How’s the Singing Going?

20 Oct

Periodically, a friend will ask, “How’s the singing going?”  The question is usually asked in a slightly hesitant tone, the way one might ask about a problem child or a follow-up mammogram after a cancer scare.  As though the asker is not sure the topic should even be broached, but doesn’t want to go ahead and assume the worst.  Unless the asker is my husband.  Then the question is asked in a tone of pure resigned hopelessness.

I haven’t worked out a good answer to that question.  I generally say that it is going, and there are positive moments – brief, flickering glimmers of light in the dark.

What follows is a more nuanced and informative answer.  I hope.

Mount Everest from Kalapatthar.

Mount Everest - Image via Wikipedia

Learning to sing, for me, is like climbing Mount Everest: I can’t see the top, or even imagine it, but I am definitely on the mountain, and I’m trudging very, very, very slowly uphill with my trusty Sherpa Patty beside me.  Sherpa Patty has climbed the mountain before, and she has a lot more confidence than I do that we’ll get, if not to the top, at least to the first camp.

Although Mount Everest reaches 29,029 feet above sea level, it is actually about 15,250 from the base of the mountain to the summit.  I figure that I’m a good 500 feet up from the base of the Mount Everest of singing.  Last week, I felt very optimistic and decided I was a thousand feet up, but then it was my daughter’s birthday on Saturday and I joined in on a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” and felt myself sliding back down several hundred feet.

Here’s some of what I have learned or learned to do, singing-wise, so far:

  •   I have a “head voice” and a “chest voice.”  I had no idea there were such things, and certainly had not an inkling that I possessed them.
  • My “chest voice” sounds like my speaking voice, and is the voice that I have always sung in.
  • My “head voice” is higher and is brand new to me.  I feel like Renee Fleming when I sing with (in?) my head voice.  I don’t sound like Rene Fleming, but I do feel like her.
  • Patty thinks that ultimately I will be a soprano.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.  When I was in fourth grade, the music teacher told me I was an alto; I believed her.
  • I’ve gotten pretty darn good at singing an eight-note scale as Patty plays it on the piano.
  • I can often sing an eight-note scale (called an octave, I think) if Patty plays only the first note
  • If Patty plays just the bottom note of an octave, I can sing that note and then sometimes sing the top note and the scale (without the piano).  I have no idea how or why I can do this.
  • I can sing along with Patty, matching her pitch nicely.
  • I find it easier to match pitch with Patty than with the piano.
  • I can mostly sing “Simple Gifts.”
  • I can sing the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluyah” mostly on-key, I think.
  • Sometimes I get parts of  “The Circle Game,” but other times I botch it all up.

Patty has decided I should begin ear training.  This involves her playing a note on the piano and having me sing that note and then sing some other note related to that note.  We’ve begun with descending minor thirds, which is apparently a nearly universal interval in music.  It is the interval of the notes when kids tease each other, a la “nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.”

So that is how the singing is going.  Only 14,750 feet left to climb.


8 Responses to “How’s the Singing Going?”

  1. Louis Greenzweig October 20, 2011 at 8:25 pm #


    I really appreciate your from the heart verbalization. Your motivation for expression and clear thinking somewhat amaze me. In a world full of Twitter and Facebook it is refreshing to read a story told from the heart and not the texting of endless surreal crap.
    Wait till you reach 65 as I have only 17 days ago. Your perspective may change and your understanding of life will certainly be better understood. Go forward and prosper.

    Cousin Lou Greenzweig aka Poppy

    • Cathleen Barnhart October 21, 2011 at 7:19 am #

      Louis, I really appreciate your support and comments. Thanks so much for reading and responding!

  2. Clara October 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    I learned I was an alto in highschool and I think it held me back for awhile. And, there are many musicians who revel in both their head and chest voices. I used to be intimated by the transition between the two, especially on the way up to the head, but now I think the magic is in the transition for me, allowing some embarrassing cracks and unpredictable slips to guide the emotion of the song. I mean yeah, I just sing in the kitchen these days, but my kids seem to dig it and I really mean it.

    • Cathleen Barnhart October 21, 2011 at 7:53 am #

      It is amazing to me that I can have a sister who sings as beautifully as you do. Your kids are so lucky to live in a home with your beautiful voice and beautiful self.

  3. Andrea October 21, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    What I want to know is, how’s the canning going?

  4. vocalsteps October 22, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    Wow, it’s such a pleasure to meet so many people online who love voice lessons as much as we do. Now we know our work is not in vain. Cathleen, you seem to have a headstart on the important aspects of developing your voice. For FREE advice check us out at We’d be happy to help you further, by email or Skype or something.

  5. Jennifer Lang October 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    OMG, too, too funny. I love the analogy of climbing Mt Everest. I love the humor and the admission of truth about your own shortcomings. Hysterical!

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