fear-of-singing-e1361318916855

Deep Throat #3: On Being and Unbeing A Singer

By

It would be easy and satisfying to say that I stopped singing because of the crack in my throat. It would be false. It’s true enough that there was one. There was a fight with a lover that turned ugly, a forearm pressed hard across my throat
, into the angle of my jaw, until everything went black. My throat ached for weeks. The doctor I finally consulted said it seemed that the little box of cartilage in which we keep our voices, the larynx, had been fractured.

It silenced me for a while, and in more than one way: I have never written about it before now, and only a few of my friends have known. But cartilage knits back together readily enough. The person responsible was guilty of many things, but delivering the coup de grace to my life as a musician was not, in fact, one of them. Yet the experience of violence is never so tidily separable a thing as they like to make it out to be on daytime television. What you survive gets built into the bird’s nest of your soul and the eggs of your future get laid in it, like it or not.

At the time of the crack in my throat I had never not been a singer. I became a singer so young I can’t remember how it happened. Talent, I suppose, and happenstance. I had a gift for it, it was fun, it was easy to be very good at it, adults praised me for it. In the artsy-intellectual middle class of my parents’ households, the pursuit of classical music was close to unimpeachable. For a fat, bookish child who had a hard time fitting in, whose parents were often absorbed in their own quite legitimate problems, who was desperate to be taken seriously, having a life as a serious musician was a godsend. It got me praised and recognized, sometimes even by my parents. My voice was my gift. It was my job to make something of it.

image-1The clock, however, runs out on that praise and recognition, and in many ways on the fun. As an adult among other classical musicians, the vocation is nothing special, nor is your gift enough to secure your place. You’re just a deeply nerdy person with a weird, high-stress job.

Love is assumed, in a classical musician. Joy sometimes enters into it. But fun is the mark of the amateur. If you’re a professional classical musician, you’re expected to love music, love it so much you’d rather sell your own mother to the glue factory than do anything else. You need to, because you’re going to have to bust your ass on a daily basis, because it’s the only way you’re ever going to be impressive enough to make it. This is not, in fact, fun.

By the time I got that crack in my throat I had a couple of decades of professional performance behind me, degrees in hand from two of the country’s top music schools, a reputation for singing every thorny new score anyone threw at me with its ink still wet, and the gathering, uneasy awareness that love was not enough and I was never going to be impressive.

There were, of course, reasons. Some were my fault, some weren’t. Some were things I could change, others not. At the bottom of it all was the fact that in many ways singing scared me. It still does. I was taught to value classical music precisely because it was high-minded and “pure,” its rarefied beauty to be considered carefully, thoughtfully by those with the ears and the minds to do so. Except, of course, that it is not. It is art and thus it is messy. It takes the human blood and wildness of us, our yearning and our pain, and pours it out in a way that effortlessly snaps the leash and collar of intellect and objectivity. Singing does it more immediately, more viscerally, than anything.

The singer’s job, I was once told in a master class, is to be a tree whose rustling leaves are evidence of the moving breath of God. Singers take what is written in the score and let it live through us, give it flesh and breath. If it is to be any good it must be real, as genuinely ours as the sensations of the voice in our chests and throats, or the audience will never feel those emotions, those experiences, as their own. For some people this is joyful second nature. For me, being so open a channel is exhilarating, yes, but terrifying, with a feeling of forced exposure and real, burnt-cheeked shame. I have never experienced stage fright. But for years I had nightmares of walking on stage nude, which was not so bad until a stagehand lifted the skin and fat and muscle of my torso away like a turtle’s shell, my guts glistening red and purple and hideous for all to see as I tried to sing.

image-2Intellect helped keep my shell on, my insides in. This was not a good thing. Music is a sophisticated, smart game. But musical intelligence is a visceral one, skills and aesthetics and intuitions born of endless practice and coaching, not the abstracted one of intellect, and in any case it always takes a back seat to sound.

This is especially so for singers. Truly great voices are freaks of nature. If what’s in a singer’s throat is the equivalent of a Stradivarius, he can have cottage cheese between his ears and few will care.  That’s what teachers and coaches are for. (Pavarotti, infamously, could barely read music.) What hinders a singer’s career is too much thinking, not too little, as if there were room in a human head for either resonance or brains but not both. French composer Francis Poulenc gave voice to the thoughts of many when he wrote, in his Diary of My Songs, “I prefer a pretty, stupid voice to a pseudo-intelligent singer.”

My pretty voice was not stupid. I couldn’t bear it to be. Diving into angular and difficult modern works, singing in languages like Polish and Catalan, and digging into musicology soothed my emotional unease. The congenial abstractions of intellect, of which I clearly had a disgraceful abundance, also helped me cope with the painful fallout of the other thing I had in similar measure, namely me.

You may keep your jokes about fat ladies singing. The fact is that stupidity is far more likely to be tolerated, in the classical world. Have no doubt, opera especially likes its lady singers curvy: Christina Hendricks could rule the operatic firmament had she but a voice to match the tits and ass. But superstars like Jessye Norman and Montserrat Caballé are openly, gleefully nicknamed “Just Enormous” and “Monsterfat Cowbelly.” Winners of major international vocal competitions, are often counseled to “invest in their careers” by spending their prize money on liquid diets or weight-loss surgery, despite the well-known risk that rapid weight loss may damage the voice. Lesser lights, like myself, are simply stuck knowing that if there is a slimmer and prettier singer who can sing the same piece approximately as well shows up, you may as well not audition. Even opera workshops, a mainstay of singers’ training, were a lot like grade school kickball games: I was picked reluctantly and last if at all. What I could sing was irrelevant. What I was apparently plausible as were middle-aged governesses and stepsisters, those dull, time-honored refuges of the portly and the plain. Even when I did succeed in losing some weight, I was never sufficiently not fat for anything else. It hurt like hell.

Not that I let anyone see it. You don’t struggle, in the world of professional music. In the words of the great sage of Dagobah, you “do or do not, there is no ‘try’.” I did. I aggressively grew my intellectual skin, hung out with the composers, sought out music no one had ever sung before and languages nobody else would attempt. I did those things and I did them well.

image-3They were not enough, though, and never would be. I knew that well before the crack in my throat.  But what else was there to do but try? I had this voice, this gift. It was, and always had been, my job to make something of it.

Then my throat got cracked. My gift was gone, and with it, my obligation. By the light that came through that crack I could see, quite plainly, that I had mistaken duty for drive, convinced myself that the habit I’d been in since childhood was the hunger I knew a musician was supposed to have.  When I couldn’t sing, I was relieved. Queasily, miserably traitorous—musicians are meant to suffer for their art, not abandon it—but relieved. When you can’t sing you don’t have to try. I hesitantly began to admit to myself that I didn’t actually have to keep trying even if I could. When my voice grew back it was just a voice. Still beautiful, yes, but not a contract or a sentence or a sign from God, and I began to let it go.

I wasn’t brave enough to just call it quits. I stopped singing the way a boat stops moving after its motor has been cut, a long slow loss of momentum that ends in the awkward, sluggish remembrance of inertia. Unplanned, unannounced, it took several years for me to let my failure complete itself, for my throat to close, not once imagining that that one day I would want to crack it open again, out of longing and love, with my own bare hands.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Hanne Blank (www.hanneblank.com) is a writer, historian, and educator whose work lies at the intersection of body, self, and culture. Trained as a classical mezzo-soprano at New England Conservatory, Indiana University School of Music, and Tanglewood, she feels that those who cannot figure out what the connections are between her musical career and her literary one probably just need to go to the opera more often. She currently splits her time between north-central Massachusetts and Atlanta, Georgia. More from this author →