When I was about 10 years old, I convinced my parents that I needed singing lessons by crooning out a rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘Saving All My Love for You’. There I stood, a plump Asian girl, holding a plastic toy microphone, growling, “No other woman is going to love you more… We’ll be making love the whole night through”.
For seven years I did scales and learned folk songs and rebelled against arias in favor of musical theatre pieces. I won some medals and trophies at my academy’s annual competition and sang in front of hundreds of parents. I became a Singing Young Canadian, part of an audition only troupe that practiced all year in order to put on shows at the World’s Greatest Outdoor Exhibition (aka: the Stampede Rodeo), where perks included admission to the amusement park, a nightly ride in a yellow taxi, free slurpees, fireworks, and the inescapable feeling I was destined for the big time.
In high school, I discovered jazz. All those sliding notes! There is even a professional recording of our jazz choir doing our swinging rendition of Autumn Leaves. Truth be told, my improvised skat is dreadful, our earnest clean enthusiasm far too apparent. But in the first eight bars of the acapella phrase I sing solo, even today when I hear it, there’s a part of me that can’t help but be a little impressed. When high school musical auditions were held, I’d expect to get a choice role, that my name would be up on that single clean sheet of foolscap stapled to the bulletin board somewhere. Perhaps not the lead; I wasn’t blond after all, and this was way before the days of Glee, but something meaty. Not bad for a girl who never bothered to learn her music theory, who couldn’t sight sing, who just happened to have a certain memory for melody.
I even attribute singing for leading me to the love of my life. At nineteen, while studying in Belgium, I joined the university big band, full of the lofty idea that I was a Chinese Canadian Ella Fitzgerald (say what?). The band was nearly all male, all engineers or science inclined Phd Students. Who knew math and music went together? We toured Germany, appeared at the Le Mans University Jazz Festival. And along the way, I ended up with the soft spoken, vodka swilling trumpet player in our ensemble who would walk me home every night after practice.
The music stopped when I started working. In my profession there was really very little room for song and dance, metaphorical or otherwise. The few occasions I brought out the voice, I had mixed feelings on whether that was wise or not. Once, there was a holiday party for work, held at the New York City Ritz Carlton, and there was a piano, and I ended up riffing a few Christmas Carols. But the key was too high. I was too nervous. My colleagues were very benevolent. Suddenly, I realized singing no longer enhanced who I was but detracted from the ambitious focused woman I was trying to be. Ally McBeal could sing and still win a court case, but not me. I just felt like the sad receptionist who invented the face bra.
Basically, in my twenties, the only time I could sing with confidence (and thus on key) was when I was home alone, and would (more for stress relief than anything else) spontaneously belt out some- you guessed it- Whitney Houston, or ahem, Celine Dion. That is, until one night when my husband (the trumpet player) caught me performing all out for an imaginary sold out theater – gestures and all- in my living room. His amused laughter still makes my cheeks burn with embarrassment.
I’m not exactly sure when or why singing shifted from pleasure to fear. Almost as if the more my talent became acknowledged, the more seriously I took it, the more it failed me. It’s hard for me to sing karaoke because I can’t bear the idea of a flat or a sharp, because I know I’ll be that irritating person who is too competitive about the whole thing, who ruins everyone’s night of good fun, getting all wrapped up in herself. Just the idea that I am somehow going to embarrass myself seems to guarantee the outcome. That I came to singing because I loved it, because it was fun, and because I thought I had something beautiful to share feels like a distant memory. And even today, while I’m hardly defined or known as the woman who sings, I still do not want to be the woman who thinks she can sing.
After all, let’s be realistic. When my dreams of being a singer were real, there was only the occasional local talent show and the television program Star Search, back when Britney Spears was eight and bellowed her way to the finals. Back then, it seemed easy to impress with just a few well tuned notes. But now, in a time of American Idol, The Voice, Glee, it’s very clear how much talent is out there; talent seems able to get out there, and along with it the public’s severe judgment of it. I often wonder if I’d grown up now if all this opportunity for exposure would have motivated me further, if I might have gone further. Or if it would have just deflated my sails so many years earlier.
Music has also changed, at least so it seems to me. So many songs are harder to sing along with; the singer’s voice has to do so much more than be on key and sound beautiful. Either it’s Beyonce’s impossible to follow vocal gymnastics, or a throaty Lana Del Rey. Or Adele, who just makes me want to shut up and listen.
But recently, I’ve tried to bring the old vocal chords out of the closet. I read that at about 16 weeks, babies in the womb can hear momma shouting and talking and laughing and singing. That if you sing the same song, the same tune, baby’s gonna recognize it over time. So, as I rode my bike to the swimming pool, or when I thought no one in the neighborhood was raking the leaves as I walked the dog, I tried out a few notes. Old fashioned stuff: Rainbow Connection, Moon River, maybe an old jazz standard. Even a few old Disney tunes. I haven’t spent that much time around kids the last 25 years, so my knowledge of lullabies is totally out of date.
The voice is shaky, no longer powerful. Squeaky and off pitch at times as the notes waver out uncertain in the cold air. But there is something new in what I hear: a voice full of feeling, full of a bunch of years that didn’t get sung out. A grown up sound.
I’m now just a little over 36 weeks and for the last twenty weeks, my vocal repertoire has been building steadily, quietly. I’m rediscovering songs that suit me, remembering lyrics like old friends. Funny, how the words of a song like ‘Good Night My Love‘ or ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ can take on new meaning depending on who you’re singing it to. And although it’s true, my private audience of one remains silent for the time being, I can’t help but have the feeling these little performances of mine, however warbly and off-key, might just be among my very best.
By the time of my next post, I just may be a real live mom! If you have any lullabies you’d recommend, I’d love to hear!