There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not anymore what you will become. It is what you are and always will be. – John Fowles
I keep thinking about a day that happened ten years ago. It was one of those days that everyone has – you look back at it, years later, and realize that it’s a day when everything changed. For better or for worse a string of events started like a string of dominoes falling, leading directly to where and who you are today.
Ten years ago I went to my voice lesson. I remember the light – one of those golden, warm afternoons you get in California in the summer months. At the end of the lesson, I sang through the aria we’d been working on for one last no-stopping go at it. It went well, and I left feeling pleased. But that’s nothing compared to how happy I was when I discovered my mother, who’d been waiting in the car, said she thought Page was the one who’d sung the last aria. My teacher, Page, worked for the SF Opera Chorus, and to be mistaken for a voice like that was, to me, incredible and what I most desired. Maybe my mother was just saying it to bolster up a teenager’s shaky self-confidence, and maybe she really meant it. I’m not sure and I don’t really want to know.
I don’t want to go into the deep psychological self-analysis that explains my history with vocal music, but I will say that high school choir did not go as I had hoped. I spent most of sophomore year and much of freshman year trying to prove that I had something to offer beyond the very ordinary. More than just a good ear. I wanted to show I had a gift. It made sense that the way I could hear the layers within a piece of music while also hearing the whole tapestry, the way I could correctly recreate the intervals in a melody no matter what the starting pitch or key signature change – it had to count for something. Between my expectations for myself, what I had seen other singers in the program experience, and what was expected of my learning curve by the choir director, the first few years of choir in high school were disappointing and at times hellish. Sophomore year was spent in a panic as the director tried to yank a voice out of me that simply didn’t exist yet and I desperately tried to find that voice and offer it up on the choral altar. My brother’s voice began to fall into place his sophomore year. Where was my breakthrough?
Sometimes I wonder if the breakthrough might have happened if I hadn’t been so scared and frustrated and panicked. If I hadn’t wanted that voice so badly. In choir class, I was constantly accused of listening to myself too much, which meant that I was effectively swallowing the sound, keeping it inside my head so I could analyze it and make sure it was okay. I suppose it’s a bit like thinking about a natural biological process. If you think too hard about how swallowing works, you’ll choke on your own tongue. When you want something as badly as I wanted that voice, it consumes you. There’s no point in telling yourself, as I did, that it’s a developmental thing outside of anyone’s control. In such situations, logic is not helpful.
When the director was harsh and angry with trying to force a vocal breakthrough, and vented his frustration at me, Page was there to provide confidence by reassuring me that I did indeed have some skill. When I felt like giving up, Page refused to let me go. I wasn’t an easy student by any means – being unhappy, frustrated, and pigheadedly stubborn, I fought her every step of the way. But she pushed. Hard. Under her care, I went from alto to mezzo-soprano with an unusually wide range. To this time, I have yet to recover the range I had in warm-ups with Page. She encouraged me to pursue singing outside of school, which led me to the Stanford Savoyards. Eventually, when I did finally reach the top level choir in the high school, I was tormented by having to decide between the choir, which I had desired for years, and the Savoyards, who were far less skilled (no offense meant, folks) but had shown that they valued my participation. Page helped me decide, and the choice was the right one. She helped me with the music for class.
Voice teachers fill this strange category – they are musicians, athletic coaches, performance coaches, and therapists. Page and my weekly hour with her kept me going when everything seemed grey and I seriously questioned my few long-term goals.
This is why that one lesson ten years ago is a fulcrum in my life. That reassurance, that I could be mistaken for a professional (at a distance, and from a biased source, but still), bolstered what little self-confidence I had. Page was a constant source of positive reinforcement. Hard work – I remember feeling sweat running down my back during lessons more than once – but positive reinforcement.
She kept me singing and encouraged me to try the Savoyards. By joining the Savoyards I gained confidence which let me to apply to Stanford. Which leads me first to Special Collections at Stanford, then to the history department at SFSU, and finally to here, pursuing a library degree.
And, by the way, still singing. On my own time and on my own dime now, but still singing. And every time I open my mouth to start the familiar exercises, I think of Page.