I cannot remember not knowing how to sing. My grandmother, from whom I reportedly inherited my ability, found it remarkable that so young a kid could carry a tune perfectly the way I could — at age two or three.
When I was six or so, until I was around ten, one of my mom’s favorite “parlor tricks” at parties was to get me to perform John Williams’ symphonic theme from the movie Superman. Vocally. A capella. Basically I could “hear” the entire complex piece in my head, and would leap between instruments and music lines as various strains became prominent from moment to moment. (In other words, it was not simply the melody line — it was interspersed with a lot of background and supplementing “intrumentation”.)
Music has always been in me. An odd side effect of this was that when I was young I did not have very much interest in music. In school at an age where most other kids were buying tapes and listening to their favorite bands, I didn’t own any albums. I was high school before I really started listening to music for my own sake. It wasn’t until college that I learned to appreciate Sinatra, or jazz. Today I perform semi-professionally* with a band.
A major aspect of all this is that I almost always have music running through my head. Whether it’s one of those tunes that you just can’t get out of there until you actually hear the thing, or just a mental “replay” of something I like, it’s always there. The kicker is… oftentimes the tune in my head is entirely new. From simple melodies to fully fleshed “arrangements”, my mind frequently produces music, which “plays” through my head (no lyrics, mind you, just music). This can be frustrating, as I rarely remember them — they’re gone as soon as they’re through — and even when I do remember them, I don’t know how to write music, and therefore have no way of “getting it down”. On the other hand, they’re sort of dime-a-dozen, as I can knock out another tune pretty much any time I want to. (This is of course not to say that they’re all great, or even completely new. I’m sure that I steal from myself quite frequently.)
In college I took a creative writing course. At the beginning of the course the instructor gave us a list of things which, by the end of the semester, we were expected to have written. A short story… 10 pages of poetry… A creative journalism piece… A song. It didn’t matter what order they were done in; each week we were to complete something off the list. One day as I’m walking out of the classroom, he stopped me. “Do you know how to sing?” he asked. I said yes, and he asked if I has written my song yet. Again, yes. “Bring your song in next week.”
The next week, partway through the class, he asked if anyone had written their song yet. I put my hand up, and one other girl did so as well. He turned to the girl and asked her to sing it for us. “Uh, I can’t,” she replied. “Oh, we don’t care if you’re not a good singer,” he said. “Just give us the idea. We want to hear the tune.”
“No, really,” she insisted. I don’t have a tune for it. It’s just lyrics.
“Well, how do you not have a tune? It’s not a song without music! Just sing it for us. Come up with something.”
“I can’t”, she said again. “I can read it, but I don’t have a tune — I can’t sing it.”
The instructor*, without knowing the extent of what he had, pulled out his ringer. He took the paper from her hand and thrust it in my directon. “Here, you sing it.”
“Okay. Give me a sec.” I took the paper and read the song through quickly. Then I sang it. The sound of jaws hitting desks kept time. As usual, the tune I sang was gone as soon as it was out. If he’d asked me to sing the same thing a second time, I probably couldn’t have — but I could have sung something else. “How did you do that?” the song’s author asked me incredulously. “I don’t know, I just sang it.” I replied.
The teacher asked everyone to bring in their song for the next week. An interesting part for me was that in the next class, as various people were singing their songs, she sang hers to the same tune I had sung on-the-fly the week before. It was strange, and a bit jarring, having my own forgotten (but recognizable) tune sung back to me. It was also very, very cool. Somewhere out there I imagine this girl still has her song written down, and could still sing back my melody. I like that thought, though I have little recollection of the song and no idea what her name was. I don’t do lyrics, and that one time I got to wrap my music around a set of really nice lyrics.
Lyrics. I shouldn’t say I never do lyrics, I just do them rarely, and it’s even more rare that I do them well. Of all the songs with lyrics I’ve ever written, there are only two that are really worth repeating. Well, three… except that one of them was created in a tragic “Coleridge” sort of moment. One day several years ago I was driving somewhere, when I started singing. I didn’t know what I was singing — it was new — but it was a fully structured song, with lyrics, multiple verses, and a refrain. It was beautiful, and it was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking because, even as the words came out of me, I was forgetting them, and I had no way of recording it or writing it down. As I sang a verse, the previous verse faded. The refrain stuck with me long enough to sing it again when it came up in the “arrangement”, but that, too was leaving me as soon as the song was through. By the time I was able to stop, it was gone completely, but for the first half-line: “When I hold you in my arms.”
The next day I went out and bought a cassette voice recorder. It was a waste of money, as the point of such a thing would be to have it with you at all times so when such a moment struck it would be there. Such moments are so rare, that it has never happened that way again. I now own a PDA with a voice recorder — without which I never would have written one of the two “worthwhile” songs I have now written. To this day, the lyrics are written down, but the tune exists only in my head (okay, and in an a capella “reference” recording I made on the computer when I thought I had someone to arrange it).
Music comes instinctively to me, but I have never been able to wrap my head around written music. I cannot write it, and can only vaguely read it. Another blogger once talked about being like a painter without arms. I know the feeling. If I played an instrument, I could accompany myself, or jam with other musicians, but singing involves words, which involves pre-planning. It’s difficult to jam with just your voice. (“Scat” notwithstanding. I’ve never been a fan of it.)
The singing job I have is about the best outlet I’ve ever had, but I don’t choose what I sing, and am pretty much at the mercy of my employer. I wish I could do more.
That is to say, I still have a day job.
* Professor Zu-Bolton, if I recall correctly. Later in the semester I irrevocably convinced him that I was a virulent racist, thanks to an unfortunate discussion involving the Worst. Metaphor. Ever. What can I say, it was an interesting class.