Friday, March 24, 2017

A Voice Stilled

When I see young kids on shows like America's Got Talent who have amazing voices at a very young age, I think back on my life as a singer.

I don't know how old I was when I realized I had a fabulous voice and hoped someone would discover me.  We used to sing songs in our classroom when I was in grammar school and Sister would walk up and down the aisles, listening to each person as they sang.  I always sang louder when she got to me so she could hear what a wonderful voice I had, but she never said anything.

I loved singing and sang in school choirs.  Every Sunday, I climbed up to the balcony of St. Brigid's church, where the organ was, and joined with the rest of the choir to sing hymns for Mass.

I especially loved the parties my parents had where their friends would sit around the living room with Father Joe, who baptized most of them, and who always lead singing, while my father played the piano.  Songs like "There's a long, long trail a-winding," or familiar Irish songs, where everyone sang the melody and Father Joe sang harmony.

I learned about harmony from my cousin Peach.  I remember the year when I spent time at her house and she taught me how to sing "You are my sunshine" and take the melody line while she sang the harmony part...or was it the other way around?  She had a beautiful voice.

It was around 1955....I would have been 12 and still in grammar school...when I saw the movie Interrupted Melody, about Australian opera star Marjorie Lawrence and her struggle to regain her career after a bout of polio when I realized that my destiny was to be an opera singer.  Night after night, as I stood in our flat's pantry and washed the dinner dishes, I practiced scales, trying to hit ever higher notes until my mother begged me to stop.  I didn't realize until later that I was an alto, not a soprano, which was a disappointment.  I loved hitting those high notes,

When I got to high school, I joined the choir, of course, and sang all the time.  By then I was comfortable being an alto and liked singing the alto line because I got to do the harmony.  
Throughout my life I couldn't sing Christmas carols and not sing harmony, it's so deeply engrained in my memory.  But still nobody ever noticed that I had a particularly gifted voice.

When I got to college and became a member of the Newman Club, I joined the choir.  This was singing I loved because we did difficult music.  Mozart, Beethoven, Palestrina. We rehearsed and then sang at Mass on Sunday.  One year, our director, Jim White, decided we would concentrate on German hymns.  I didn't like that because I don't know....I just never liked the German language.  I love Latin, Italian and French, but something about German just never appealed to me, and I found the language difficult to sing in, but I did it because it was the choir and I was part of the choir.

I even got to be a quasi-soloist once.  We were singing a 4-part Mass and the alto soloist for some reason was not going to be available.  Jim decided I could sing the solo, but felt my voice wasn't strong enough, so chose someone else to sing with me.  We were the "Benedictus girls" and it was fun to sing "solo," even if it was only once.

I loved that choir.  It was the most challenging work I ever did and when Walt and I got married, as a gift, the choir sang a Mozart Mass for us, complete with orchestral accompaniment.  That was amazing.

After we got married and started having kids and attending Mass at our local church, I usually sang with the local choir.  It was a succession of increasingly less demanding music.  St. Jarlath had a pretty good choir which, while not as demanding as the Newman Hall choir had been, still did some pretty impressive stuff.

But when we moved to Corpus Christi parish, it was after the second Vatican Council, which changed things in the Catholic church to be more inclusive of the members.  The altar turned around so that the priest now faced the congregation and the music was in English with simple hymns that the people would sing along with.

This meant no more fancy Latin hymns, but the choir functioned more as back up for the voices of the congregation, giving them more confidence to join us in singing.  We did one or two special choir numbers, but nothing like I had done before.

The interesting thing about singing in the Corpus Christi choir was that David was a baby at the time and I always took him with me into the choir stalls, where I wore a big poncho under which he nursed through most of the Mass.  Everyone was always amazed at what a good baby he was and nobody realized that he was nursing through most of the Mass.

When we moved to Davis, I joined the St. James choir for awhile, but the music was so simple and totally un-challenging that I eventually gave up out of boredom.  I still enjoyed singing, though.  I loved Christmas when the family would drive out to a tree farm, buy a tree, load it into the car and then sing Christmas carols on the drive back home, with me always singing the harmony.

Christmas was always a good time for singing.  When I was working with the Lamplighters, there was always Christmas caroling on the cable car in San Francisco, going from Market Street all the way to the end of the line at the Buena Vista, the place that invented Irish coffee, and we would end the evening having Irish coffee.

The Davis Comic Opera Co. also went caroling and we joined them a year or two.  That was also fun, but didn't last all that long.  The last time I went Christmas caroling it was with Marta's family when we walked around the neighborhood singing and playing kazoos.

When I was with the Lamplighters, I even got an opportunity to sing opera -- sort of.  Gilbert had an annual private sing-along.  He and the Lamplighters orchestra, or which ever instrumentalists wanted to come (usually most of them) would get together just for fun to play music that they never got to play as professionals.  He did all 9 Beethoven symphonies, for example, just to an empty theater with a handful of friends to listen.  But when they did the 9th symphony, he invited more than a handful of people and then invited whoever wanted to sing "Ode to Joy" to come up on stage and sing it.  My big chance!  Dumbest, most embarrassing thing I ever did.  Here I was with a choir of professional singers, trying to sight-read Beethoven and Gilbert asked if they wanted to sing in English or in German and they agreed to sing in German.  I stood next to one of the strongest altos, but trying to read the unfamiliar alto-line of the music and the words in German and sing harmony which I did not know was just ridiculous.  I ended up mouthing the words and being quiet.  Fortunately nobody ever mentioned it to me.

I always played music in the car when I was driving alone and I was one of those folks who sang along with whatever was playing.  But eventually I discovered audio books and those were my companions on car trips.  I rarely had an opportunity to sing at all anywhere.

So it was a shock to me the last time I took my mother to have lunch with her friends, a couple of years ago now, when I put on the playlist of music from the 40s and 50s that I had made for her.  It was her favorite music and she was able to sing all the words to most of the songs all the way home--about an hour or so.  My shock was that I could not sing at all.  My vocal range was about 3-4 notes and I could not sing higher or lower.  It wasn't that my voice cracked, it was that when I tried to sing something out of that range, there was just ... nothing.

I still can't sing.  My theory is that you really do lose it if you don't use it.  Sometimes I can sing a bit better than others, but we went to a memorial service the other day and again I could only hit the very few notes in the middle of the hymns we were singing.

Nobody ever "discovered" me and I never went on to become an opera star and now I have no voice at all, but I sure had a good time singing all those years.

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