Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Singing at 61
There was a time when singing and my voice were my identity, my reason for being. It mattered a lot that people knew I sang, and sang well. Then the songwriting started, and that became important, too, but perhaps never quite as important as singing.
So I sang. I sang solo; I sang in choirs (secular and church); I sang with my husband; I sang in the trio, Women, Women and Song. I kept singing. I'd walk on a stage and look out at an audience and say to myself, “I was born to do this!” Then I'd sing.
Singing for fun is a joy. Singing professionally is hard work, and I never got it all together. Singing professionally is as much about bookkeeping, touring, photographs, bios, trying to book gigs, and keeping yourself mentally psyched up to handle all the rejection and poverty, as it is about singing. It's a heavy burden to lay on a talent, assuming you have talent. There are plenty of people who have the business side together and do fine with musical careers with very little talent. You know it's true.
I have a little talent, a God-given voice that is pleasant to listen to when I'm singing to please. I never was as talented as I wanted to be. I wanted to be Joan Sutherland. The position was taken, so I had to settle for being Mary Litchfield, and that was a process of acceptance. I used to be mystified that people liked my voice. I didn't think it was all that great, because I wanted it to be so much better, by which I mean I wanted to have four good octaves and be a coloratura soprano diva. I had to settle for about two and a half octaves, the middle of which were good. Turns out that's what a lot of people enjoy listening to.
One thing I had going for me was that I had pretty good pitch. I sang on-key most of the time, and I've learned that singing that is on-key is relaxing for people to listen to. Singing on-key makes sense. Your body goes ah, I'm safe here. Even if you are not a singer and don't have a great ear, I believe you enjoy someone singing on key a lot more than someone singing off-key. On the American Idol show contestants are often told that something they sang was, “pitchy,” meaning, off-key.
I have a tendency to go flat, especially when I'm tired, and have come to appreciate accompanists and other musicians who tell me I'm off, so I can get the pitch up where it belongs.
There have been people who told me that I was obligated to sing, because my singing and songs had meaning for people. I believed that – I wrote a song: “Give yourself to your gift, bring your gift to the world.”Singing as obligation. Sigh.
From the 90s on I sang mostly in the church choir. When I became ill with mononucleosis and a few other pesky diseases in the fall of 2007, everything stopped for me. Even singing in the church choir. I was shocked. I still am. I thought I was supposed to sing there every Sunday forever. But I had to stop everything, and the choir went on without me, and so did the church, and so, to the best of my knowledge, did God. How 'bout that. Turns out I'm not indispensable. Which was OK by me, because I was so tired.
For the last year or so the only singing I've done has been at the nursing home. Every couple of months I go in and sing songs I learned from my mom. The residents and I have a great time together. We like each other. They sing along, and some of them are pretty darn good, so it's a real give and take.
I sang there yesterday, and realized that my voice is pretty rusty. That's understandable when I only take it out every two months. Then I considered that maybe it's more than rustiness. Maybe it's that I'm 61 and time is taking its toll on my vocal chords same as on the rest of my body.
That's true, I'm sure, but the rustiness is real, also, so this morning I set the timer for an hour and sat down at the piano to do some vocal exercises. I would like to apologize to any neighbors who happened to hear that. Limbering up my voice is not a pretty process. Never has been. I sound like a loud strangling chicken. I hit a high C this morning, and I don't think the high C will recover. I was pleasantly surprised that I could squeak it out at all, but stayed a good five whole steps below that for the rest of the workout.
My voice is developing the gargliness of old age – or the old lady whoops, I've heard them called. A vibrato that would knock a squirrel off the bird feeder. I'm not quite there yet, but I can hear it coming. It doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would. It's kind of a relief, to tell you the truth. Now maybe people will get off my back about how I owe it to them to get out and sing.
So I did my scales and jumps, and agonized through a soprano version of Gershwin's “Summertime,” which was originally sung by a soprano who sounded like she never got much below high C. I decided I would do it to stretch the chords a little. Definitely not something I would do for public consumption.
After a while I got out the guitar and played a few standards (“Sweet Georgia Brown”), and then worked on some of my originals. I was embarrassed to realize I had forgotten the words to one. I considered again that when I go, those songs will no longer be sung.
Oh well. “Somebody else will take my place, some other hands, some other face...” That's from Malvina Reynolds' song, “This World.”
For now it feels good to have sung this morning, and to plan to sing again tomorrow morning. I'd like to see what's left of my voice after some of the rust is polished off. I'd like to sing those songs a while longer. Maybe go out and sing them in public, as my retirement hobby, if I don't sound too bad. We'll see.