The first time I heard a Carolina wren sparked a long, personal curiosity about voice, particularly when I finally saw that the creature producing such tremendous sound was only 3 inches tall.
That spritely bird made projection and pitch seem effortless. In my life, at least since elementary school, pleasant singing seemed inaccessible.
Over the years some encouraging glimpses came my way about the natural gift of singing. Remember the scene in The Gods Must Be Crazy (the Coke bottle movie) when African villagers harmonize spontaneously at the doors of their huts, voices as bright as their dress? They seemed to find their way into song by birthright, a universal potential cultivated in their culture. It flowed like a conversation close to the heart.
Another memorable film celebrated music rising freely out of daily living in our own country – Say Amen, Somebody, a documentary on the origins of Gospel singing in households and churches, formalized by Reverend Thomas Dorsey.
I heard Lou Harrison say in a radio interview that his symphonic compositions sought to emulate the sublime qualities of the human voice. He reversed my previous hierarchy of instruments, to give voice primacy.
I wanted to sing. This year the right teacher* came along to deconstruct various blocks and light the way. She advised that “the joy pathway is less familiar for you, but the more times you take it, the more established it becomes….Befriend the feeling of vulnerability.”
About the same time Theatre in the Pines director Nan Webber announced “We’re doing Cabaret in September. You’ll be playing Herr Schultz, and you’re going to sing.”
My musical début included three solo/duets in the fabulous acoustics of the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Since Herr Schultz is more a dramatic than melodic role it was a satisfying beginning.
I discovered how perfectly a good song can lend itself to emotion. Seldom as an actor have I experienced a character’s core more fully than through the avenue of these songs, a release into the channel of breath and recognition.
In a follow-up opportunity I joined the Cape Ann Symphony Singers in rehearsal for their holiday concert last weekend. I learned that I am a baritone. My voice coach recorded a piano accompaniment for practice and confidence. Choral artist Wendy Betts shaped sixty-two of us into an inspired program.
On the wall a quotation from Plato pointed to our reward: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”
Just before we filed on stage Wendy reminded us to listen to the voices to either side of us, and sing to the tops of our heads. A full orchestra was poised to accompany us with its wealth of sound. The director raised his baton. The “pinch me” moment flowed into performance.
We concluded our program with “Believe”, from the movie Polar Express:
Believe in what your heart is saying,
Hear the melody that’s playing.
There’s no time to waste,
There’s so much to celebrate.
The next day as time approached to don my tuxedo for the matinee, this Carolina wren appeared outside the window.
*Isabella Bates, Voice Coach