“When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”
Rumor has it that when I was a toddler, I was a happy girl. I was intimate friends with every tree in the park near Minnehaha Falls, hugging as many of them hello as I could before I was dragged away by my parents each visit. My dad has the old photos to prove it.
I also apparently never stopped singing. Ever.
It wasn’t a big surprise to anyone when I declared – around three years old – that I was going to be an artist, a writer and a musician when I grew up.
And, for a long time, my family assumed this would come to be.
At three and four years old I attended art classes at the U of M with my art major aunt. I delighted in drawing, like the art students, the things I knew best. I liked drawing the things I saw every day. The professor laughed as I solemnly submitted my version of the assignments – myriad drawings of socks, feet, ankles, the undersides of nostrils towering over frightening teeth in twisted smiling mouths. I was an artist.
I began writing stories around this same time illustrating them with my misshapen drawings. (I had started reading very early, devouring encyclopedias by Kindergarten.)
I knew the pictures in my handwritten and stapled stories looked even better than that famous artist that my aunt and her friends studied, the one who drew people with mixed up faces. I knew my drawings had meaning and insight, inviting people into a little understood world of small people. The fact that my people had seven or eight fingers on each hand was of little consequence. My stories were insightful, telling of riveting things like the journey of a child perfume-maker who strove to become rich from her Lilies of the Valley / water / last-dregs-from-her-father’s-beer-can concoctions. My stories told of a responsible girl who saved the world by babysitting a younger brother and a baby sister while the mother lie in bed deathly ill and the grandmother watched TV and knitted. I was a writer.
I continued to sing everywhere and anywhere.
I composed my own version of the “Happy Birthday” song – featuring a monstrous background of triplets over the top of solid chords in Kindergarten, having learned music theory before any instrument. This was a byproduct, I suppose, of being able to read well and having a penchant for nerdy intellectual things.
I so desperately ached to be recognized as special, as intelligent.
By elementary school, I sang old-fashioned Baptist hymns in our very Missouri Synod Lutheran church in three-part harmony with my mom and sister for the special music portion of the services. I sang in the choir at school, in the children’s choir at church and, for several years, in a Twin Cities wide youth honor choir. I also taught myself to play piano with a few helpful hints from my grandmother who had, before she married my grandfather, trained to be a concert pianist.
In Fifth Grade, I discovered the flute. (Enter a new world to be conquered.)
I stopped singing with my voice, instead I channeled my feelings and emotions through this elegant piece of metal. I began babysitting to pay for lessons as my parents did not have the means or inclination for them. And, there were no books I could find that would teach me about intonation. I began obsessively playing six to eight hours a day and soon began outperforming my instructor. A recommendation, an interview and an audition got me a coveted spot studying with Emil Niosi from the MN Orchestra. He only worked with six to eight students at a time. He had gone to Juliard, studied in Paris and was friends with James Galway. I was enraptured ( and even more dedicated.)
A couple of years with Mr. Niosi and we were talking Eastman School of music for me (Juliard). I played in the Marching Band, the Pep Band, the Orchestra, the Jazz band, the concert band and a wind ensemble. Some concert music was seriously chosen to highlight me (the Nutcracker Suite and Peter and the Wolf specifically.) I began regularly playing flute for our church and other people’s churches. I composed holiday music for services, pretentious things like “The Virgin Birth of Christ / Mary’s Lament: A Christmas Suite for Pipe Organ, Flute and Bassoon.”
I was waiting to hear back about my audition for Eastman when I crushed my hand in an accident.
I shattered the bone that connects your thumb and first finger to the rest of your hand. At that time (I don’t know if it would be different today), my hand was deemed inoperable. It was in a cast three months. It didn’t heal (maybe because I would not stop playing piano) and required a second cast for a second three months.
The high school hired a professional musician to cover my solos in the Christmas concert.
And then came a soft hand brace.
The high school hired the same musician to cover the solos they had expected me to play in the spring concert.
In all, my hand was immobilized for nearly a year.
When I was done with the ordeal, I had no muscle tone left. Joint material in some fingers was gone. There was no money for physical therapy. (“Well, just keep squeezing the tennis ball. That will help.”)
And I was done singing – with my elegant metal, the piano, my voice or anything else. It was too painful.
I was not a musician anymore.
After high school, I got a job in a nursing home assisting a recreational therapist. After confirming rumors about my musical background, she assigned me to spend the majority of the time assisting the music therapist. But… every time my fingers touched the piano keyboard, every time I had to lead a sing along, my voice would crack and the vestiges of my broken heart would leak out of my eyes.
I quit that job.
I began waitressing, going to college.
After a time, I started once again to dream and…
I dared to sign up for voice lessons. I was not the most brilliant student. I was emotional. I had trouble controlling my head voice. My vocalizations were rather, as my professor put it, “airy.”
But, I did it. I sang in front of people.
No one ran away. No one was sympathetic. No one brought up how it was too bad the Juliard thing never came to fruition.
I started to have hope.
When no one was around, I permitted myself to hum and, on occasion, sing along with the radio.
I met, dated, became engaged to and married my husband.
I continued to hum and sing in private.
The world kept turning and soon our daughter was born.
Taken back to that innocent world of little people, of hope and dreams, innocence and purity, one night, I sang to my daughter as I rocked her to sleep.
“Hush little baby don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…”
Towards the end of the song, I noticed my husband standing in the doorway.
Shyly smiling, I trepidatiously began a song from my long-ago childhood.
“The life of a voyageur, that of a sojourner. Travels around and round, but not from town to town. He travels the lakes and streams, follows his distance dreams….”
“Really?” My husband interrupted.
He started laughing. “Are you trying to put her to sleep or scare her? I came in here because it sounded like a dying cat.”
I did not sing again for 19 years.
But… two years ago, my husband moved out.
And… (she admits shyly while blushing…)
… a year ago, I started singing along with the radio when I am alone in the car.
And… (she admits shyly while blushing…)
… a few months ago, I started singing – sometimes loudly – along with the hymns in church.
And… (she admits somewhat proudly…)
… This morning I even sang harmony.