There are certain blogs I’m obsessed with and visit religiously. My all-time favorite out of these is the NYT’s Measure for Measure: How to Write a Song and Other Mysteries. Music is one of the purest forms of writing and interpretation. The depths and volumes one has to convey when writing lyrics, a part for a cello or even singing, is genius at its finest. Reading this blog is bittersweet, because it triggers a wellspring of memories.
Music defined much of my early life. My parents quite accidentally provided me with an incredible musical foundation. Unlike my peers, I was never allowed to listen to Madonna. The rule was if you wanted to listen to anything, it had to play on a record (I didn’t get my own tape player until I was 10). This meant listening to whatever we had in my house, what could be pilfered from my grandparent’s Bronx apartment or what we could pick up at garage sales and second hand record stores. My mom’s collection consisted of Cat Stevens, Janis Joplin, the Flashdance soundtrack, Star Wars (no one knows where this came from), Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles and the Moody Blues. My grandparent’s apartment held Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Prima, Dean Martin, Lou Monte, Ella Fitzgerald, the South Pacific soundtrack, Billie Holiday and the Three Tenors. My Dad’s one album was the hit single, “American Pie.” Being naive, I assumed everyone listened to this stuff, when they weren’t listening to MC Hammer
When I was 12, we got our first CD player, with a six CD changer. It came with six free CDs: Bette Midler’s “Experience the Divine,” Highlights from Les Miserables, A Smokey Mountain Christmas (Christmas music as played by Earl Scruggs, on his banjo), Barry White’s Greatest Hits, the Best of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and a mix CD that featured such early hits as, “In the Mood” and “Rhapsody In Blue.” I fell in love with all of it. The call and response of blues, and the jazz of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was only appropriate to listen to at full volume. I had a very definite visual to go along with RIB, as it was my idea of what the Harlem Renaissance must have felt like. I have no idea how or why I connected a white, Jewish composer to an African-American movement, but mentally, it worked for me. It was only later in college that I discovered this was in fact Gershwin’s intention, as he said the piece was meant to be “heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”
Beyond jazz, I was also in love with Broadway music. From the Les Miserables “highlight” soundtrack, to the Andrew Lloyd Weber CD, I had music from thirty years of Broadway right at my fingertips. I started singing them all, alone, in the living room. The songs always played at full volume, so I couldn’t never quite hear my voice above the music. It was my grandmother who told my parents she thought I might be a good singer and perhaps they might want to get me lessons, if anything, to relieve them all from hearing the same song over and over again while I worked to “feel it” throughout my body in the right way.
It had never occurred to me that people could go for voice lessons, so when I went to my first lesson, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. We went through scales and then I was asked to sing something. I didn’t own any sheet music, so I just went ahead and started, a cappella, not knowing how it was going to work. It turns out, I had perfect pitch, timing and belted so vivaciously that I felt a physical vibration in the room from it. That was all it took, I was hooked. Lessons began twice a week, then I found a mentor who worked with me an additional day a week in exchange for my babysitting services. I sang along to everything, including the violin parts of classical music. My voice was way more mature than my 13 year old body let on. I auditioned for local musicals, joined a jazz group where we performed at some really cool venues.
Eventually, I started going to Manhattan School of Music for further training. This was in addition to my lessons with a maestro and his accompanist on the Upper West Side, my ongoing jazz group and attending recordings, rehearsals and performances and even the Drama Desk Awards, for an off-Broadway musical my mentor was starring in. My idea of an education was to absorb as much as I could from as many angles as possible. For instance, if I was singing something from Evita, I’d research Eva Peron and the presidency of Juan Peron. That was my life, daily commutes into Manhattan from my private middle/high school in Westchester and endless hours of practice and homework from both schools.
Despite all of the work, passion and time I devoted to my love, I never quite felt my voice was good enough to perform solo. I knew in my heart of hearts, it was, but a crippling stage fright overtook me 70 percent of the time. And despite the mature voice, I was still an adolescent with zero confidence. I was starting to burn out from all of the pressure and fear I had put on myself.
One day, when I was 16, I simply had enough. I stopped, abruptly and permanently. My music books, scores and endless notes, CDs and programs began to sit in my bookshelves collecting dust. Today, my voice isn’t anywhere near where it used to be (this is especially evident during Karaoke sing-offs), but music still runs through me like blood. I remember every lyric to every song I’ve ever had to sing, including ones from elementary school. I may have been able to turn off the voice then, but my musical memory and my love for the art, can never be extinguished.