Recently a colleague came to dinner. The conversation was East Coast heady, covering decades of experience, emotion, and intellectual understanding. We laughed, traded professional and bawdy stories, discovered surprise. All was going along quite well until a question shot out like a bolt from the blue…
“Why did you stop singing, Helen?” my musically savvy dinner guest asked. “And why are you so reticent to begin again?” (By now I was sure my trusty dusty best friend had spilled the beans about my fear of singing.)
From somewhere deep within, tucked away under lock and key for decades, a river of emotion seeped through the crevices of an interior vault, threatening to open a Pandora’s Box I didn’t even know I had buried. I was invited to remember how important music had been and remains in my life. In addition to singing too often and way too loudly in my dad’s military chapel, I sang in church and in touring choirs in the U.S. and Germany, in chorus at two universities, motets, trios, duets, and countless choral arrangements in high school and college, and more congregational songs in various churches than I could possibly count.
And then, seemingly all of a sudden, the music stopped. I left the church, I left the university, I left Germany, and I left music, at least of the formal kind where you sat in the audience and listened or stood at the podium and sang.
When the Sixties and Seventies came along the music was more a vehicle for dance and political expression than a focus on “the voice.” My body swayed to these new rhythms and loved them, but my singing voice began to take a back seat and eventually fell silent most of the time. I could no longer read music and I lost all trust in my ability to hold a note, harmonize, or sing on key. My closest friend would regularly encourage me to sing (and still does!), but I would have none of it… that is, until I got double-teamed at dinner recently and remembered the joy of middle C.
Still today when I am alone and I feel melancholy or wonder or joy, I find a trusted song – usually a hymn or medieval chant because that’s what we sang back then – and sing it softly to express a moment of resonance from the distant past when music was my passion. The love of music was hidden but had never completely disappeared. It was just “private.”
Our dinner guest described the power of music in ways I had never heard before: the variations in color, tone, and mood that a single note could evoke. She talked about how a deep-seated fear of singing like mine could be overcome by making an intimate connection with something as simple as the note of middle C.
Her storytelling was so powerful I found the tears welling up, and at one point even had to excuse myself from the table. She described the potential variations of a single note, the colors of music that provide unlimited expression to something as simple as the lowly and often underestimated note of C. How much more might I finally express in my whole being when the terror of a single note could be so deftly overcome? Is it possible that other notes waiting for their colors to be seen would begin to tumble from my atrophied vocal chords and tucked away notebooks?
For the first time in decades this holiday season offered me an opportunity to consider my own song, my clunky personalized vamp, my deep love of middle C. Now other pent-up notes may start tumbling out as well…some sung, some written, some photographed, some merely hummed in the shower of my solitary mind.
Thanks, dear friends, for bringing me home to the color of music. One of these days I’ll brush that color off and make new sounds; or at the very least I’ll frame them.