The subliminal yearnings came with my viewing of "A Chorus Line." As the hopefuls boomed, "I Hope I Get It," I felt a resonating empathy with what was happening on that stage.
It lit a slow-burning fuse: I, the complete coward, who wouldn't even risk singing in the shower (echoes, you know), and barely in a closed-car, with blaring radio . . . Just like those auditioners, I would kill to be in that show. Oh, to sing riveting show-stoppers, in thunderous voice.
If I could sing.
But I could not. And, apparently, I have plenty of company. Other complete non-singers who, like myself, have suffered bouts with the voice's chief handicaps: fear, negative associations with singing and/or low self-esteem. What this has always meant for us, is a lot of squirming, foot shuffling and embarrassed mumbling, when somebody says "Let's get out the song books and gather 'round the piano."
My great salvation was in learning how to break those old, brittle molds and enjoy the self-expression of singing. And, it turns out, just about anybody can learn to sing reasonably well.
All it takes is a little raw nerve and temporary mortification.
"People will come up to me at parties and say, 'You know, I really wish I could sing. Not be great, maybe. But just know how to sing,'" says Alexandria voice teacher, Richard Hartzell, who, at age 37, has liberated mine and 300 to 400 other singers' souls.
"And I have to say to them, 'Well, you probably can,'" he nods, coloring his own rich baritone voice, then dropping it deeper -- for emphasis -- as he warms to a favorite theme.
"But they have this block. They've known, or thought they've known, all their lives, that they have a terrible singing voice. Maybe they've been razzed, or even told just to mouth the words because they didn't sound as well as others in a class group. So they've grown up thinking they have a terrible singing voice. And it just isn't true."
The idea, Hartzell believes is that to learn to sing, one first must begin to work the muscles that control breathing. Then, gradually, as those muscles get firmer and stronger, the tones improve, then quality of tones, then range. And before long, almost imperceptibly to students, they are singing.
In my case, no one had ever criticized my singing, because few had heard it.
I was plagued by blind fear. And what Hartzell calls the fixed-voice idea: mainly, that one's idea of the sound of his own voice is pretty well fixed, early in life. Mine was thin and small, with southern regional markings. Conversation tapes of myself would make me blanch.
All of which makes it less than feasible that I would voluntarily sign up for any course, even a beginning one, that went by the name of "Voice Production for Singing and Speech," as advertised in the theater newsletter. p
Still, there was "Chorus Line," nagging at me. And in between, a birthday, plunging me into thinking that there were, as I approached the mid-30s, still too many unfulfilled dreams that seemd to be slipping away. Lost to schedules and lack of motivation.
Most secret dream of all: Soar with Streisand.
Barring that, sing on key.
And so it was that I found myself among the dozen or so students in Hartzell's Monday-night class, sitting in the large green room with two huge pianos and big windows, at the Little Theatre of Alexandria building, in the heart of Old Town.
"Hello, I'm Richard Hartzell," he said, in a voice nothing less than pure velvet. He already had packed his 6-foot-plus frame onto one of the piano benches, and was warming up, as all of us who had paid the modest class fee filed in to choose a place in the wide semicircle of chairs before him.
"How many of you have sung before," he asked casually, smiling. A couple of students confirmed the worst. Yes, they had sung a little in church choir. And there were at least three well-known community theater actresses among the bunch of bureaucrats, housewives and businessmen. But mostly, we peeped, none of us had done this before.
"Well, it doesn't matter," he said, smiling again."Before you leave tonight, you'll each have sung solo." I glanced around me to see if anyone else's face showed signs that too much blood was rushing to their heads, as my own face burned. Mostly, there were just a lot of wide eyes, staring nervously ahead, at Hartzell, and sounds of heavy breathing.
Then, he began to explain about singing, by way of proper breathing. He made everyone sit up perfectly straight in their chairs and take deep breaths. Then he made us "make a low sound, any sound," that sounded simply God-awful. tBut at least it relieved some of the body tension. He talked about other technical aspects, sounds that emit from the chest voice, from the head voice, and how the sounds roll around inside before they come out at all. So far, so good.
We progressed beautifully for an hour. Moaning, groaning and humming right along together. Everybody was in the throes of private -- yet collective -- agony. Then there was a brief respite, where we all even began trying to listen to each other, so that the tones didn't clash quite so horribly. We relaxed slightly. A Department of Energy worker punched her fiance co-worker-now classmate, and smiled weakly. A mid-40s businessman smiled at a government secretary.
Then, "Let's begin on this side of the circle, and I want you to sing these notes, making a 'hey' or 'yay' sound," coaxed Hartzell.
Uh, oh. Solo time.
One by one, the exercise moved around to me, sitting squarely in the middle of the semi-circle. Past the actresses, Susan Palmer and Mary McGowan. Past J.R., a wavy-haired, amiable, 40s-plus man who likes the creative challenge of singing. Past a chic former model from Alexandria who has always wanted to be in a musical.
I kept thinking that somehow I wouldn't have to do the exercise. A big hole would open and swallow me up. The building would catch fire. I'd feel like throwing up, become ill, and have to leave without dishonor. Fat chance. l
I hyperventilated and couldn't get a sound out. Never had fear gripped me quite so unmercifully. I took a deep breath and started over. Something came out. I closed my eyes. In only a lifetime, the class was over.
The next week, we tried the same routine, and it felt almost as miserable. Only that time, as I started my way up the scale register, my voice cracked right in the middle. "Try it again. That's marvelous ," I heard Hartzell say. I thought he was joking. "You've made the break," he announced, grinning.
As the weeks progressed, he moved us easily into individual song study, each choosing material from a musical, and presenting it. He kept supporting me by exclaiming, "I can't believe you have so much uh, air in your lungs. You can develop real power as a singer, you know."
I kept supporting myself by recalling his words that confidence comes through practice -- or vocalizing . The day I blasted my first complete song in class was, indeed, a breakthrough. "Summertime," with my unique southern infliction. But, it was all mine.
Now, several months later, and well into my next level of study -- Beginner Two -- I am ready to consider some of Hartzell's other thoughts: The identity crisis that sometimes comes with growth. Some people can't adjust easily to the changes in their sounds.
"It's hard for some to get used to being so loud," he says, "either in speaking or singing," which almost always happens with skill. "Perhaps this is because it draws attention to them. Or maybe, they're afraid people will think them vain." Which, he says, is its own set of worries. "A new, deeper voice in a man, for instance, may produce his worry that people will think him pretentious. When, what's really happening, is that he's now speaking -- and singing -- in a much more flattering way."
As for myself, I'm not worried that people think me vain. I still don't sing on the subway, or out the window to strangers at traffic lights. But, secretly, I'm waiting for just the right part . . . just the right audition . . . that will bring me out of the classroom, into the limelight. After all, what do any of us have to lose except years of excess emotional baggage, fears and a few phobias?