Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Judges and the Storyteller

My early life was full of singing. Rounds in the car with my mom and sisters, Christmas carols learning the alto from my mom, The Fireside Book of Folksongs with my sister on the piano, guitar songs around the campfire, high school choir. I always thought I had a pretty good voice.

But I was carrying some judges around with me.


I sang in the chorus at my high school. One day they announced auditions for the lead roles in Oklahoma. Wow, I thought, I’m going to try for this. Maybe I’m good enough. At least I can find out.

They didn’t really say what an audition entailed. I think they assumed we’d done it before. The choir director mentioned where to find the sheet music in the music office, but I didn’t know why he was talking about that. I knew how to prepare.

I spent the week zealously protecting my voice, not going out in the snow to keep from getting a cold.

I thought I was going to be evaluated on how good my voice was. How good? How pure, how exactly on pitch, how pretty. I was going to find out if my voice was good or bad.

Audition day, and the others had all learned a song from the musical. I had no idea you were supposed to do that. I was embarrassed, but the nice music teacher helped me sight-read my way through “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Whew.

The judges

Fast forward to my first voice lessons. I’ve been singing in various contexts all my life. Now I’m starting to perform as a duo with my friend Paul, and I want to bring my singing to a new level. My teacher, Linda Leanne, is the perfect coach for me. She believes in supporting the whole self as you sing: body, emotions, fears, joys, power.

So here I am, in the safe warm studio with Linda smiling at me, trying to sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” And my heart is in my throat.

Because before I can work on breathing techniques or jazzy style, I have to face those judges.

Who are they? They’re dressed in black. They’re men with stern faces. They’re sitting in a row at a table, ready to mark an X if I’m not good enough. It will either be good or bad—there’s no middle ground.

I sing the song, but I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I’m scared.

And the storyteller

And a revelation: Linda doesn’t tell me if it was good or bad. She asks me, “What do you want people to feel as they listen to you sing this song?”

People? Feel?


Well. I want them to feel wistful. I want them to remember the joy of a past relationship. I want them to laugh a little.

“Try it again.”

And the song that comes out next is completely different. The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea…

Why am I singing? I’m singing to help people feel something. To draw them into my world and take them along with me. To tell a story.

So how is it different?

When I’m standing in front of the judges, even though this mode is named after them, my focus is all on me. I stand stock-still. It’s all about the sound I’m making, this isolated sound. I funnel in on myself, tightening my throat in a desperate attempt to control my voice and make it sound good. When it cracks a bit because I have allergy gunk in my throat, I want to cry. At the end, I barely remember what I was singing.

When I’m the storyteller, even though the mode is named after me, my focus is much wider. Part of me is inside the story: the memory of that dance, the way you changed my life… Part of me is paying attention to my body, to my feet moving on the ground, to my belly holding my power, to my breath moving through my throat. Part of me is meeting eyes in the audience, expressing the feelings to them. It’s all about the energy swirling back and forth, connecting me to my listeners.

And if my voice cracks, it’s very likely to help the mood. To help it. This is unbelievable to me.

Is it good?

That’s not the question. The questions are, “How expressive was I?” “How much did I stay in the story?” What physical and emotional tools can I use to help myself do that? It’s a continuum. There’s always more to learn.

That first lesson was almost three years ago. I continue to joyfully work with Linda Leanne. I’m still playing in that flow of energy between me and my listeners. I’m playing with each word. I’m playing with melody. I’m playing with my face. I’m playing with my body stance.

I’m playing with the stories.

Here’s a story (with my wonderful singing partner Paul accompanying and supporting me). It’s not perfect, though I like it fine. The important thing is that I didn’t sing it for the judges. I sang it for you.