Energia Cosmica (1956) by Remedios Varo
I’ve been taking voice lessons over Zoom. That sounds exactly as awkward as it is: VERY. My voice teacher is a professor, a millennial — very smart, very detail-oriented. The first few lessons were mostly him telling me I needed to learn how to breathe. He showed me some breathing exercises that were tedious and uncomfortable. I was bad at them. Then he had me blow into a straw in a glass half-full of water, ideally without spilling the water out of the glass. Finally he asked me to sing sirens, which is that thing where you start low and go very high and then go low again, in a sliding way, smoothly traveling past all of the distinct notes in between as well as you can.
I have a pretty good range. But these sirens, while showing off your range, also make your voice break. My voice breaks at an F sharp as I move from my alto register into my second soprano register. This is just how voices work.
At first when my voice broke, it made me wince. But my voice teacher said, “Lean into the breaks! You need to know where they are!” He didn’t say it that concisely because he’s a professor, so his whole job is rambling in front of a trapped audience. He needs 5,000 words or more just to say lean into that shit. After a few lessons, I got the distinct sense that he has a vocal handbook that he’s written inside his head and it’s 2000 pages long.
I like that about him, honestly. When someone is just verbose as fuck, I warm up to them quickly. Verbosity is often one manifestation of an extremely intense and restless mind that moves in several directions at once. I like to see this, out in nature, even when it’s inconveniencing me by taking up a lot of my time over Zoom.
So our first few lessons were slow. There was very little actual singing happening. I was blowing into a straw sometimes and I was also turning sideways in my chair and sucking in air and then trying to blow it out in four equal parts (absolutely impossible!) and then I was doing sirens and leaning into the breaks, which sounded bad. And then at the very end of each lesson, my teacher would play some notes on his piano and I’d sing a few scales and we’d be done.
There wasn’t much satisfaction to this process. I didn’t love it. My teacher was likable and interesting but I wasn’t sure he was going to teach me that much. Still, I was determined not to quit.
It was hard not to quit. Because when I finally did sing scales, I sounded pretty bad — shaky and not always perfectly on key, the way I used to be when I was younger. I’ve been singing loudly and proudly for decades now, but suddenly I could RECOGNIZE exactly how bad and off-key my voice was a lot of the time. I’ve always had good pitch. Something had changed over the years. I mentioned this to my voice teacher and he went on at length about how your vocal cords get less flexible as you age. This was not helpful.
After about a month of blowing into straws and spilling water and still sounding shitty, my voice teacher introduced lip trills. This is where you make a fart noise with your lips but you move up and down a few scales while doing it — over your breaks, to the top of your range, and back down again. I was very very bad at lip trills. I would try to make a trill sound and instead I’d just be blubbering and huffing through my lips and running out of air immediately.
It was confusing to me why we’d waste our time on this humiliating small-child exercise. To make matters worse, I was becoming more comfortable with my teacher, which meant that I was starting to chatter nervously about how bad I was at the lip trills and I was also starting to make more awkward remarks about how bad my voice was. All of this self-deprecation cued my voice teacher to say these wordy, not all that reassuring, NEUTRAL things about how I shouldn’t pay attention to the quality of my voice yet.
Frankly, it was ominous, to hear that I should ignore how shitty I sounded.
After about two months of this, I was starting to think either a) this guy is punking me or b) this guy is sort of like a VOICE THERAPIST, in that he’s being paid good money to bullshit me. And as long as he’s getting paid well, he’s never going to say GIRL, YOU ARE NOT GOOD AT THIS or OKAY IT’S TIME TO THROW IN THE TOWEL HERE, BECAUSE YOU ARE HOPELESS or JESUS YOU’RE OLD, I MEAN, WHY DO YOU EVEN BOTHER?
Not surprisingly, I started to dread voice lessons around then. Every time I got a reminder that I had a lesson the next day, I would have an urge to cancel. But it was already too late! The reminders came within the illegal 24-hour cancellation period, where you’d end up paying for the lesson you missed! Each lesson seemed to arrive sooner than the last, and I had never practiced my breathing enough or sung enough scales. The only thing I ever did was the fart noises, because he kept saying that was the most important thing. And even though I hated doing them, I could at least do them without getting depressed about how much my voice sucked. So I slowly got better at making fart-siren sounds, and nothing else.
I know. My poor family.
Finally my teacher, who was becoming visibly fatigued at the sight of my haggard face, told me that I should choose a song to work on. Being a basic bitch with zero taste, I choose “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
My teacher immediately warned me that this was very difficult song. Somehow, he did manage to erase all of the BITCH, PLEASE! out of his facial expression and delete all of the DON’T DO THIS TO ME! out of his vocal tone as he said it. I mean, he is a vocal coach. He’s good at that sort of thing.
True to his prophecy, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” had a unique way of highlighting exactly how bad my voice was. But we would still spend the first 45 minutes of each lesson blowing into half-empty glasses (see what I did there) and making fart noises and also my teacher would say thousands of words I didn’t understand about breathing and breaks and vocal chords and air speed. And then at the very end, I’d take a stab at Dorothy’s song and it was just so bad. Imagine if one of the pigs in the mud at Auntie Em’s farm shoved Judy Garland out of the way and grabbed the mic and started squealing incoherently into it.
So now my poor teacher has to make me feel okay about being a pig in a Dorothy costume. He has to get on Zoom and listen to a sow who’s deluded into thinking that she’s actually a young starlet, hopped up on amphetamines, daydreaming about bluebirds. I felt sorry for the guy and even sorrier for myself. This is a common emotional duet in my life, as you may already know.
He didn’t say a lot about my performance. Mostly he said I should work on lip trills, so that’s I mostly what I did. I started doing lip trills every time I was in the car or in the shower. Sometimes I would practice scales on the piano while doing lip trill scales along with them. It was the one thing I was good at, finally, so it was the one thing I didn’t mind practicing.
Doesn’t that say a lot about me? That I only want to do things I’m already good at, and I assiduously avoid the harder stuff because it makes me feel inadequate? And every time I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I was a pig again. Not a cute one, either.
But to my voice teacher’s credit, he never said, “No, you sound great! You’re very talented! Your voice is so beautiful, honestly! Don’t lose faith!” Because I would’ve quit on the spot. I cannot sing like a sow and hear someone bullshit me at the same time. I’d rather he just cringe a little and make neutral sounds, which is exactly what he did.
One day in October, something shifted. We did all of the usual annoying exercises and we talked about things I didn’t understand for a while, but then at the very end of the lesson, I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and it was good, completely out of the blue. It was so good that when I hit the high note on the bridge (“That’s where you’ll fiiiiiind me!”), I was exactly on key, and my voice sounded utterly heartfelt and fluid and just very very pretty, so pretty it could give you chills. I’m not kidding.
So then I stopped singing and burst into tears.
Like a true voice therapist and a true millennial, my teacher asked, “Where did you go just then?”
“Well. (Heavy sigh.) This is another problem of mine. When I sing something really well, or when I’m feeling the lyrics a lot, it makes me cry.”
“Is it sadness?”
“No, it’s just… I used to do this at readings, too. It’s so absurd. I'm just… thrilled that it’s actually good. I feel proud of it, and the second I notice that, it makes me cry.”
I could’ve explained more. I could’ve said I cry because I suddenly believe in the thing I care about so much, that I’ve been working on for months without any evidence that I should keep working on it. It feels amazing in part because the rest of the time, I don’t believe in what I’m doing at all. I’m skeptical, but not in a relaxed way. I’m constantly searching for proof that my emotional investment makes sense, and there is no proof. So my default is assuming that I’m delusional, basically. I’m spending lots of time and money but I’m still just a pig in a Dorothy costume, making fart noises.
And that’s a lot. It’s exhausting to get up in the morning and look in the mirror and see a delusional pig there. It takes a strong will, to be a pig and know you’re a pig and put on a Dorothy outfit in spite of everything.
But I didn’t tell my voice teacher all of that. Instead, I said, “I guess I won’t cry as much once I sound good all the time.”
My voice teacher smiled at this. I think he was surprised that I believed that I might sound good all the time. I was surprised by this, too. And it seemed like he believed that I would get there. “That’s so true,” he said. “I mean, it’s kind of sad, but that is how it works. You just keep setting the bar higher for yourself.”
I wanted to say, “Well, that’s what intense motherfuckers like you and me do, but that’s not what EVERYONE does, thank god for them!” But I didn’t say that. I chuckled and then at the next lesson, I sounded like shit all over again.
After a few weeks, my teacher told me that I should learn a cover of a song I liked. I told him I wanted to write a song instead, because I was having trouble finishing songs and this would help to motivate me. He seemed skeptical (why wouldn’t he be?) but I did finish a song.
My voice sounded fucking great on my song, too. It’s hard for you to trust this, I know, but suspend your disbelief! I sang this song for a week straight, and my kids and my husband interrupted me many times to say WOW, YOU SOUND GOOD. They said this in part because I sounded so absolutely shitty before, no doubt about that. But they also said it because my voice was just so much stronger and completely different than it was before. I hit each note with almost no wavering and faltering. I don’t even know why or what changed!
Even when I got to the place where my voice used to break, I managed it better. I had no idea how, but it still felt incredible. It was like waking up as Dorothy every morning. You look in the mirror, and a young Judy Garland is staring back at you, sparkling eyes and plump adorable child lips and all. My voice sounded so good that I started writing simple songs and loving them in spite of their simplicity. I stopped pressuring myself to write complicated, special songs, which wasn’t working anyway. I was enjoying myself again, and you could hear it.
I didn’t talk to anyone about my voice lessons, maybe because it was all so humiliating and expensive for so many months.
But then one night in early November, right after I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and cried but before I wrote a new song and sang it, Bill and I went out to dinner and I ordered a white negroni and then I started telling him about my voice lessons, how they were frustrating for so long but I’d finally had this breakthrough. I was saying that it’s exciting and mysterious, when learning is happening in the background, at some motor level that’s not conscious. And I was telling him that I really like my voice teacher, even though I’ve never met him in person.
He seems like a good person, I said. He’s patient and he doesn’t bullshit and he knows what he’s doing. Even though he could recognize that I was getting increasingly insecure, he kept showing up and telling me to keep the faith that all of this arbitrary stuff might add up.
That kind of person is rare, I said. I got really lucky when I stumbled on that guy. I mean, I found him on Yelp!
And then I looked up and saw this guy seated at the bar who looked exactly like my voice teacher. I thought, That’s hilarious, now I’m hallucinating that he’s here.
But it was him. My voice teacher and his wife were having dinner at the bar, even though they live in the next town.
I wanted to walk right over immediately and introduce myself but Bill made me wait until we paid our check, which was the more normal-person move. So on our way out, I introduced myself and of course my teacher was great in person and so was his wife. Me being me, I wanted to sit and have a drink with them and chatter on and on about the mysteries of vocal exercises. But I didn’t. We all talked cheerfully for a few minutes, then Bill and I left.
That was crazy! I said in the car. What a coincidence, right? How weird, right? We’ve never even talked about him before! That was really cool!
Bill thought it was pretty cool but not cool enough to talk about all the way home. Too bad for him, I guess! When I got home, I climbed the stairs singing:
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me!
I spent a lot of my time in 2022 groping in the dark for something to sustain me. That sounds more desperate and miserable than it really was. I was mostly happy, mostly productive, mostly present. But the fallow period after you write a book is always tough, and mine was compounded by our cross-country move and the kids temporarily hating our guts and the Tamoxifen I had to take every night in spite of the fact that it was slowly but surely draining my will to live.
I lost my faith in a lot of things last year. I didn’t want to keep trying to make everything nice and comfortable and fun for everyone else the way I always had. I wanted to wander around and fuck shit up for a change.
I didn’t end up fucking that much up, but I did stumble on a bunch of new friends who are curious and engaged in ways that inspire me. I don’t know my voice teacher that well and we aren’t friends or anything, but he’s still part of that picture in a way. Because, just as it’s extremely hard to learn a difficult new skill when your teacher isn’t that patient or engaged, it’s wordlessly reassuring when someone is showing up completely. Maybe that’s what makes a good teacher: no bullshit, no reassurance, just presence.
Presence is rare. It’s so rare that when you finally stumble on it, it feels like a miracle.
Presence is what makes it possible for a pig to keep putting on Dorothy’s dress. There’s an understanding in the space between you: There will be failure here. There will be mistakes and mishaps and complete misses. There will be good sounds and bad sounds. A stumble is a kind of a dance. A scar is a sublime tattoo scrawled by experience. Presence says I don’t know where I am. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know why we’re here together.
You’re at the starting line again every day, wondering who will show up: Judy Garland, or a farm animal? They’re both tragic figures. They’re both doomed. They both gaze at the dark clouds overhead and ask:
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can't I?
And the dark clouds answer:
Well, maybe you can. Start over. Maybe this time you’ll get it.
Try again. I’m listening.
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I laughed, I cried, I laughed, and now I’m crying again. I relate to this so much. I started taking guitar lessons at 36 from a jazz guitar player who was my same age and looked like a young Paul Newman. The insecurities and terror that man brought up in me even though he was so present and kind and honest! Thank you so much for this, Heather. You really capture what it’s like to be someone trying to find joy and authenticity in a world where it seems most people are content with so much less.
"It takes a strong will, to be a pig and know you’re a pig and put on a Dorothy outfit in spite of everything."
THIS right here, for so many things. But as a much poorer singer who also went through A JOURNEY while taking singing lessons, I raise my little trotter in salute (wearing Julie Andrews dirndl) 😉