Alexa, my singing teacher, smiles sweetly.
“Now,” she says, “I want you to make a really ugly, nasal sound. Like this.” And she demonstrates, “Annnh.”
“Annnh,” I venture.
“No, that’s far too pretty. Make it so you’ll send people running out of the room.”
I try again. “Annnh.”
“Great, now turn it into an ‘aw’ as in awful.”
“Annnh….awwww.” A lustrous deep note emerges from my larynx, a note I’d never been able to sing before.
“Very nice,” she says.
What kind of magic is this?
There’s no time for questions. Alexa plays a note on the piano, three more single notes going up the whole octave, and then back down. “Sing ‘Ah,’” she commands. I oblige, or so I think. A single little “tsk” indicates I am mistaken.
“The same vowel, please. I heard at least three different vowels there.” I am (internally) indignant; I am sure I’ve kept the same vowel. What’s so damned important about keeping exactly the same vowel, anyway? “Try it again,” she says. Really concentrating, I sing the notes again. She shakes her head. “It’s a single phrase, a single idea; keep all the notes in the same place. When you went back down, it sounded as if you were jumping into the basement. Once more, please.” I give it another go. “Well, look at you,” she says. “That was spectacular.” Whenever I do it right, Alexa’s praise is fulsome.
Anyway, we’re moving on. Now, as I do the exercise, she’s telling me, “More air, more air.” I send more air through. “Not louder, just more air.” How does that work? I think about her instruction and make another attempt. She nods, smiling. Apparently I got it right.
The lesson is full of metaphors: “Now I want you to take that place you’re in on the low note up to the high note.” Or: “You can reach that low note if you slide under it first, in your mind.” Or: “You’re trying to make that sound with your face; do it in your head.” Then she looks at my furrowed brow and remarks, “You’re thinking too much.”
“But you’re giving me so much to think about,” I protest.
As she puts me through these exercises, up and down the scales, I’m showered with more metaphors. She asks me to emit (“sing” would be the wrong word) a loud falsetto “Who,” followed by two lower notes, much softer – “Those last two notes are an afterthought; throw them away,” she says. Humph, I think, a dyspeptic owl if I ever heard one. She reads my mind. “It’s not supposed to pretty,” she repeats.
Alexa is trying to give my tenor voice more power by developing my chest and head voices, so she keeps stretching me to sing low notes. As I go lower, the notes get sketchier, until nothing but a croak emerges. Frogs around the world may be going extinct, but the room is beginning to sound like an Ontario swamp in July.
“Never mind,” she says firmly. “Just relax and keep releasing air through the note. Allow the note to come out.” Sure enough, after an agonizing five or even ten seconds of amphibian opera, the frog pond vanishes and sonorous low F sharp replaces the croak. Was that ME? I look around.
Alexa is beaming.
Eat your heart out, Caruso.*
*Punchline provided by my wife, Shelly.