The leaves on the trees
Iâ€™ve been singing since I could, singing at school, singing at church, singing around the house. As a little girl warbling in choirs and choruses, as a teenager taping myself wailing along with pop songs on the radio, as a tortured young adult driving around gripping the wheel melodramatically and staring into the middle distance belting out my choice on the car stereo, singing has been a constant.
Itâ€™s been an unstudied constant, save those few years in school choruses. That training was the most basic possible, and ultimately couched in the safety of many voices. When I got old enough to try out for county chorus, I was very excited until they told me I had to sing â€śGod Bless Americaâ€ť by myself. In front of everyone. I stood on the worn linoleum next to the beaten down upright piano and squeaked and blushed and generally wished the earth would swallow me at that precise moment. It did not, and I did not make it into county chorus, and that was nearly the end of my â€śtraining.â€ť I did sign up for a semester of beginning voice for non-music majors in college, but I dropped it after a few sessions. The instructor was openly hostile to non-music majors since we could not be counted upon to take our training seriously enough. She asked us to arrive 45 minutes prior to (our 9 a.m.) class to warm up in a practice room. I had a 30-minute commute and a night job. Goodbye, voice training.
When I was in childrenâ€™s choir at church, they basically had the girls sing soprano and the boys sing alto. In school chorus, the instructor at least listened enough to realize that putting me in the soprano section was fairly useless unless the piece called for a lot of uncontrolled squeaking. In the approximately three beginning-voice-for-non-music-majors classes I attended before I took the hint, I was told (somewhat haughtily) that the instructor could not begin to classify our voices for several weeks. I resigned myself to never knowing how experts would categorize my voice, not caring, and singing along with whatever I wanted to anyway.
In the fall of 2008 I first heard shape note singing, as performed by a local group. My reaction to it was strong, not just because it was new and unusual, but for another harder-to-define reason. When I learned the local group – and in fact the whole tradition of shape note singing – was open for anyone to come sing and learn with them any time, I got the information needed and went. Unfortunately the timing was poor, and other circumstances in my life stopped me going more than about twice. In the fall of 2009 I attended the same showcase of American traditional music and heard the singers again, reminding me of something I had not really forgotten, but that had slipped aside. It was January of this year before I finally got myself back, but this time Iâ€™ve stayed. Itâ€™s been a valuable chance to learn about this tradition, to meet great new people, and to enjoy singing with a group again.
When you are new to the shape note tradition, youâ€™ll often be seated with the tenors, as that line tends to be the closest to the main melody of the song. It is a good way to start learning the songs overall, and learn to hear how the different parts fit together. Until a few weeks ago I sang the tenor part, except for the times when we would all sing another part together as a teaching exercise. There was some discussion in the second half of the sing that week, which led to a suggestion that I try singing with the alto line.
When I sat there and sang the alto part, it was like the first time I put on glasses and realized I could see leaves on the trees. If youâ€™ve never needed glasses Iâ€™m not sure how else to describe it, this overwhelming sense that you had been missing something obvious all along. Of course when I got glasses, I knew intellectually that there were leaves on the trees, because I had been close enough to a tree to see them individually. When I was singing tenor, I knew intellectually that a lower part would probably be easier for me to sing.
When I first put on glasses thirty years ago, it was like discovering a secret everyone else shared that Iâ€™d been missing out on. When I sang alto with the group, it was like discovering that the hard-to-define reason the music had struck me so deeply wasnâ€™t so hard to define after all. It was the power of singing for sheer love of it, the wonderful feeling of all those voices rising together so strong you can feel it physically. Itâ€™s there behind your sternum, itâ€™s there in the soles of your feet. Itâ€™s outside of skill, outside of training, though itâ€™s not outside of work. This kind of music has given me a kind of permission, to work hard at singing regardless of skill or judgement, but just for its own joyous reward.
My point is not to denigrate all vocal training; those born with a gift can find deep rewards with an astute teacher, in singing as in so many things. It is instead to free myself and anyone else who ever ran up against anyone like my beginning-voice-for-non-music-majors instructor from the idea that singing should be something closed to you. Even those born without great gift can sing with great spirit, and that is still a valuable thing.