Monday, January 31, 2011

I Hate to Sing-a, About the Moon-a or the June-a or the Spring-a

I was a music major in college, jazz studies, if we're going to be specific about it.  My primary (okay, only) instrument was trumpet, but as is the case with all music majors, I had to take methods classes in woodwinds, strings and percussion.  This presented all sorts of problems because as it turns out, the skills required to play the trumpet don't transfer so well to the contra-bassoon, the glockenspiel or the eight-string banjamagoggin[1].  The instrumental method classes were tolerable, though, because even though we sounded like crap when trying to play unfamiliar instruments, everyone was in the same musical predicament.  Trumpet players sounded crappy on clarinet, flute players sounded crappy on violin, and everyone sounded crappy on oboe, because it's impossible NOT to sound crappy on oboe.  Even if you're an oboe player.

There was one class, though, that all the instrumental majors hated with a passion usually reserved for serial killers and game show hosts.  The voice class.  We were instrumentalists, for crying out loud.  Real musicians!  We can't sing, nor do we want to.  But to get a degree in music, everyone has to pass a voice class, no way around it.  Thankfully, and probably so the voice majors wouldn't have to listen to us, there was a class called "Vocal Methods for Instrumental Majors".  A more accurate title might have been, "You Don't Want to Be Here, We Don't Want You Here, But it's a Requirement So Let's Make the Best of It 101".

In a voice class full of nothing but instrumental majors, there's no pressure at all.  Since everyone sucks to the same degree, there's no need to feel ashamed of your lack of vocal prowess.  If anything, stepping out of one's comfort zone creates a certain camaraderie, and going through this experience together helps forge a common bond, which makes the whole process a hell of a lot of fun.

But I wouldn't know anything about that, because I didn't enroll in "Vocal Methods for Instrumental Majors."  You see, due to a scheduling conflict, I had to take an English Composition course that met at the exact same time as the voice class.  To meet the voice requirement for my major, the dean of the music department allowed me to take a different class.

Vocal Methods for Voice Majors.

So the first day of class, there I was, a jazz trumpet player who hadn't sung in public since my first grade Christmas performance (Twelve Days of Christmas, I was a French hen) in a classroom full of collegiate-level opera divas, Madrigal singers, and up-and-coming Broadway stars.  I didn't want to draw attention to myself, so I resisted the urge to stand up and say something like "Okay, listen up, songbirds!  I'm not a singer, I just need to meet the course requirement.  Just bear with me, let me get my C-minus, and I'll be out of your lives forever!"  Instead, I tried to keep a low profile.

But the truth was bound to come out eventually.

The class met three times a week.  On Monday, we'd select our song and work on it individually.  On Wednesday, the pianist would be available to coach us and provide accompaniment.  Friday, of course, was "recital day," the highlight of the week when we'd all go over to the Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Center and perform our song for the class and other guests.

I knew I was in trouble the very first Friday.

The students, all thirty of us, entered the palatial music hall and took our seats in the first couple rows.  Much to my horror, about fifty other students had also stopped by to check out the recital.  It was the instrumental majors, who were just dying to see me make a complete and utter mezzo-idiot of myself in public.

The pianist took her seat at the Steinway baby grand and Dr. LaFontaine, the instructor, welcomed the audience and got the performance underway.  "Okay, would anyone like to volunteer to open the show?" she asked.

"I'll go first," said one of the tenors.  I think his name was Luciano.  Or Placido.  Something Italian and snooty-sounding.  He was wearing slacks, a tuxedo shirt, and a black blazer.  With a bow tie.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for attending tonight's performance," he said, even though it was 1:00 in the afternoon.  "I'll be performing Puccini's Che Gelida Manina, from La Boheme."

It was beautiful.  Fluid melodic passages, crisp arpeggios, sustained delicate high notes that resonated in the deepest corners of the concert hall.  When he stopped singing, his voice bounced around for an extra two minutes.

Next up was a soprano named Suzanna Van Horne who, in addition to being a talented opera singer attending college on a full music scholarship, spent her evenings rehearsing with a Los Angeles theater company.  She had recently been cast in the role of Maria in their production of West Side Story.

The chick had pipes, is what I'm saying.

She took the stage wearing a gorgeous black dress.  Floor length.  Spaghetti straps.  Cleavage.

"I'll be performing Un Bel Di Vedremo, from Madame Butterfly," she announced.

If anything, Suzanna's performance was even better than Luciano's.  Her upper register was perfectly in tune, her phrasing was precise and natural, quite simply, she was magnificent.  At the conclusion of her performance, the audience gave her a standing ovation, as they should have.  Clearly, no one in the class had talent remotely resembling that displayed by the lovely Miss Suzanna Van Horne.

But wait.  The next singer was taking the stage.

 It was a guy named Chris, a trumpet player who clearly had no business being at this recital.

I took the stage in my classy performance attire.  Jeans by Levi.  Shoes by Reebok.  Sweatshirt by Laundry Basket.

The instrumental majors gave me an enthusiastic welcome as I dragged my ass to center stage.

"Hi.  I'm Chris.  I'll, uh, be performing a song entitled You Are My Sunshine.  You might remember it from a French's mustard commercial in the 1970's."

Snickers from the audience.

The pianist played the introduction, and we were off.

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.  You make me happeeeee, when skies are gray . . . "

My voice crackled like bacon, frying in the pan.  Most of the notes came within a half-step or so of what was written on the page.  I remembered most of the words.  When the song mercifully ended, the crowd gave me a heart-felt sitting ovation.  "Smattering applause" is the phrase that comes to mind.

As the semester progressed, to the surprise of everyone, my vocal talent gradually improved.  In sixteen short weeks, I went from "completely sucks" to "not entirely unlistenable".  And to be honest, the vocal majors were very understanding of my situation and encouraged me to do the best I could.  No one booed, anyway.

Besides, sooner or later Suzanna Van Horne and Luciano the Tenor were going to have to take the brass methods class.  And playing the tuba is much harder than it looks.


[1] Thanks to Homemaker Man for the term "banjamagoggin".



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9 comments:

Jeff said...

As a piano performance major, I feel your pain. Fortunately our school didn't require the cross-embarrassment yours did. I can't say that I wouldn't have enjoyed watching you though. Everyone loves a good train wreck.

Eva Gallant said...

That must have been quite an experience! You spin the tale so well! Very entertaining.

Suldog said...

As a heavy metal guy - majored in cobalt, cadmium as a minor - I've grown to know and like some fairly execrable vocal performers. I'm sure I'd have gotten a kick out of you.

(You've heard my version of singing, I think. Therefore you know that I have no right to say anything.)

ReformingGeek said...

I would have been terrified but I wish I had taken a voice class in college.

"Doe, a deer, a female derr...."

Fred Miller said...

For your first recital, the professor might have recommended some Johnny Cash. "Folsom Prison Blues". Better yet, "A Boy Named Sue." You don't even have to sing sing that one.

David said...

Man, I loved that! I could feel your pain. My piano instructor makes me sing along with tunes, and I'm always afraid I'll shatter all the glass in his office. I bookmarked this for later.

Mariann Simms said...

Funny, I just knew you'd use "banjamagoggin" when I read the title of this blog.

I, too, cannot sing...but that doesn't stop me from doing it. Now, had I been in a class with the likes of these people I probably would have done something not unsimilar to what you did...only with even less vocal talent.

I loved the "Sweatshirt by Laundry Basket" thingy and the "sitting ovation". :)

So, fess up...I don't think you said it - what grade did you end up with?

injaynesworld said...

What a thoroughly delightful read.

I always wanted to be a singer but, alas, I am tone deaf.

I guess it's for the best that we both turned out to be writers.

Jamie said...

All I can say is you have more brass than just in your trumpet, sir. I'd have most certainly been the peein'ist.

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