Today I had my first singing lesson. Wow! What an intense, scary, illuminating experience.
My teacher, whose ad I found in Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger, is Susan M. Carr. Her website describes her as “a superior technical teacher,” and she’s worked with all sorts of artists I like—from Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), to Chris Ballew (The Presidents), to Jesse Sykes. My impression has been that most voice teachers are classically trained and classically inclined, and when I saw Susan’s list of clients, I thought, “Well, if she isn’t a fan of my kind of music, at least she’s used to it.” That, and “I wonder if Jesse Sykes is single. Could Susan hook us up?”
I’m looking for a singing teacher because I don’t like my voice. At my best, I’m shaky in an earnest, Isaac Brock kind of way. At my worst, I’m off-pitch, hesitant, and inaudible. I know there’s a rich, expressive voice in me, underneath all my layers of anxiety. Perhaps not a “Wow, he’s got a gorgeous voice” kind of voice, but definitely a “Now that guy really sang it like he meant it” kind of voice.
Susan asked me to start the lesson today with a song I’d written. I picked “Roadkill Serenade,” a twangy breakup song. I figured when my voice cracked Susan might think I was just doing a country yodel.
The song felt good—that is, my songs never feel great, but I performed it as best I could, trying to fill the house with my voice, remembering occasionally to pay attention to the meaning of the lyrics and let them inspire my delivery. Then Susan asked to hear one that brought me toward the top of my vocal range. I could only think of one song—“Hail! Thunder! Lightning!“—a song I’ve learned not to perform live. I love my recording of the song, but it took a dozen vocal takes to compile the final vocal track, and even then my favorite parts are guitar riffs and my friends shouting along during the final verse. When it’s just me and my guitar, “Hail! Thunder! Lightning!” is Fingernails! On! Chalkboard!
But I knew this was the time to screech away, so that’s what I did, pounding out the chords on my acoustic guitar, all the time wishing I could melt into a wash of distortion, heavy drums, and kooky cell-phone noises like I do in my recording. I did get my wish in one respect: Twenty seconds before the end of the song, right at the climax, my cell phone went off. The song fizzled to the sound of my suddenly grating “Wind Chime” ringtone.
Susan was attentive and responsive through my performances, smiling at a turn of phrase or dramatic pause, and while she didn’t praise my singing when I was done, she certainly didn’t look concerned. Instead, she had the same ease that I have with my nervous beginners, as if to say, “No, that wasn’t a beautiful performance, but don’t worry about it. This takes work.”
I got a glimpse of how much work this was going to take during the second half of the lesson, devoted to learning how to sing from the diaphragm. This is a concept that has always baffled me. I remember sitting in the back row of my high school theater during rehearsals of Guys and Dolls, waiting for my scene to come up while Mrs. Sablinski worked with Gretchen, the female lead. “Sing from your navel,” Mrs. Sablinski implored. As poor Gretchen (often the butt of jokes because of her big lips) belted out “If I Were a Bell” for the 10th time, a couple friends and I pulled up our shirts and lip-synced with our belly buttons.
Gretchen is probably starring in Rent now, and it’s only right that I should be paying $75/hour to yell “Key!” at a photo of Billie Holliday while pushing down on a pile of books stacked on a table. ‘Cause that’s how you learn to sing from your navel.
At the end of the lesson, Susan asked me sing a few lines of “Roadkill Seredade” again, using some of the techniques she taught me. What came out was a fuller, more commanding voice than I was used to. Instead of feeling liberated, though, I felt out of control. Where was this voice headed? And here’s another interesting thought…Who am I to presume to sing like that?
I drove home shaky but hopeful, testing my new voice. It sounded good.