For almost all of my 60 years I have been a painfully shy singer. I think I’m like that because singing, like dancing, feels very private to me. Almost carnal. You may know what I look like, you may know how I write or what I think—but you don’t what I sound like when I sing. It feels so private to make sounds that one doesn’t usual make in public. (Because in this country, people don’t sing much in front of others, unless it’s at church.)
My inhibition runs deep. Even around a campfire, I’ve had a hard time joining in with others. And there is nothing that sounds worse than a voice constricted by embarrassment. It’s so shaky and feeble.
Don’t think I don’t like to sing. I do. Choral music is my favorite genre, and I love sacred masses. I can sing the entire Messiah, not just the highlights. I know every note of Bach’s Magnificat and Verdi’s Requiem. In fact, I even sang with the Hampshire Choral Society for a few years because I love that music so much I wanted to be completely surrounded by it, engulfed by the harmony. But choral singing is not intimate. It’s about blending many voices together so they sound like one. To me it feels like anonymous singing.
The only other time in my life I used to sing in public would be at the Passover Seder. For two nights each year of my life, my family would sing the same dozen songs. I never heard them sing otherwise. But on Passover, my father would adopt a surprisingly robust baritone and sing Echad Mi Yodeah (Who Knows One?), a call-and-response piece which goes all the way up to thirteen. Think Twelve Days of Christmas. When my father boisterously sang “who knows one?”, “one is god!” we all sang back. It was the only time each year when I would sing at the top of my lungs, fueled by four glasses of wine built into the ceremony. The rest of the year, I might sing alone in the car, but never in earshot of another person.
And then something changed. Kevin had always kept his guitar out, but about two years ago, he started picking it up more frequently and polishing old favorites. I found myself humming along quietly while I read. I don’t know when it happened or why, but one day I asked him if he could play a song I liked. When he played it the first few times, I sang it quietly to myself. I don’t even think he could hear. But as he got more confident in his finger-picking, I felt more comfortable singing a tiny bit louder. And then even louder.
Soon I started sending him more songs I wanted him to learn—because he actually sounded good and I actually liked listening to him play. And then, to my surprise, I started liking listening to myself sing And the sweet thing about music, is that when you feel bolder, the sound is sweeter. And when the sound is sweeter, you want to sing even more boldly. Before long, we were sitting there, belting out Willin’ and Angel from Montgomery and Jolene. Soon Kevin began harmonizing with me and I with him. I could barely believe it.
And then this year, my stepdaughter, Kevin’s daughter Corrina, returned to the Valley after having been gone for seven years. When she left she was a child of 17. She returned a woman, almost 25. In those years, she too had gotten interested in playing the guitar and Kevin bought her a starter one. He also helped her put together a playlist of songs she could learn. Slowly she taught herself a few numbers, but they had never had a chance to play together during her visits home. It’s hard to do that when you’re trying to fit in family and friends in just two or three days.
But when Corrina came back for good last week, the guitars came out immediately. Turns out she had developed quite a repertoire of her own. While her singing started out tentative, after only a few minutes her deep alto voice emerged, rich and interesting, and the harmonies she produced with her dad inexplicably made me weep.
In the beginning, I just sat back, away from them, a little daunted by the unexpected beauty of their blended voices. Within days, though, I started adding songs to their playlist. Songs that that I always wanted to sing and that I wanted them to learn. I leaned towards simple spirituals and others songs that had their roots in the South, just like Kevin and Corrina. When they began singing my songs, I got choked with emotion. I closed my eyes and sat down to listen to this beautiful live music coming from my livingroom. Very quietly, I began to hum. Then I felt this loud joyous sound emerge from the depths of my soul and heard my own voice join theirs.
June 1, 2017