Well I could have spent every minute of my time painting during my artist-in-residency, but the larger point of Creative Arts Week to me is the fantastic community. I didn’t want to be just a satellite to that, so I signed up for a class while I was there too. I wanted to pick something to give me a release from working, instead of just adding more labor to my plate, so I chose singing.
I enjoy singing. My background in singing is that I sang Girl Scout campfire songs beginning in early childhood through high school. Then a few years later, during college, I started attending church and enjoyed singing hymns. My voice is completely untrained, but one of the offerings for the week was vocal improv with a nice woman I sang rounds with a previous year at camp. That was fun; we sang while standing in the lake, slapping the water, and I thought that it would be fun to sing with her again.
I have a loud confident voice, but usually needed to sing an octave below everyone else. I was teased a lot about my voice. Often people that don’t see me (on the phone or in bathroom stalls) are certain I’m a man. My older daughter doesn’t want to stand next to me in church, she is so pejorative about my singing and my lack of perfect pitch. My husband quips, “What you lack in talent, make up for in enthusiasm,” or his father’s theory, “If you can’t sing in tune, sing loud.” People have told me maybe I ruined my voice screaming over jackhammers all those years when I was an engineer. Not everyone was disparaging, and I enjoyed singing anyway, which is surprising, considering all the guff I got about it.
So I thought I signed up for a casual, low key class. Improv is something I can do. I like building complexity and spontaneously thinking on my feet. Flying by the seat of my pants is my specialty.
But at the last minute, the teacher of that class could not attend, and Jenny Foster stepped into the void, flying up from Florida. That meant I went from expecting a wonderful jamming folk singer as a teacher, to getting a colossally talented opera singer as one instead. She happens to be a personal friend as well and my respect and adulation of her knows no bounds. This was a whole other ball game, but I was willing because I love her.
The first two days of class I was restless, because I just wanted to sing already, but she kept going on about posture and body parts, and doing pointless (ha!), silly exercises. I was impatient to get on with the fun part. I was fascinated, though, with what I perceived of the metaphysics behind what she was saying, and spent much time in those days thinking about the concept that thought really governs experience; you just think a tone, then give it air, and it becomes a certain note. I even painted a painting titled What it Takes to Sing about it– I was contemplating that fabulous fact so much. Even though I was straining at the leash to get on with the fun part, I really was taking in everything she was saying.
One of her exercises was using our falsettos, and chatting in ridiculously high voices. By this she demonstrated that the men and I could actually go higher than we thought. We also later realized that when I am doing my shrill cat call when others are wildly applauding, whooping, and stamping feet, that is the same high voice. She challenged me to try singing up there. I’ve done it before but it felt totally fake, but somehow after all she was saying, and with the right thought and posture, it didn’t sound so ridiculous.
We finally did get on to singing in the following days, but nothing too serious. Singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat in a round over and over again gives you plenty of time to experiment with where in your range you want to sing each time. Gibberish improvs expanded this idea, getting us less self conscious about our voice and singing in front of other people, by making it feel like play. It was becoming clear to me that I had much more to work with than I thought. There was a reason I always wondered if I was a tenor or alto. I clearly was both, with some base notes in there too. But for the first time in my life I had someone saying I could do the soprano part too, instead of always aiming an octave lower.
I have trouble singing softly, which people have interpreted as clumsy and have shunned, but now I was realizing, as I listened to the voices in that class around me, it was more about that fact that I can project. We talked about blending in, which I find hard to do (understatement??), and I was able to ask this world-class singer if she always has to modulate herself to not over power others. She said yes, and I was sorry to hear she feels she needs to tamp herself down. I’d rather not have her shrink to fit in, and have the rest of the world raise to her level instead! However, I deeply understood, felt solidarity, and comfort in being not so alone in this.
Then yesterday morning, at the end of a little church service we have each day, the group sang together Hymn 412. This hymn is a favorite, but it is always difficult to know whether to sing it low, or lower, and there is a very high note to hit in there too. Feeling gutsy and emboldened, I decided to try and sing the soprano part. This is a group of vigorous singers, so I could risk trying this without repressing myself.
Oh my God! I sang the soprano part! I was soaring above the Himalayas! I hit that highest of high notes, square on, ringing it like a bell! It was joy! God was praised!
The friend next to me on the front row, turned around away from me to look back to see where this voice was coming from. It didn’t occur to her it could be me, since she knew I sung in the basement with the men. Not seeing the source of the voice she turned back around, and realized it was me by the end of the hymn. At the look of astonishment and incredulity on her face, I burst into tears, collapsing into her arms, sobbing. I made a blubbering spectacle in front of everyone. I was so overcome with breaking through this sense of inadequacy and limitation.
During my artist-in-residence presentation, the question had been asked, “How do you do all you do.” I get this a lot and explained to the audience that it had to do with getting Polly out of the way and shining as a transparency instead. It also had to do with focusing on the now and being present fully in what you are doing each moment. And lastly it is about deep authenticity, in conversation with and reflecting God. I think there was power in my owning this in front of this audience, because when I sang, it was not me (of my limited self) but of God’s expansive unlimited Self.
To quote Mary Baker Eddy, “Sincerity is more successful than genius or talent.” If I’ve got nothing else, I definitely am sincere.
After my breakdown in front of the group, I learned that Jenny had been telling people that if someone had heard me in my late teens or early twenties, I would have been recruited to sing Wagner’s most demanding of operas, because of their huge range and the level of breath required.
I told her about all the negativity that had been dumped and spewed on me about being different or off key or singing unacceptably. She said emphatically and very pointedly, with the full force of her unequivocal and considerable authority, “Well, they are just plain WRONG.” This is one blatantly honest woman, and when she says something like that with so much conviction and emphasis, you believe her.
It turns out that I have more than three octaves of singing range! Who knew?! I can pair that with an amazingly concentrated, sustainable strength and breadth of air (which I cultivated playing oboe for many years). Wow.
As Mrs. Eddy also says, “We are all capable of more than we do.” There’s an understatement! There are so many more ways each of us can express the fullness of God than we ever have considered.
And no, I don’t think I’ll become an opera singer. But I do think God is sending me a not-so-subtle message about me needing to use the full range of my “voice” (in a larger sense) in the world. It felt like this breakthrough was also an enormous and unexpected imperative to use my “voice” in wider and more assertive ways than I have yet done. I got more than a hint that I can do that and that I am ready.
God’s hand was all over this, in the changing of the teachers, and in the way this epiphany just crept up on me unawares. I’ve been praying about getting myself out of the way and let God do the doing, and I never dreamed that would break down the doors of limitations I wasn’t even trying to remove. When we pray, it applies to everything, not just what you think it does!
I am so grateful to God, and God’s gift of this teacher, and for this supportive Creative Arts Week.
As Hymn 412 says, “O dreamer, leave thy dreams for joyful waking, O captive rise and sing for thou art free.”