Voice is the theme. First there’s voice as in singing and all the story for me behind that. Then there’s voice as a writer, and the story there. And of course, there’s voices, as in the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough, too fat, too old. Should I choose one or just go with all three? I’ll start with singing and find out where it takes me.
Even as a child, I’d wanted to be a singer. When I was young, I had terrible stomach cramps on a regular basis and after much examination by physicians, it was determined that these cramps were due to gas bubbles, from gasping air instead of breathing properly. So it was suggested that I be enrolled in voice lessons. I was thrilled, and went weekly to the home of my neighbor, Mrs. Stauf. Mrs. Stauf was an old-fashioned, stuffy singing teacher, who had a doorbell in the shape of a treble staff, and answered her telephone with a melodious hel-lo-o, an ascending descending set of triplets.
I’d previously studied piano with Mr. Frank, coming home weekly at lunchtime from my neighborhood school where I was in 2nd grade, to gulp down a bowl of Chef Boy-ar-Dee Ravioli in time for my lesson. I was not a good student, failing to have the patience to practice until the day before the lesson. Finally, he expelled me, telling my mother it was a waste of money. I loved playing the piano, but with extensive attention deficit disorder, was unable to sit myself down on the piano bench for more than a few minutes at a time before getting bored and distracted, and had already perfected the art of procrastination.
So voice lessons were traded for piano lessons and I was no better a student at the latter, except that I could sing the songs I liked while dancing around the house. But practicing breathing exercises or scales was not an option for me, and most of the songs I was supposed to practice I did not like. Mrs. Stauff was a classically trained vocalist and expected her students to master art songs and light opera pieces. I, on the other hand, was desperately in love with songs from musical theater, and yearned to sing numbers from The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. Any song from West Side Story, but especially Tonight and I Feel Pretty and even When You’re a Jet. Mrs. Stauff and I struggled mightily over my repertoire and eventually compromised on one show tune per recital, the others having to be art songs and opera arias.
I planned concerts at home for the neighbors, selling tickets to parents and playmates alike, sitting at the piano and plunking the first note, continuing accapella with dance and gestures for the rest of the song. I especially remember my rendition of Surrey With the Fringe On Top, from my Rogers and Hammerstein songbook. I’ll never forget the isinglass windows you could roll right down in case there’s a change in the weather, although no one but me knew what isinglass meant.
I was an anxious kid, and often, right before one of Mrs. Stauf’s student recitals, parents and young girls crammed into folding chairs in Mrs. Stauf’s small cape cod living room where we took our lessons, lemonade and cookies on the dining table where the standing room audience stood, I would come down with a cold or cough, such that I couldn’t perform on the appointed day. This continued for several years without my parents discerning the pattern. I was always disappointed to miss the recital, but secretly relieved.
I needed lots of praise and recognition for my efforts and neither Mrs. Stauff nor my father were particularly encouraging of my abilities. Mrs. Stauff maintained that any person, including me, could be trained to sing well. My father repeatedly pointed out the odds against my ever becoming a professional singer. I wanted to hear people say that I was a natural talent. I felt demeaned by the philosophy that anyone could sing well if properly trained, if only they’d practice the right exercises with the right teacher. There were plenty of great singers, maybe not opera singers, but famous ones, who didn’t have to work so hard at it, I was sure. They just had the gift. I dreamed of auditioning for the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, commuting daily on the Long Island Railroad for my high school years. I never did apply to Juilliard, and rationalized that I’d only get sick just before the audition, so why bother. In my fantasies, however, Juilliard had indeed accepted me for an audition, but I would have gotten sick anyway and miss it.
I was a rebellious kid in high school but never hung out in the school grounds smoking a cigarette between classes because that would be bad for my voice. When I quit taking voice lessons in my junior year, I became an avid smoker. To hell with my vocal chords—useless instrument they turned out to be. But in college as a freshman, I auditioned and was accepted to play a part in the chorus of one of my all time favorite musicals, Camelot. It was a minor role, but as a freshman woman living in the dormitory in the days when colleges exerted in parentis loco over their undergraduate female students, I was granted fantastic privileges, given my own keycard for entry to the dorms after curfew, a privilege I abused whenever possible. After appearing in the play, my singing career came to an end. Forever, I had thought.
Twenty years later, I was a member of a fledgling havurah, a group of Jewish folks who gathered together more or less informally to celebrate the sabbath and holy days. We had managed to hire a student rabbi to assist us in our efforts one time per month and were preparing to celebrate the holiest of celebrations, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, for the first time as a congregation. A month before the High Holy Days, our student rabbi joined us for a shabbat service and heard me enthusiastically singing the prayers. In a Jewish service, many of the prayers are chanted musically, but our student rabbi was the first to admit she was not good at leading those prayers. She had a terrible voice, off-key and out of temp. After the Shabbat service, she approached me and asked if I would sit with her in the front of the congregation and help lead the High Holy Day services. I, of course, was delighted, but declined, being mostly illiterate in Hebrew and ignorant of the prayers of the services, even more so the tunes associated with them. She persevered, however, saying she would find resources for me and that I could invent tunes for the prayers she couldn’t teach me. Thus began my career as a cantor, the officiant of the tuneful parts of a Jewish service.
I prepared mostly by listening and singing along with a cassette tape of High Holy Days prayers taught by a non-traditional female cantor copied and given to me by a member of the havurah
Supplemented by tapes prepared by the student rabbi, either recorded by her fellow students in the seminary or by herself, I learned the tunes from the tapes, and if the singer was off key, I sang it off key, not aware of the problem. I used transliterated versions of Hebrew, frequently mispronouncing the words. And I created out of thin air chants and tunes for some prayers, having little idea of the meanings of what I was singing. Because I was only a mediocre, inconsistently good vocalist, but authentically myself with all my non-professional flaws, the members of the congregation felt free to contribute musically as well, especially because the tunes I chose were simple, folksy sorts of arrangements. They all sang out enthusiastically, several of the loudest and most enthusiastic, often off-key, but with their whole hearts. During services, their hearts opened and they were inspired. Throughout the fifteen years I served as cantor, the congregation grew into a full-service synagogue complete with Hebrew school and well over 100 families.
And then I left the congregation over a conflict I initiated.
Which could bring me directly to the voice in my head that says nasty things about me, but not yet.
Instead, I’ll explore the notion of voice as a writer and that story. The thing is, although I’m a good writer with a voice that invites engagement from the reader, I’m not an imaginative story-teller. In my stories, nothing much happens. It’s a pity, you know. A good writer ought to be a good story-teller, too. But that’s just that voice in my head.