WITH A VOICE OF SINGING
I was not sorry to say goodbye to 2015. During that year, I lost two people in my family whom I loved very much. My adorable, red-headed, 44 year old nephew, Danny, died January 2 of a failed liver transplant. I would never boogie with him at family weddings again; I would never again hear his laugh or see how handsome he looked in his police officer’s uniform. Exactly three months after that, on April 2, my Mom passed away. She was 97 and had had Alzheimer’s for years, but she’d still had moments of lucidity when I could make her laugh and I never tired of kissing her soft cheek or whispering into her cloud of gray hair. She went downhill fast and died the day before my husband and I were able to board a plane to Buffalo and say goodbye.
The night before my Mom’s wake, I’d slept poorly. I woke up wondering how I would ever get through the whole seven hours of greeting people and smiling while my Mom lay dead in the open casket across the room. But as I brushed my hair in the mirror, a song came to me from my mother’s era: “Wake up, wake up, you sleepyhead, Get up, get up, get out of bed, Cheer up, cheer up, the sun is red; Live, love, laugh and be happy….” That’s it, I thought. That’s what my Mom always wanted for us: to live, love, laugh and be happy. That thought alone and that song got me through the wake and through the funeral 24 hours later.
Flash forward to nine months later, and here was Spring semester, 2016, and I didn’t happen to be teaching. My Mom’s house had sold, but I still missed her. Every time I heard a Frank Sinatra song, I remembered crooning to her, and when she was a bit younger, dancing with her around her yellow tiled kitchen. Santa Fe was getting hit with snow, and that reminded me of the heartbreaking day a year before when we had to bury my nephew during a blizzard. My soul needed cheering up.
I decided that I would register for Voice 1 with Priscilla Zimmermann, and also sign up for Chorus, which met immediately after the Voice class. Singing would lighten my mood; I pictured myself standing on bleachers with forty other people and no one would notice me. I’d sung in other choruses when I lived in Seattle and also for a few years in Los Angeles—these were large groups too. I’d even taken voice lessons two decades before, but I hadn’t sung much since then because of allergies and the deepening of my lower second soprano voice that came with aging. I took both classes for Audit so I wouldn’t pressure myself too much.
When I walked into the first class, however, I was surprised to see only nine other people!
“Is this Voice 1?” I asked.
“Yes, welcome, the teacher said.
I sat down and soon found out that each one of us would be singing solos during every class! After class, I walked up to Priscilla.
“I don’t really think I can do a solo,” I told her. “I haven’t sung in 25 years–and I’m a lot older than the rest of the students! Plus, I can’t read music!” She smiled at me.
“Everyone will sing for the class each Tuesday and Thursday,” she said. “Don’t worry—you’re not the only one who’s nervous. But we’re a supportive group.”
Soon, there I was, performing two verses of “Amazing Grace” in front of the other students, though sometimes I sounded like a screech owl on the high notes. After we each sang our solos, Priscilla gave us helpful feedback about breath management, body alignment and ways to lift our voices into higher notes. Once, during a private lesson, she told me, “It’s not your age holding you back. Watch the younger students—they don’t try so hard. Singing should not be laborious; it should be fun.”
As the weeks went on, and my song after six weeks turned into “Danny Boy,” I was amazed to find that I could hit some notes in the higher registers after all! I would never sing “Danny Boy” as well as my talented niece had done at my nephew’s funeral Mass, but I felt thrilled that I could sing it at all. I thought of my Irish nephew each time I sang those words, my small tribute to him.
What I hadn’t counted on were the other gifts I received from taking this class: how kind and good-humored Priscilla was to every student, no matter what their skill level. Sometimes I was hard on myself that I couldn’t perform as well as I wanted to, but then I watched Priscilla’s patience and acceptance with a young student who was having a much more difficult time than I was. It helped me give myself a break. And many other voices in the class were so gorgeous! Listening to one young woman sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in her soprano voice brought tears to my eyes each time she performed. I felt like my Mom was there with us, listening and clapping and tapping her foot to every song. I think she loved hearing the music as much as I did.
And don’t let me forget Lydia Clark, our incredible accompanist! She has been playing the piano since she was five years old and it shows—her fingers on the keyboard amaze me every time. One young woman is now singing “Fields of Gold” and the accompaniment itself sounds like a church choir. And each time any of us has to sing a new piece, she helps us record the music so we can practice at home. She and Priscilla have been so generous.
Of course, besides helping us express ourselves through music, the class has required a fair amount of homework—reading and summarizing chapters of our book and even doing papers—and tests! If only my English and Creative Writing students could see me now: TEACHER REALIZES HOW HER STUDENTS HAVE SUFFERED LO THESE MANY YEARS…
But it’s not only the Voice class I’ve taken the past four months–I’ve also been a member of Chorus! Luckily I have a “good ear” so once again I’ve learned (in the five songs Priscilla has given us) how to commune with others through music, though now I’m in the alto section. Our melodies have many layers to them: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass, and on May 7th, at 2 pm. in the Jemez Rooms here at SFCC, we are performing our songs with the Chamber Music Singers and Priscilla is conducting. Lydia will be creating magic on the piano. The harmony transports me to heaven—about 30 of us will be on stage, and you all are invited to our concert called “With a Voice of Singing.”
Terry Wilson teaches creative writing at SFCC and will be teaching the English 120 class again, starting August 22.