Thursday, September 29, 2011

Freedom of Voice

Sometimes a voice should be used, but
not heard.
My family is a musical family.  We love to express ourselves through music.   Strangely, despite my father knowing how to play clarinet and my sister and I having played competitive level piano, we prefer the most primal route.  We sing.  And we sing all the time.  Loudly.  Usually acappella.  And stone cold sober.  And for three of us, not very well.  Most people would find this disturbing and grounds for institutionalization.  Or at least a violation of the local noise ordinance.

I’ll start right off by clearing my sister.  She has a great voice.  It’s not a sweet Sandy Denny soprano nor even a hip Lady Gaga voice.  My sister’s voice is a booming Broadway voice that could bring Ethel Merman to her feet and show Lea Michel a thing or two about breathing and hitting a note squarely as it should be rather than sliding around it like butter on a hot plate.  She actually performed with her voice.  The rest of us just sing.

We played and sang a variety of music in our house.  My father played swing music on the stereo so we were exposed to the Andrew Sisters, Bing Crosby, and Johnny Mercer at an early age.  My mother favored Burt Bacharach and with him, Dionne Warwick.  My sister developed a crush on Andy Williams (although I think it was really because she wanted to get to know Cookie Bear) and so she got an album of his.  I liked the traditional and sentimental songs found on children’s records, so I’d go around the house crooning ‘Let me call you sweetheart” or making everyone sick to death of Daisy whenever I rode my bike.  The neighbor boy showed us where to find rock music on the radio.  A whole new world opened and I embraced Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods while my sister gravitated towards The Beach Boys and Elton John. 

Because it was the age of variety shows, my sister and I used to provide after dinner entertainment for my parents with musical revues.  We did solos and duets, but the grand finale was always a huge medley of random songs, usually not preplanned, but involving a word in a lyric that overlapped with another lyric.  It felt like the shows went on for hours.   I'm sure my parents would agree.  Then my dad changed jobs and stopped having dinner with us.  It was the end of an era.  We went solo and stopped performing before a live audience.

 My sister and I took turns listening to albums on the stereo.  The headphone cord wasn’t very long, so we’d sit on the carpet, leaning against the bar, studying album covers and reading record sleeves (something I dearly miss with downloads).  We’d close our eyes and become absorbed into the music. 

One warm summer day, it was my turn to use the stereo.  The patio door was open, allowing a cool breeze to blow through the house and I was transported to a blissful circa 1960s beach with no sand or sunburn, listening to Jan and Dean.  It was all fine and dandy until dinner time when my sister whipped out the tape recorder. 

“Do you want to hear something?” she asked our parents.

“Sure,” they said.

My sister frequently recorded herself singing along with Andrea McArdle in hopes of being the next Annie.  However, tonight’s performance was not my sister.

"Deadman’s curve it no place to plaaaaay …oooh eee wah ooh …Deadman’s curve , you best keep awaaaaaaaaaay …”

There’s a reason why recording artists have the audio of their mikes looped back into their headsets.  I was mortified.  My parents laughed themselves to tears and my sister chalked one up for the younger sibling. 

Despite the embarrassment, I continued to sing along with the stereo.  The joy of singing with Patti Lupone easily outweighed any humiliation a hidden recorder could bring.   It’s not that my singing improved.  In fact, when I practiced sight singing with my piano teacher, the dog would routinely run out of the room to the furthest corner of the house.  He’d only return to the living room once we moved on to playing. 

Singing to albums or while doing chores or to pass time is a different category altogether.  It’s not only self-entertainment, but a way to more pointedly express emotions, like when I sang “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins” as I vacuumed and dusted or when my sister lamented that “maybe far away or maybe real nearby” she had “real” parents waiting for her in their mansion.  In a way, we lived life as a musical.

The extent to which our lack of musical inhibitions wasn’t normal was a brought forth during friend’s overnight stay.   

"What’s your mom doing?”  my friend whispered wide-eyed from the bed in the morning.

 “Making breakfast,” I said while stretching.

“No,” my friend said, then dropped her voice, “the other thing.”

“Other thing?” 

My friend frowned and listened to the swirling wail that came from the kitchen.

“Is she doing some sort of special Japanese prayer-thingy?”  she asked, trying not to be offensive, but curious about cultural differences.

“No,” I laughed.  “She’s singing.”

“A Japanese song?” my friend asked, perhaps referring to her perception of an Asian atonal scale.

I strained my ears trying to identify the tune.  My mother is horrible with lyrics.  Forget melody.  I heard something about “sgy.”

"'scuse me, while I kiss this guy.."
“I think it’s Jimi Hendrix,” I said getting up to check.

My friend trotted after me, looking at my then sixty-something mother contentedly beating eggs.  My mom doesn’t look like the psychedelic sort.  More like a Mamas and Papas woman, which she sings as well, especially on Mondays.

“Mom, what are you singing?” I asked after we exchanged ‘good mornings.’

“Hendrix,” my mom said.

My friend, stunned sat down at the table.  I sat with her.

“You’re surprised my mom knows Jimi Hendrix?” I asked.

“I’m surprised your mom is singing when I’m here,” my friend muttered under her breath.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well,” my friend hesitated and then lowered her voice even more, “it’s really bad.”

“Yeah, well, you should hear her sing Burt Bacharach,” I said.

“Oh!” my mom exclaimed with disgust.  “Burt Bacharach!  He has a terrible voice!  He should never record it.”

Commercialism is one thing.  But, when the heart wants to sing, any voice will do.

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