My husband jokes, “The cows know the songs by now.”
He’s referring to a scene in the movie “City Slickers” in which Billy Crystal is trying to explain the basics of VCR recording to a friend who isn’t catching on. The two of them are on horseback, driving cattle, trotting along, and a rider behind them, who has been listening, shouts: “He doesn’t get it! He’ll never get it. It’s been four hours! The cows can tape something by now.”
And so it is with me and singing. If we had cows, they would know all the songs I practice, every syllable, every note. But hard as I try — and I try very hard — I do not.
I should. I practice all the time. I sing in the morning when I’m making coffee, during the day, no matter what I’m doing. I sing under my breath when I’m walking, thinking, working out. When I’m in my car, I don’t mind the traffic or a drive to Maine anymore because singing in the car is the best. I sing with gusto, free at last. But I mess up words and notes, and run out of breath, and swallow my vowels, and constantly land on my consonants.
I should really take up something else.
But I don’t want to. I love croaking out songs. I love memorizing words and notes and thinking about how they go together. I love discovering a second verse that is more beautiful than the first (“Once Upon a Time,” made popular by Tony Bennett, has a beautiful second half) and reading about composers and singers and listening to the different ways that different singers sing the same song. And realizing, too, how a singer can sing a song over the course of a lifetime and never change the words, but somehow change its meaning.
I’m like Zelda Fitzgerald trying to be a ballerina at an age when most dancers retire, doing scales the ways she did pliés, obsessively, diligently. But I don’t care. I used to worry that when I was dead, God would say to me, “You always had your head in a book, so why didn’t you read mine?” Now, instead of beating myself up for this and a whole host of other shoulda, woulda, couldas, lyrics fill my head — Isn’t it good? Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it great? Isn’t it swell? Isn’t it fun? — and the simple yet daunting task of getting them in the right order.
My teacher (I love saying “my teacher”) insists that singing is all about telling a story. And I understand this and think, “This is what I do. I can tell a story!”
But when I open my mouth and try, it’s not a story I’m telling at all because I’m thinking, not about bows and flows of angel hair, but about remembering the words and keeping to the rhythm and starting off low then getting into my head voice and not mixing up the stanzas and how a few years ago, I didn’t even know the term “head voice.”
But now I do and I love knowing, love stretching for notes I can’t quite reach but might someday, if I keep trying, this obsession like racquetball was when I was in my thirties, filling my head and my dreams, but not with kill shots. This time with song.
I took singing lessons for a year when I was a kid. My mother made me. I sang “Thee I Love” at Cozy’s Steak House in Avon.
Now here I am, a lifetime later, back at the beginning.
Only this time, I want to be here.