On Being a Singer
My parents often told me that I sang before I spoke. Apparently, I sang all of my words for quite a while. This is not surprising at all, if you know my upbringing. My dad came from a musical family. One of his uncles played in vaudeville, and I am lucky enough to own his tenor banjo. Another of his uncles played piano and organ in silent movie houses. My grandmother had a baby grand piano in her house and played mostly classical music on it. My brother, cousins and I loved playing underneath that piano. I especially loved it when someone was playing. Then, I was surrounded by its beautiful sound. There was always singing happening at my grandparents' house and also in ours. I don't remember ever not hearing music around the house. My dad was always singing, songs from his childhood, family favorites and more contemporary songs. By the time I was three, I was singing rounds and harmonies and soon moved to singing descants, which are counter melodies. Even my mother sang to me, out of key and making up her own melodies and lyrics, but I didn't mind. I loved it when she sang me lullabies at night.
In addition to my own family, my mother's best friend's family were also musical. They were from Scotland and sang Scottish ballads, classical and church music. They often babysat for me when I was young. "Aunt Meg" would stand me on their dining room table and have me sing to her. And, they taught me their favorite songs, which I sang with a Scottish brogue. It seemed as though everywhere I went I was surrounded by song. It was so much a part of my early life, it quickly became an integral part of my essence.
Singing got me through my hellish high school and early adulthood experiences. It was my shelter from all storms. It got me through the abuse in my family. When I sat at the piano and sang, everyone left me alone. My mom used to say that she could tell what kind of a day I'd had at school by listening to the music I played when I got home. And she could tell when it was okay to engage me by the way the music changed as I played. Music has always saved me.
I got my first paying gig when I was 16. I had been studying classical voice and was soon getting paid to do weddings and church gigs. When I met my husband in 1974, after having been gigging for quite a few years, he asked me not to sing with him because "it threw him off." I hadn't yet learned how to turn off the classical tone. His sister soon set him straight, and we became a duo. He was a great guitar player and knew a lot of songs. He also had a great stage presence, which I was lacking at that time. We had a variety of band members over the years on both the east and west coasts. We wrote songs together and sang beautiful harmonies together. But, the relationship was difficult and we eventually split up, after 20 years of marriage.
When I knew I was moving out, I stood out on my back porch and said out loud, to no one in particular, "I need a guitar. I'm getting $200 on Monday and need it to come with a case. Oh, a tuner would be nice, too." This was a Friday afternoon. I knew that if I was going to continue to perform, I would need to learn to play an instrument. I had toyed around on guitar in high school and played classical piano, but now I needed to be able to back up my main instrument - my voice. That Monday evening, our neighbor came over carrying his cousin's guitar that was for sale. He thought that since we were musicians, we might know someone who was interested. It was $200 and came with a case and a tuner. As soon as I moved out, I booked a gig and called on my friends to help out. I played some songs alone and some with friends and got through the whole night.
I've never considered myself an instrumentalist, though now I play guitar, mandolin, banjo, piano and mountain dulcimer. I'm a singer who plays a few other instruments. I've always been a singer and can't imagine not singing. I have songs for every subject and used to drive my kids crazy by singing at the mention of something completely random that reminded me of a song. I'm sure I will do that until the end of my life. When my mother had a massive stroke, and my brother and I were directed to keep her as calm and still as possible while they administered a certain medicine for over an hour, my first instinct was to start singing to her, and it worked. When she had no way to communicate because of aphasia and could no longer recognize letters or even know what they were, leaving out the possibility of pointing to letters as a means of communication, I sang all of my conversations to her. It was like being in an opera. I'd learned about this form of music therapy that rewires the brain to access language from the music side, and to a small degree, it worked. Unfortunately, the damage to her brain was so extensive, there was not a lot that could be done.
When I am sad or stressed, angry or worried, I turn to singing. Listening to music or playing an instrument doesn't have the same effect on me that singing does. Singing is in me, it is part of my core, and I don't know what I would do without it. I sang at my children's births, and I hope, when the time comes I will be singing myself into my own death. At the very least, I hope someone will sing to me or with me at the end.
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