The Singing Voice (Part 1)

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Good habits are like good tools: If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. Violet had lots of them and recommended them freely to friends. The advice, not the tools. So it was no surprise to find her washing her hands that fateful Friday morning for twenty seconds, as recommended. The surprise—and it was a stunning one—came when she opened her mouth to sing “Happy Birthday,” as was her habit.

May 8, age 11, the audition: Violet wanted to sing in the 5th grade choir. She didn’t play the violin or the piano, as some of the other kids did. She could square dance about as well as any, with a new dress of navy blue, a full circle of it bound with red and yellow rickrack. She could twirl and twirl. But she could not sing very well. Courage up, she went to the music room that warm afternoon. The crossing guard let those trying out run, for once. He was smiling, for once too, at their eagerness. The room was actually its own building, built long before the school itself. The wood floors, brown and marred, had seen and heard decades of songs, sung with earnest endeavor. Mrs. Lawson welcomed the students at the door as she did for class. They were to sing in alphabetical order, either “America the Beautiful” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Violet chose “America” and went to her place. She trembled and wondered why she had thought to try. Perhaps because she wasn’t able to study violin—no money. Or the piano—no piano. But her courage was up, and she began. “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies…” and it was that soon that Violet saw in Mrs. Lawson’s eyes that the intervals were all just a bit off, and the timbre was just a bit hollow, and that she would not be chosen.

Time altered in that instant the first note came out of Violet’s mouth, the water running, the soap foaming. In her subconscious, there was the “Hap…” and when it formed in the air, it was a vibrant, rich, full-throated “Hap…” not unlike a trained operatic soprano would have vocalized. Violet almost choked.

December 17, age 12, the Christmas program: Although she wasn’t in the select choir, Violet did sing with the rest of the 6th graders in the songs for the audience. It was PTA, Monday evening, when she first heard Mrs. Lawson sing. The windows in the cafeteria were covered with dozens of snowflakes cut by the 3rd graders. The walls were bedecked with carefully glued garlands of red and green loops, courtesy of the 1st graders. It was 72 degrees outside that evening, but Christmas was still in the air. Violet had a particularly good view of the audience. Parents and siblings were to the back, with the toddler in tow. She watched carefully as Mrs. Lawson approached the podium just in front of her, thanking the choirs and the parents and the teachers. She said she’d conclude with a song she’d prepared and nodded toward the parent/accompanist at the small console piano. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose…” Violet’s eyes widened in amazement. Mrs. Lawson could really sing! Gone were the simple intervals she taught, or the long tones. The melody came out like honey—warm and golden and rich. Violet found herself wondering where this voice had been all these years. She exulted in its beauty. And then “Although it’s been said many times, many way, Merry Christmas to you” just like that it was over. Violet knew she’d never be the same.

She turned off the water and dried her hands, wrinkled her brow in worry, and opened her mouth to sing again. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear…Maria Callas, happy birthday to you!” It was still there, the voice that didn’t belong to her, clearly. What could have happened? A quick check of her throat didn’t show anything. She rustled up a flashlight and checked again. Everything looked about the same as usual. Feeling her neck, she found no lumps or bumps. Perhaps a slight thickening where she supposed her larynx might be. Suddenly she realized that she knew virtually nothing about how her voice worked and spent an hour on YouTube looking at a throat endoscopy while the patient was singing. Many drawings, representations, models, CGI optics galore. The vocabulary began to take on a hypnotic quality. Mucosa, thyroid, cricoid, arytenoid, hyoid bone. Cuneiform corniculate. It began to seem almost poetic. Wait, she wondered. Isn’t cuneiform a kind of writing? Middle Eastern? She had to look it up and then couldn’t remember if she had once known the Latin word meant “wedge.” On one video, certain promises were made about improvement when following certain protocols. Again, she didn’t know the words the instructor was using. For that matter, she wasn’t sure even how to pronounce “larynx.” That took another 15 minutes, with the usual UK-US differences, or leh- vs. la-. It was all so overwhelming that Violet realized she needed a breakfast and a nap.

Sleep wouldn’t come. Violet thought back to her earliest musical training, with her great-great aunt Maggie. By the time they met, she was already in her 70s and quite frail at that. She had been a piano teacher for decades and decades. Her blind husband was a piano tuner. Their modest home—quiet and mothballed—had never seen its own children. The furniture held all sorts of surprises, with hidden storage beneath horsehair straps and the old upright, imposing, heavy, dusted. At some point, the family had decided that Violet needed piano lessons from her Aunt Maggie. Not that she would have access to a piano, but that was secondary to getting a bit of needed income into the house, with dignity. First, the learning: Every Good Boy Does Fine and FACE. Simple enough. Then, the positioning of the hands, right and left alike. No fingernails allowed, obviously. That was an obstacle of some substance, for Violet’s grew fast and wild even at her tender seven years. Finally, her own piece: “Five Little Chickadees” challenged her ten little fingers. Even more, however, the experience challenged her voice, for there were words. “Five little chickadees, sitting by a door/One flew away and then there were four” did not come out of Violet easily or well. She strained for the pitches, grasped at the rhythms. Poor chickadees, poor Aunt Maggie. Violet was not a willful child, not really, but for decades and decades she regretted those tears she caused.

Violet decided it was not to question this odd, very odd, change but to get the work of singing. She didn’t have much in the way of sheet music, of course, just the book of pieces from her college class in voice and some vocal pieces she’d played on flute through the years. The two—a clear, light soprano and the mid- and upper-range of the flute—were not so different after all. Once, playing at a wedding reception, the father of the bride sought out Violet and asked if she was singing, the melody was so sweet. She laughed and assumed he was kidding, but how would he know she couldn’t have if she’d tried? So, lots to choose from. Violet had so many favorites to choose from. Puccini “Un bel di vedremo” and “O mio bambino caro” came before Mozart’s “Alleluia” because she wanted the tears first. Which lied would she choose? She thought only briefly and decided on “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” Yes, the A was there. Flute players don’t know its number, so she had to look it up, 5. The G just below on “sein Kuß”  was her favorite, though, as it reminded her of a dear one, gone long ago. But considering that she could only squeak out a D the night before, all was well. A rest, a drink of water before Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” She knew how to conclude the morning’s program, of course. Tears first, a cleansed palate, a wordless ode must give way to the crown jewel, the piece de resistance, the true test, the Mount Everest: “Die Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” How Violet loved the Queen of the Night’s showiest, gutsiest, bad mommiest aria! Who would have thought? The raging cursing was not Violet’s way. Although she’d hated the idea of being a shrinking anything (a familiar taunt from her sister), decorum meant something to her. But that F6, unimaginable. Instrumental in its execution, brilliant in its glory, the metaphoric and magnificent knife at Pamina’s throat.

A year in the future, Violet imagined, her world would be different. A new wardrobe, of course, for dramatic recitals. Maybe a touch of …what? Eyelashes? Yes, it would take hard work. Determination and diligence. Coaching, lots of that. She’d make her debut onstage. All afternoon she’d sung the beloved songs, the ones that echoed from times past. She surprised herself for not being immediately thankful and turned to her hymnbook, a bit chastened after a fiery rendition. The family fortune still needed to be made, and with a voice like this, well, who knew? Actually, she might need some local auditions first. If her lofty dreams deflated, she’d open up again on “Happy Birthday” to feel encouraged. The science of the miracle, or the miracle of the science, eluded her. She contemplated a name change. Verdi’s Violetta was not her favorite and tried not to think of herself as “the woman who (would ever) stray.” Perhaps the narrowness of her choices would confine her—too early to tell, of course. In the high excitement of the day, she’d forgotten the night’s meeting of her dear music club. Exultant, she realized it could be a time to announce her change from average flute player to superior lyric soprano. She might even offer to sing for them.

A warm and charming May evening, Violet drove alone to the house of the month’s musical hostess. Joanna had two pianos and plenty of room for everyone. The acoustics were good, or as good as they could be in a home. The intimate setting, almost a salon, lent itself well to meetings. Everyone was there—Jackie and her twin Johnnie, fine pianists both; Angelica, the cellist; Naomi, the oboist who made her own reeds; Hermilio, the trumpeter and mariachi crossover; five or six new graduates who would be joining. Joanna, ever the gracious hostess, had made her signature cheesecake and also consented to sing a bit of Bach. Violet walked in, earlier than usual, and found her nametag on the entryway table. She couldn’t help but smile while thinking of her surprise. Eyebrows would go up, mouths would drop open, cheers might go up. Gone were all the years of apologizing for her poor singing voice. Gone the appraisals of “You can fit in well enough if you watch the upper range.” Waiting until the end of the meeting would be best and allow the performers their times. Of course, once she sang, Violet knew no one could continue, not only from the quality of the voice itself but also from the shock and newness.

It was something of a startle, then, to hear weeping in the kitchen. Joanna was clearly not herself—hair barely combed, lipstick askew, mascara down her cheeks. Her eyes were red and swollen, not the result of a brief outburst but more likely from hours of jagged crying.

“What ever is the matter?” blurted Violet.

Joanna sniffed and held her tissue to her nose. “It’s terrible. Awful. I can hardly talk about it. No way to explain it.”

“Kyle? Has something happened to Kyle?” Violet knew how much Joanna depended on her wonderful husband/accompanist.

“Kyle? No, heavens no. He’s fine. It’s me.”

“Has the cancer come back? Same place?”

“Violet, slow down. Don’t leap to things. It’s my voice. It’s gone. When I went in to vocalize this morning, I couldn’t even squeeze out a decent scale, mid-range, much less the ‘Jesus bleibet meine Freude.’ Not even Happy Birthday!”



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