Everybody in my certain age group knows the importance of cultivating new skills. In my early seventies I figured I had better cultivate another skill before my brain atrophied. After all, I don’t do Sudoku or crossword puzzles or play bridge. And I’ve seen what studying the violin can do for my husband, who seems to remember things better than I; music is good for the mind as well as the soul, it seems. So music it would be.
I used to study piano, but when we downsized, ours went to a daughter’s house. Besides, I didn’t want to study piano; I wanted to sing. When I called about lessons the teacher said that although most of her students were teenagers she would be happy to take me on, but I would need a piano to practice. Within a week I was shopping for a digital keyboard at our local music store. “For gigs?” the proprietor asked, and I nodded yes. I figured why not? You never know.
My first session was a revelation: who knew it was so hard to sustain a breath? In the next several weeks I practiced my exercises diligently, vying for rehearsal time in our finished basement where my husband plays violin for hours at a time. Soon I was referring to that room as our studio, and insisting on equal shelf space to accommodate a tape recorder to play back the exercises my teacher had designed for me; a mirror to make sure I was opening my mouth wide enough to emit those round, mellow tones; and a small filing bin for the growing collection of vocal music I kept purchasing at Borders.
After six weeks my teacher announced she wanted me to sing in her recital. “But I’ve only just begun…” I muttered. “That’s exactly why you should do this,” she countered. Nothing I could say would dissuade her. “A very real reason why I shouldn’t do this is that I’ll be away at the beach for two weeks shortly before the recital,” I declared. Surely she would understand that. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “You can work extra hard when you come back.” This woman was like a dog with a bone, like her dog with a bone, an enormous Old English Sheep Dog that growled whenever I stepped into the studio. I had seen that dog with a bone. “The week before the recital, I have rehearsals where you practice with your accompanist,” she continued. My accompanist! Here I was, only a beginner, and already I had an accompanist! I fell for the bait. “Now what are we going to sing?” she asked triumphantly. I was working on “Whispering Hope” that sweet, sappy Victorian chestnut I’d heard a hundred times before in church. Nah, that wouldn’t do. I needed to choose something a crusty old broad would sing. “How about “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered?” I suggested. “Perfect!”she whooped. “I LOVE that song!”
I ended up preparing two numbers, “Bewitched” and “Hello, Young Lovers,” another age-appropriate piece. As I dug out my original cast records of “The King and I” and “Pal Joey” and studied the phrasing of Vivian Blaine and Gertrude Lawrence, I actually began to believe I could pull it off. Then I’d have nightmares in which I appeared before a packed hall wearing…nothing. I struggled to forget that I would be singing with youngsters who could have been my grandchildren (if my daughters had gotten married in their early twenties, as I did). Some of them had lessons before me, so I knew how cute they were, and how well they could sing. I was not cute, and hitting C was still a stretch for me. The only other adult participant had been studying voice for seven years and often sang “Whispering Hope” at funerals. Was this to be my future, too?
When I returned from our annual family get-together on the Cape, there was an e-mail message from my teacher, who had scheduled a workshop at her house two days before the recital and a day-long rehearsal in the church where the event would be held. My church, I reminded myself. That familiar space where a daughter was married, four grandchildren baptized, and my mother eulogized. This reminder did nothing to quell my mounting sense of dread. I was struggling to memorize lyrics, but what if I forgot a word or phrase? When I went on my recreational walks and at bedtime, I chanted the words. “I’m wild again, beguiled again,” I bellowed in my car, “a simpering, whimpering child again…” The guy behind me honked impatiently; the light had turned green but I was off in my own little cabaret-singer world.
The workshop began in late afternoon and lasted until nine. I waited my turn in the teacher’s small living room with Derek the English Sheep Dog breathing down my neck. Many lovely young things were hanging out, waiting for their chance to make me feel inferior. One of them wore a sweatshirt that taunted, “Solfege this!” (The word is French and means a type of vocal exercise.) I tried to be friendly, thinking I could initiate conversation, but these prima donnas were not about to exchange small talk with the likes of me. Also ostracized was a young girl who told me she was home-schooled, otherwise defined as uncool. When her turn came, she sang out of tune, but seemed oblivious. The snooty girls raised their eyebrows and made no attempt to hide their derision. This made me more determined than ever to succeed.
On the way home, I sang both songs without making a mistake.
Dress rehearsal was a long-drawn-out affair, with many pauses so that our teacher could make suggestions. My numbers were scheduled for the second half of the program. As I ran through my songs I realized I’d have to clutch my folder for security as I had observed many others doing. “Head up, chin down, good breaths, don’t worry you’ll be fine,” instructed my teacher. She looked exhausted. Had she even paid attention? My misgivings returned. I wanted out, but how to exit gracefully?
The day of the recital we went to church in the morning. During choir rehearsal my husband whispered that I should announce my singing debut so friends could come.
“No way!” I stage-whispered back. “I don’t want anyone I know to be there! Except you,” I added. “You can come.” It was only fair that he should have to sit through two hours of singing, since I had been to his recital two years in a row.
With an hour to kickoff, the church lounge was a flurry of activity, charged with backstage electricity. The primas were all clumped together, adjusting hems, applying lipstick, smoothing hairdos. The home-schooler and I were positioned in a corner. “Good luck,” I said shyly. She smiled nervously. I tried to smile, but my mouth was so dry my lips wouldn’t slide over my teeth. We lined up single file, as instructed, with our folders tucked beneath our right arms. Then we filed into the church, which was packed with eager parents and grandparents, siblings and friends. Had I really expected otherwise? Didn’t I remember all the performances and recitals I had attended while my three daughters were growing up? My husband waved so I would know just where he was sitting. I did not wave back.
Singer after singer after singer performed. During intermission, my husband told me that a former patient of his assumed he was a proud grandparent. “Yes, I am,” he replied, “but my wife is singing today.”
Finally it was time for me to get up from my seat and wobble to the front of the church, unaccustomed as I was to wearing one-inch heels. My heart was pounding. I listened for the intro, took a deep breath, opened my folder, and prayed to God I wouldn’t pass out. Instead I sang. Then I lost my place and didn’t sing. I stood there and waited for the moment to pass, which it finally did. “All my good wishes go with you tonight, I’ve been in love like you,” I crooned earnestly. Yes! I even managed to nail the final C. What’s more, my second number went better, even though a woman in the second row refused to look at me.
In retrospect, I try not to think about her downcast face. Instead, I focus on the two women who came running up to me after the recital. These were complete strangers, but they hugged me and said, beaming, “We are so in awe of you! We would never have had the guts to do that. Not in a million years,” My husband stood by, smiling proudly.
I ended up studying voice for almost two years, long enough to improve my sight-reading skills and sing duets in Italian with my teacher. Solfege that.
Ann Robinson received a BA from Connecticut College and a MFA in Writing from Vermont College. Since 1967, she has lived in New Hampshire, where she wrote and produced award-winning radio commercials and published feature articles in newspapers and magazines. Her short stories and humorous essays have appeared in a variety of magazines, in anthologies, and on New Hampshire Public Radio. A collection of short fiction, Ordinary Perils, was published in 2002. She is Senior Editor of the literary anthology Shadow and Light published in 2011 by the Monadnock Writers’ Group, an organization she helped to establish in 1984.