A Gift of Song

When I was about 10 years old, I convinced my parents that I needed singing lessons by crooning out a rendition of Whitney Houston’sSaving 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.

Where I sing

Where I sing

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.

All set for a lullabye

All set for a lullaby

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!

14 thoughts on “A Gift of Song

  1. I love this! I studied voice in college, and I remember really discovering music when I first heard Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” So powerful! Keep singing – it’s such a wonderful art.

  2. You should never have stopped singing. You are terribly self-deprecating. You are a wonderful singer. But I kind of get what you are saying. The same thing happened with dancing for me. If you can’t be one of the best, good enough to be professional and respected, then you don’t want to be the sad attempt at it.

    I sang endlessly to my babies. The day that we brought my oldest home from the hospital my mother and I sat up late into the evening rocking her and singing every lullaby we could think of. You can sound terrible and young children still love to listen. As they have gotten older my children began singing with me.

    My girls each had their own lullaby; one song that I sang to them over and over and that eventually became iconic of their babyhood. Sophia had ‘Lullaby’ by Billy Joel. I sang ‘River Lullaby’ by Amy Grant to Mira. And Vivi would settle in an instant if we sang or played K.D. Lang’s ‘Simple’.

    My family has a lullaby that has been passed down through 4 generations now. I still sing it to my children. At family reunions all 60+ out of tune voices sing it together late at night, usually around a fire. I have looked for the song on Google and can’t find anything about it. I know nothing of its origins other than apparently it was written during WW1. It is actually a terribly heartbreaking song about a father who has never met his baby and his wish to rock his child to sleep. The lyrics don’t matter so much as I almost feel like I am channeling my mother and grandmother when I sing it to my girls. I imagine them singing it to their babies someday. It’s terribly sentimental.

    • I love knowing all this. Today, while the baby’s heart rate was being monitored, and I thought it was a little fast, I started singing. Not really sure if it calmed him down, but it definitely worked on me. Which is probably the same thing.

  3. I love, love, love this! I’m so glad you’ve brought your vocal chords out of the closet and have put them to such good use. I love how you talk about this new voice you’ve found. Isn’t it true that youth can be full of dazzling technique, but it can take age to sing with real heart?

    There was a song that my parents played me over and over again when I was born. It was a record (back in the olden days) for newborns with heartbeat sounds on one side (meant to mimic the womb, I suppose) and classical music on the other. I remember hearing one of the songs on the classical music side as an older kid and distinctly remember this feeling of absolute peace and safety descending over me. A part of me clearly remembered that song.

    Also, there’s just something so beautiful and elemental about a mother singing to her child in the womb and outside of it, that I find so beautiful.

    Thank you thank you for sharing that!

  4. “I wasn’t blond, after all” – put the claws away dear…

    I remember those days. Jazz was always a big part of my life, having been bombarded with it from birth thanks to my father. The vocalists, Ella , Sinatra, the smokey Nina Simone, and the smoooooth Johnny Mercer sat right up there with likes of Brubeck, Davis, Hancock & the entire Marsalis clan. Getting a chance to sing with other people who shared that love (even if you were being trained by the high school equivalent of a used car salesman) was a rare opportunity back in the heady days of the rise of “Indie Rock” and it was one of the rare places I felt comfortable.

    I still sing. Almost every day. Not as good or as confident as I used too. Usually it’s turning lyrics on their head in some vulgar fashion. (15 years in a kitchen gives you some excellent vocal improvisational skills – if a little filthy) But when Gemma was pregnant, I started going back to the old jazz standards. Songs that gave me a sense of comfort.

    One song in particular kept getting repeated “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”. Lyrics by the aforementioned Mr. Mercer, but I knew it from Harry Connick jr. The cadence was so perfect, like the train it’s named after. It could be upbeat if you let it, or it could lull you to sleep with its rhythm. And I found myself singing it to the bump every night for some time.

    Now that Jasper has been born, I still sing it. It was The first song I sang when he was born and was crying in my arms & I didn’t know what to do. It’s my go-to song if I need his attention. I can sing it fast if I’m distracting him from being distressed, or I can slow I right down and use it as a lullaby. Even just dancing in the living room. He KNOWS the song. It grabs his attention, and you get the feeling that he’s singing it with you, albeit in his head.

    • Ha! I forgot there are people out there who might conjure the image of one particular blonde! I confess, I was thinking more generically!

      I always wondered how it came to be that you came to Jazz. I didn’t know about your Dad. I’m glad that was where you found yourself.

      I forgot about that song! I love that song. It didn’t carry over into my itunes collection from my old cassette tapes. But I’ve been humming that one all morning, and it is a good one. And of course, it’s about a train, which I suspect a lot of boys knowingly or not enjoy.

      I’m glad you kept singing, are singing. I’m singing a lot here in the hospital- maybe the people think I’m crazy, but as you say, there is comfort in it.

      Thanks for responding.

  5. It is always a pleasure to read what you write, but this one really touched me. How lucky the little one is to have such a fantastic mother.
    I am a terrible singer myself, but I ensure you, my little ones just adored it when I sang to them (Alexia still likes it a lot).
    As for lullaby, you know which one Alexia picked x
    some we’ve used a lot

    • These lullabies are great. How can you not love a lullaby where Mom is making cake and Dad is making chocolate! Yes, Alexia has taken a rockaby lullaby to a rock n’ roll level! And, I’m sure you are not a bad singer.

  6. How lovely to have a new audience to sing to! My mother is not a singer, but she did know one or two silly songs that she would perform for me, taking my small arms in her hands and waving them around in time with the music. My dad did a lot of drumming on the steering wheel. The radio and record player were (and still are) running for all waking hours in our house, so I know nearly every lyric of nearly every major hit released in the 1980s. Paul Simon and UB40 and Jackson Browne and Tracy Chapman sang me lullabies. My grandmother often sang a very sad song to me about a girl who does her chores so that she can go out for an ice cream cone, and while out on her errand, she gets lost. The song ends, “And now I’m lost, can’t find my home, all because of a chocolate ice cream cone.” I would cry and beg her to sing it again. Seems very unhealthy in retrospect; I don’t recommend that particular tune.

    I also love to sing, and spent a few years in a choir and a few in a band. I sing now mostly in the shower and in the car, and sometimes to Carl when he makes a special request. It’s often the fastest way to calm myself down, to really feel and properly sift through an emotion. And I love being sung to.

    The image of you walking the dog and singing to the babe in your belly is priceless. Lucky babe to have a momma with a pretty, deeply-feeling voice.

    • So, you know that I HATE driving. And the only way I can navigate a clover leaf or tough merge is to sing or hum while I’m doing it. Like in the movie Taxi. I thought of this when you talked about calming yourself down. I’m using it a bit here in the hospital too.

      I didn’t know you sang!

      It’s interesting, both you and Flapper Pie have ‘lost lullabies’. Both sad ones. I wonder what that says about us, how we pass a little bit of sadness along with comfort to our babes? Even rockaby baby has a somewhat dark ending. Is there wisdom hidden in those innocent songs, I wonder. I would still like to hear the chocolate ice cream cone song. Anything with chocolate must be worth a listen.

  7. I’ve been reading this post and all the replies to the soundtrack of everyone’s favourite lullabies. I love it! Especially all those jazz standards. That just brings me right back to the old movies my Mom loves to watch, the old songs my Grandma loves to sing, and all those musical theatre and jazz choir rehearsals. Good times, no? All that possibility and all those dreams.

    I think you bring up a really poignant point about growing up in the age of American Idol (or So You Think You Can Dance). What would we have thought if we were comparing ourselves to the cream of the nation’s crop instead of 30 other students in our own little high school? Would we have dreamed as big? Would we have felt as confident up there on stage or huddled backstage singing harmony for “I Got Music”?

    And I also identify so much with that moment when you open your mouth and you feel like the secretary who invented the face bra. It’s like I can fake it through pretty much any job interview, any date, any social engagement but ask me to open my mouth to sing and my soul comes out… but it’s rusty. At work just yesterday my colleague was singing along to the radio and I wanted so, so badly to sing along. But even humming I sounded shaky and timid to myself.

    It’s wonderful that you’re singing to your child and I’m glad you’re finding your voice again. Whether its for you or for baby, maybe its the best way to get to know your parents without them having to tell you anything about themselves.

    My Mum played the guitar when she was pregnant with me and now the sound of an acoustic guitar does for me what that classical tune did for Blackberry Honey. Instant peace, comfort and safety. My favourite lullaby as a child was All the Pretty Little Horses… also very sad which, oddly, is why I loved it. Where does that come from? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQeqnv9K07Q

    Keep on singing and maybe keep us updated on what the little one likes. Maybe next time we get together we can attempt Since First I Saw Your Face. 🙂

  8. what song did i sing to my daughter as a lullaby? “As Long As I Am Breathing” by The Rembrandts! talk about obscure, but meaningful to me (and to her). oh, and “Who I Am” by Jessica Andrews. (can you say eclectic?) keep singing to your baby, even if he’s your only audience! 🙂

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