Learning to Sing

Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of my mom singing to me. She’d sing all kinds of songs, but she seemed to have a certain penchant for ones that made me cry. We’ve got a little bit of a dark and twisty in my family. She’d bust out with “Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ Clementine. You were lost and gone forever…” Even a six-year old knows that’s a sad-ass song. But I loved it.

I liked to sing too. My mom tells me I used to sing in my car seat in the back of the car. (I’m guessing by “car seat” she means one of those bouncy contraptions that doubled as a feeding chair.) She said I’d be singing away and then fall asleep mid-song. It happened so fast that she’d always turn to check on me to make sure I hadn’t suffered some sudden onset childhood malady.

Then, I stopped singing. I wasn’t consciously aware that there was a time of singing and then not-singing, until my recent voice lessons spurred a memory of my mom laughing at herself and saying how she had a bad voice.

I thought her voice was the most beautiful thing in the world. So I was confused.

I remembered that sinking feeling I got in my gut as she said that, and sadness. My little mind made the inference—if my mom has a bad voice, then I must too. My story from then on has been that I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Taking singing lessons was one of those things that scared the crap out of me, but I knew I should do it. I knew that in this case, when it was time, the right teacher would show up. I say it like I’m so Zen, but there was no other conclusion I could draw after trying to hire three different teachers, none of whom got back to me. I like to try to force things before I sit back and let the universe do the work.

Finally, Felicia showed up. Of course she arrived via a completely unexpected avenue. Felicia had first contacted me in the context of my day job. I loved her music and energy, but the business thing was not a match. When I told her, she was totally gracious. I love that. When I noticed that she gave voice lessons, my spidey senses begin tingling. I investigated further and saw that she understood the psychological component of singing. Namely being scared to death to do it. And don’t even get me started on karaoke.

Felicia believes everyone can sing. I also believe everyone can sing, I just don’t believe that everyone should sing. Luckily, she is a kinder soul than I. I hire her for 10 lessons. In for a penny, in for a pound. Or something like that.

I kick my girlfriend Stephanie out of the house for the first lesson. There are to be no witnesses for my pitchy warbling. I try not to think of the word “sing” to avoid that band around my lungs feeling—I am using my powers of denial for good.

The appointed time arrives and Felicia and I jump on Skype—I purposely pick phone Skype instead of video Skype. I don’t need her looking at me. I’m nearly flop-sweating as she sets up the first exercise. It’s… sighing. Not singing, sighing. I nearly swoon with relief. I think, “I’m gonna nail this!” So I sigh. “HHHUUGHhhhh..h….hh…h…”

“I kinda ran out of gas there at the end,” I say. “Yeah,” says Felicia, “notice how you blow out all of your air at the beginning.” I say, “Well I thought I was just sighing, I didn’t realize there was a particular way to sigh.” My thought bubble is that I wasn’t ready for a sighing pop quiz. Felicia says, “I wanted to get a sense of your default way of breathing so we can work with it. So now, sigh, but see if you can keep your exhale more consistently throughout.”

Then it smacked me. The way I do anything is how I do everything. How I blow my wad of energy at the beginning of a sigh is how I approach life. I put way more energy than is needed or even useful at the beginning of things, and run out of gas at the end. Metaphor alert!

Since sighing was proving to be challenging, Felicia gave me a remedial exercise: hissing. Proper hissing technique requires that you lie on your back, place your hand on your belly, and hiss. The trick is to hiss consistently from beginning to end. Somehow hissing through your teeth is incrementally easier than just releasing your breath through an open-mouthed sigh. Ok…

Hiss and sputter, hiss and sputter—oh, I’m not supposed to hold my breath. Then, just as I’m about to give up breathing altogether, I breathe in and hiss out smoothly. Holy shit! I could’ve hissed forever.

Felicia immediately ups the ante to sighing. I feel confident and my lungs are band-free as I breathe in and sigh, nice and easy.

Then we go to the song I’ve chosen, Felicia is not one to rest on the breathing laurels. She has me breathe in and sing the first line of Brandi Carlile’s Turpentine. (Just in case you weren’t sure I’m a lesbian.) After a couple of false starts and nervous crackles, I take a breath and, “I watch you grow away from me in photographs,” comes out of me smoothly and easily. I’m ecstatic.

I couldn’t believe my voice could do that—sing a line effortlessly and in tune-ish. Then of course I tried too hard, got nervous, nearly hyperventilated myself, and was sent back to hissing. Such is life.

Turns out learning to sing is another way for me to learn about myself. We humans suck at insight. We aren’t all, “Eureka! I just randomly looked inside myself and had this deep insight!” We’re more like, “Let me continuously project this thing I’m trying to learn about myself out into the world until I finally get it.” Or maybe that’s just me.

Sighing, hissing and singing are teaching me about how I try so hard. I burst out of the gate with everything I have and wheeze into the finish line. The feeling of relaxing, letting the air flow and having the notes come naturally gave me the feeling of what it’s like to create with ease. To do the exact amount of effort that’s required (and to see that more is not better), and then to just let it happen.

I’d love to tell you that I’m happily singing like Mary Poppins on crank and also creating my whole life with a new ease! But, I’m still wheezing, sputtering, hyperventiliating, and going back to remedial hissing. Because those are all parts of me. But I know that if I keep showing up, every once in a while, I’ll sing.