"I think it heals the soul," she whispers, as if a secret.
"I think it does too, Aunt." I reply.
My Aunt Mary Lou and I are on the phone. We're talking about singing instead of addressing her daughter, who is dying of cancer. My aunt needs a break.
"Do you still sing, Bethy?"
Hearing "Bethy" always warms my heart. It's my child name.
"Yes, Aunt. I do. I sang with a choir for the last few years. I even sang a solo once."
(Me singing with a small group ensemble in Brooklyn's Bella Voce. It's an Emily Dickinson poem put to music. I'm one of the two altos.)
"Really!" my Aunt Mary Lou exclaims. "Well, isn't that wonderful. How about now?"
"Well, it's kind of...stupid. It's...I just sing karaoke sometimes at the local bar here."
"That's not stupid, Bethy. That's practice."
I smile, wiping away a wandering tear. My cousin is my age. She had a routine gall bladder surgery and found cancer. Lots of it. Suddenly, she has weeks to live.
"It is practice, Aunt. I'm not sure for what but..."
"Life. It's practice for life."
Back in the day, my mother and father, my aunts and uncles, would sing all night long, if you let them. That's when people were more full of goodness, it seemed; content with sitting around a kitchen table until the wee hours, connecting, conversing, debating, joking, laughing, singing songs - just being simpler and happier. Before computers. Before cell phones. Before a million TV channels. Before the great disconnect.
(My family sitting around singing in 1971. That's me at 4 singing in the background.)
Occasionally the gang would go out to a local piano bar, sipping the same drink all night and singing until their voices became hoarse whispers the next day. I loved watching the women prepare for their big night out - coral lipstick, bright floral patterns, hairspray...layers and layers of hairspray.
"I am sixteen, going on seventeen," I'd sing. (Although I was 34 going on 35.)
"I enjoy being a girl!" I'd meekly proclaim.
"Louder, with feeling. Sing it out, Bethy!" she'd demand, a Kool cigarette dangling out of her mouth.
"Come on, Aunt, please. I'm not very good."
"What the hell does that matter? Just sing! You're too damn shy."
(Interestingly enough, coming from a pretty rowdy bunch, I'm still considered the wallflower.)
I'm not a singer. I love to sing. There's a difference. Being around real musicians most of my adult life, I've realized how difficult it is to sing well. I've studied it, I've practiced it and yet, because my ear is pretty darn good, I hear when I'm doing something wrong and can't always correct it.
That used to eat me up inside. I wanted to sing 100% well or not at all. Singing can make you feel very vulnerable, soul bare. The chance of singing even a little badly was just too much of a risk. My fiery self-loathing wouldn't allow me.
Now, I embrace my imperfections...or I try to. Now I sing because it "heals the soul" as my Aunt Mary Lou puts it...and I need some serious soul healing. Singing is expressive and sweet and good. And my self-judgment has died down and been replaced by a more immediate desire to purge and release.
Now I sing to feel lighter and more magical.
Often, it's me in my room, which is a little awkward; you know others can occasionally hear when you decide to unleash (it's not really therapeutic singing unless its loud and heartfelt) then you remind yourself, "What the fuck do I care?" Then that becomes part of it, singing in the face of self-consciousness and not worrying who hears. Exposing your voice - it's more naked than nudity.
Once my friend went after my throat, as a joke, like she was going to strangle me. I was very sad at the time and the second her hands reached my neck, I started sobbing. That area was just so loaded with energy. It's the place where I express and all of my emotions were bottled up and stuck there. It was then I realized the importance of your voice as a form of release. It's very personal. And singing, very therapeutic.
I was lucky to sing with New York's Bella Voce (directed by the amazing and fierce Jessica Corbin) but here, at the Jersey shore, the pickings are kind of slim. So it's karaoke. None of my friends will go with me. It's stupid and corny and they want no part of it.
And they are spot on: it is all of those things. And then some! At times, it's a surreal circus that would make David Lynch bow his head in reverence and confusion.
Oh well, who gives a shit what they think, my tough Aunt Mary Lou says, her voice woven deeply into my being now, after years of indoctrination.
I agree...so much that I've decided to share (hands shaking a bit) several pieces of me singing karaoke at The Gateway Inn in Ship Bottom, New Jersey. The sound quality is a little poor...but it is karaoke after all.
(Leo Sayer, singing the song maybe a little better than me. Okay, a lot. But note, his open-throated sound and dead-on diction. That's solid technique. )
(After the host Gary introduced me to a better mike.)