It is a truth universally acknowledged that the surest way to prevent one from singing well is to tell one during one’s youth that one cannot sing, as a means of stopping one from singing “On Top of Spaghetti All Covered with Cheese” in the backseat during an unnecessary long road trip to a restaurant across town. The second surest way, of course, is to remove one’s vocal chords.
As I have no personal experience with either of these traumas, I am an excellent singer. I’m basically like Georgia O’Keeffe with a microphone: I possess a rich palette of colors, endless air, and a skull full of suggestive imagery.
But even Georgia O’Keeffe could have been a better singer if she had taken voice lessons. I decided to take my raw natural talent to new heights after all these years of singing brilliantly. So I signed up for voice coaching.
My vocal performance coach — let’s call her “Ashley” because that is her name — whisked me into an open room furnished with comfy chairs and rock posters and an admittedly large PA system. She started my first lesson by asking me about my goals and motivations.
What do you want out of voice lessons? (I’d like to sing better, please.) Do you see yourself performing? (Only when I look in the mirror.) Am I interested in touring? Songwriting? (Of course! That’s where I’ll get the money to pay for these lessons.) Which singers are my inspirations? (Neil Young.) No, I said singers. (Oh, I misheard. How about Bob Dylan. Tom Waits. Lucinda Williams. Ernie and Bert.) Alrighty then. Moving on…
Twenty minutes into this, I was killing it. My genius was uns toppabl e. Then Ashley sat at the keyboard.
Whoah whoah whoah. The way this artist sings is by singing words. Words! Words, with all their weight and complex subtextuality. Words like, “Dancing with my seh-elf, oh oh I’m dancing a-with my seh-elf,” or the “nah-nah-nah-nah” part of “Hey Jude,” or “I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed.” I do not sing mere notes, like those produced by a keyboard.
“Don’t worry,” Ashley said. “These are just vocal warmups. Just like you’d warm up your legs before running. It keeps your vocal chords healthy and helps you out.”
Well, okay. I’m fine with being helped out. So she ran me through a few of these warmups—you know, the old classic “la la la La LA” deep gasp “LA la la laaaaaaaaa”—before she stopped back on that first note (the “la”) and said, “Okay, let’s work on hitting this one for a bit.”
Now we were talking. Any ol’ virtuoso can run scales and jump octaves. But true art is born of simplicity. If we could unleash my raw abilities on a single note, I could seriously express the music burning in my heart in a way the world has never heard.
Ashley struck the one key — let’s just call it an F, because I think that’s a real musical note — and she sang along with it. “Aaaaaaaaaahhhhh,” she sang.
“Aaaaaaaaaahhhhh,” I sang.
She gave me a thumbs-up. Rock. On. I thumbs-upped back.
“No no. Higher,” she said, thrusting her thumb upward like she was a puppeteer or a proctologist.
So I took my F-note higher until she made a face and tamped down with her hand. “Lower.” Thumbs-up. I went higher. Tamp-down. I went lower. Thumbs-up. Higher.
“No, that was it!” she said. “You nailed it. That’s middle C. Now let’s do something completely different for a bit.”
She talked to me about giving myself permission to make strange faces to get the notes out, and opening my mouth to get the notes out, and some other very helpful stuff about getting the notes out but I kind of glazed over because getting notes out isn’t, to me, what voice lessons are all about. I was ready to work on some songs! Then she went to the whiteboard and did some more stuff about vowel sounds that still was distinctly not singing.
Before I knew it, BAM! my first lesson was up. Ashley leaped from her chair to politely open the door for me. But before I left, she said, “Whoever told you you couldn’t sing was wrong, you know. You already have everything you need to be a great singer. We just need to give you the confidence to match your natural abilities.”
Not one person with professional singing experience had ever seen me that way before. For decades, my poor meatball had been nothing but mush. I’m not saying I cried when I left that day. I’m only saying that, thanks to Ashley’s support and my own creative expression, I finally feel empowered to sing again — for real, mind you, not just with my seh-elf.
Zach Hively writes from Durango, Colo. He can be read and reached through http://zachhively.com and on Twitter @zachhively.