Saturday, November 05, 2005

No, you don't know me... but you will.

I met a saxophone player at Joey's parent's 50th Anniversary Bash last June. I sang with that band, for the fun of it, and my Aunt sang too. It was a lot of fun, and a special day. That sax player and I exchanged cell numbers, and kept in touch over the summer, emailing each other and trying to schedule a time to get together and play and sing. We sent each other song lists, he sent me some MP3's, and we struggled with our calendars.

We've been trying to make this date for five months. He's been busy, I've been busy, and now it's November. But we made it happen, and today, he came over. He arrived at about 11:30. I carried a tote bag full of sheet music, and he carried his music stand and his sax. I was a little nervous, but mostly excited.

I had asked him to bring a copy of "The Nearness of You," and he did. He instructed me to put on my Norah Jones CD, and listen to her sing it, while he went online with G's computer and found the lyrics for me. I hummed along with Norah while he printed me a lyric sheet.

"Ok," he said, "now try this." He handed me a CD. "Track nine." I popped it into the CD player, and out came a rather structured-sounding jazz backing to the same song. Of course, compared to Norah Jones, anything's going to sound structured, but "that's really different," I said.

"This is more of a standard arrangment," he informed me. "This is what you're most likely to hear Out There."

I tried singing along to it, but it was tricky. I had to listen closely to the rhythms, and fit my vocals into the overall song, like a puzzle piece. Not something I'm used to doing - but this is exactly what I need to learn. This arrangement has an odd ending - a key change, and the last few bars repeat. The first time I didn't do much with it. The second time, he played his sax, and I got a better feel for it, got a better idea of what I had to work with. The last time I sang it, I closed my eyes and really listened. I followed the accompaniment, and at the end, improvised something that was completely wrong in terms of how the song is written, but it fit with the music, and felt good in my voice. It felt... like fitting in that last puzzle piece.

"Now that," he said, "was good."

I flipped through a songbook and exclaimed "Moonglow! Somebody told me I needed to learn that song!"

"I think that might have been me," he replied. I laughed. "Maybe it was you!"

"Do you know it?" He asked. "Nope," I sighed.

He went onto Napster and found some clips of the song, sung by various singers. He played a few bars from Carly Simon, Billie Holliday, Mel Torme. He found the lyrics online and printed them out for me.

"Ok, sing this," he commanded.

"But," I protested, "I don't know it!"

"You just heard it three times!" he said, grinning.

"I heard three clips, not the whole song!"

"Yeah, but that's all there is to it," He said. "Try it."

I sang it. He was right. It's a very simple song. And sing it we did. Me with my voice, him on sax, with a CD accompaniment providing rhythm, piano and bass. And it wasn't half bad. It wasn't great, but it didn't suck.

"I know you know this song," he said, advancing the CD. It was "You Don't Know Me," popularized in the 60's by Ray Charles, but written in 1955 by Eddy Arnold. I don't just know that song. I LOVE that song.

I did sing it, but it was the oddest thing... the words completely left my brain. And I didn't launch into song like I often do, coming in strong and clear and present. I slid into it quietly, like sneaking in somewhere I'm not supposed to be, singing a full octave below my comfort zone. My friend fed me the words. The pitch was so low, I was murmuring to myself. I felt the vibrations in my sternum, and felt my stomach knotting slightly, but not in a bad way... I was remembering... something. In the blink of an eye, with just the idea of the song in my head, I was in another place, and another time.

You give your hand to me
and then you say hello
and I can hardly speak
my heart is beating so
and anyone can tell
you think you know me well
but you don't know me...

I can't tell you who I was thinking of... because I don't know who it was. But I know the feeling of this song.

No, you don't know the one
who dreams of you at night
who longs to kiss your lips
who longs to hold you tight
to you, I'm just a friend
that's all I've ever been
No, you don't know me...

Faces appeared in my mind and disappeared. I felt the pressure of a hand in mine. I felt the constriction in my rib cage, the frustration of knowing that someone does not hear me, that someone is not listening.

I never knew the art of making love
though my heart ached with love for you
Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by
The chance that you might have loved me too

I could barely speak, but I could sing. It felt appropriate to sing in a register so low that I had to keep my volume low, or I'd crack the tone. It was frustrating... and right.

You give your hand to me
and then you say goodbye
I watch you walk away
beside that lucky guy
to never, never know
the one who loves you so
No, you don't know me.

I can't think of anyone in my past who I loved, that I didn't tell. I can't think of anyone I wanted that I didn't tell very clearly and directly how I felt. I did have one or two unrequited loves, but they knew perfectly well how I felt about them. This song isn't really me. And yet...

It just felt magical. I don't know who I was, or where I was, or why I felt the way I felt, but it's the way I always want to feel when I'm singing.

My friend had no idea what I was going through. He didn't seem to get it at all. Oh well.

We ran through some other old standards, and I learned some new styles - the latin-bossanova-ish arrangment of "Over the Rainbow" was particularly fun, which surprised me considerably, as most latin styles don't really move me. He asked me to sing one piece higher, give another piece more breath, try syncopating the beat on this one, etc. We drained a bottle of Chianti, and the afternoon slipped by.

We sat down to talk, and he asked me, "What do you want to sing?"

I don't know how to categorize myself. I could say I want to sing jazz, or blues, but my voice has too much "show" for those styles, and frankly, I feel ridiculous, posing as a jazz singer, when I'm really not one. I could say I just want to sing great songs, with great messages, and really reach people... but everyone says that. I could say I want to sing everything, but nobody wants to hear everything. Really, they don't. People like categories. People like to hear a new song by a certain artist and instantly know it's them. Well, I lose patience with this. I don't want to have to define myself by saying "I sing jazz" or "I'm an opera singer." I don't want to have to choose!

I'm 34, but I look very young. My face has this midwestern, farm-girl innocence to it. Some of my mannerisms are childish, and I have such a drive to learn that I tend to look like a fourth grader absorbing her textbook. The problem is that I've lived through a lot more than most people my age, and it shows. I have an incredible life history and have lots of amazing stories to tell. I have so much to say, so many colors to my voice, so many styles and tones and shades... I'm like magic eye wallpaper. It's dizzying. And coming out of this young-looking package...

He said, "I can hear your history... and I don't know what to make of it." Well. That makes sense.

It's really amazing, when I think of all the things I've experienced. The loves I've had, and lost. The many jobs. The apartments, the friends, the schools. My family stories, my friend stories, my church stories. I've been married and divorced. I've wrung every last drop of life out of every experience I've had. My first engagment. The abusive relationship I battled through for close to two years. My struggles with my mother during my troubled adolescence. The time I went on tour with the Nutcracker. My ballet company years. My opera years. My musical theatre years, singing and dancing my heart out on stage in front of thousands of people. My yuppie years. My emergency room visits. The loved ones I've buried. The hearts I've broken. The homes I've left behind.

Hell. I don't know what to make of my history. How can I expect others to? But this gives me something to work with.

If I can figure out how to make my voice express certain things and not others, depending on how I use it, then it becomes a more useful tool. I can express heartbreak in several voices. What do those voices say about me? What kind of person uses a clear strong high note? A sultry low note? A Joplin-esqe scream? What parts of my history are revealed in these voices?

I've got the technique. I've got the pipes, and the lungs. I know how to use them to produce commonly accepted sounds, and achieve certain desired results. But I've never learned to use my equipment to say what I want to say, what I want people to hear. This is the most advanced work I've ever done.

Wish me luck.

Addendum: I've started a journal to keep track of my work on this little self-improvment project. I'm commiting to weekly work, so I should be able to make notes on something every Sunday night.


Jess said...

Good luck!

(Like you ever have to ask--we always wish you nothing but good luck!)

Larry Jones said...

I really enjoyed this post - I don't usually get to read such self analysis by singers, and it's a fascinating insight.

The trick, I think, is to find your own voice, and sing with it. In our media-saturated world it is almost impossible not to hear and take on the characteristics of artists we admire, but there is a sound that only you can make, and when you make it, it will touch the listener in ways that mere technique cannot.

To a certain extent you must have the equipment, and you must learn how to use it, but in the end you have to shed the guile and the style, and sing in your true voice. This is actually more difficult than learning the mechanics, because it means exposing yourself, but it sounds like you are on the right track. And of course I wish you luck.

My challenge word for this: nlucvsnt

Dimarc67 said...

Now hear the singer inside the writer!

Yes, it's really Ouiser. Enjoy.

Dimarc67 said...

Forgot to say her MP3 might take a minute or two to load. But don't worry, it's worth the wait...

Dr. Zoom said...

Wow ... light years away from "Just Like Jesse James," I'd say.

That was just beautiful.