we work through two more songs: “L’chi Lach,” by Debbie Friedman and “I Dreamed a Dream,” from Les Miserables.  For each I do bubble lips first, and then O’s, and finally the words.

I know that I don’t sing any of it well, but today that doesn’t matter so much.  What matters is that I’ve opened my mouth and found a singing voice.

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6 Responses to “My First Singing Lesson”

  1. Noah August 4, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    cool have you ever seen eat pray love? i also bet you voted for hillary clinton

  2. Laura August 5, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    Beautiful…website and thoughts….the new entry made me cry!!!

  3. Ken B August 6, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Great blog. Enjoy your signing lessons and tell me when you need a hang gliding partner.

    • Cathleen Barnhart August 6, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

      Ooh – hang gliding. Hadn’t thought of that one. I’ll keep you posted… 🙂

      • ljlichtLaurie August 7, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

        The blog looks great!! Please don’t try hang gliding!!

  4. Stacey Glaser August 15, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    A year filled with fun adventures–sounds great!

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