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Back and forth, I swing myself in our backyard. Small hands wrapped around metal chains. High sounds coming from my throat. An early memory.
“We’ve been listening to your daughter’s singing,” our neighbour Mrs. Clark says.
Mother looks at me and I look back at her confused. I stand very still and pretend to be invisible.
“Singing?” Mother repeats.
“Out on the swing, in your backyard,” Mrs. Clark says. “Very high and sweet. Like an angel.”
Singing? Is that what I’d been doing while pumping my legs as fast as they could go to lift my swing higher. The sound flew from my mouth. Behind closed eyelids, colours danced. Whoosh. The metal swing set continued to creak as I flew effortlessly up towards the stars.
Traveling through the heavens on my swing, the three-year-old me was invincible. No need for companions or words, just melodies. I hadn’t thought about what I was doing, until Mrs. Clark gave it a name.
I listen to my parents’ recordings of Harry Belafonte singing “Day O” and sing along. Fashioning a make-believe microphone for myself from the gold painted cylinder piece on a cord
that raised and lowered the lamp in the corner, I stand beside my father’s easy chair and perform for an imaginary audience.
One day my parents play a Joan Baez record. What a beautiful voice. Her nose is even a little crooked like my own. I learn all her songs. A guitar is given to me for my 11th birthday and I wait for lessons that summer.
In fifth grade music, our entire class of 30 children sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” rehearsing to perform it for a school assembly. “Would anyone like to sing a verse alone?” the teacher asks.
I raise my hand.
“Yes, give it a try,” she says. I sing a verse, and she assigns me both verses.
“Do you take voice lessons?” my classmates ask afterwards. “You sound like an opera singer.”
Can someone teach you how to sing? Wasn’t singing something you just did, matching your voice to the notes played on the piano?
Always the last to be picked for the softball or soccer team, I’m the girl who wears odd clothes and talks differently. Are they actually complimenting me? I can’t wait to get home to share my good news.
Not everyone likes my high voice. That’s okay. I can make music. Any kind I want. My voice is my instrument.
Mrs. Lacey, my voice teacher in college, has long dark hair and a complexion that makes me think of rosy cheeked children playing in the snow. She tells me she is looking for “pure sound.”
During my weekly private lesson, she talks about her baritone husband’s career. “It’s so much easier for him to find work,” she says. “There’s an excess of sopranos.”
She takes apart each phrase I sing to find my flaws. “It’s all about the breath,” she says, “like sipping through a straw. You are the vessel that creates sound.”
My pronunciation of Italian, German, French needs correction. My vowel sounds should be more open. In our group classes, it is the other students who she praises. I keep practicing and hear only criticism. I begin to doubt whether I should be singing.
During second semester I audition for sophomore chorus. Alone on the wooden stage, I remind myself to stand tall with shoulders relaxed. Breathing through my nose as I was taught, I struggle to inhale. My knees are shaking and my voice is trembling. Twice the choir director asks me if I am really majoring in voice. Ashamed, I stare at the floor.
I transfer to another university. Change my major to anthropology and begin to sing only for myself – while washing dishes, driving, or in the shower accompanied by the patter of water against my back.
Gradually, I lose myself in my singing and stop worrying if anyone is listening. The keening sound of high notes vibrating in my cheekbones gives me comfort, expressing joy and sadness. So maybe I am not meant to be a performer, at least not a classical one. I pull out my guitar and make up my own songs. Or sing old favourites and pick and strum – varying the timing and the rhythm.
Several decades later, married and with children in school, I join a choir. It feels good to sing in a group. As long as I sing the right notes, no one is judging me. When asked to sing a small solo, I still feel nervous remembering my previous failures.
Members of the congregation greet me afterwards. “I didn’t know you could sing. What a nice voice.” A small triumph, to manage a line of music for an audience on my own. In my estimation, however, my performance is lacking.
I vocalize each day. Practice new and familiar melodies. Revisiting old territory, I sip in air until I feel my rib cage and back begin to expand. My goal is to reclaim what was lost. Feet firmly planted on the ground, more forgiving to myself of past mistakes, I relax into the melody and embrace the power of the vibrations. I can do this.
Projecting a loud steady tone conveys power and freedom. Not to be judged, but to be heard. My emotions shape themselves into sound. The wings inside my spirit open as the song reaches the sky. The freedom returns, the simple pleasure of a child singing on a swing.
Nadja Maril is a former magazine editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland . She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at USM and her short stories and essays have been published in dozens of publications including: Change Seven, Lunch Ticket, Defunkt Magazine and Invisible City Literary Review. She is currently working on a novel and additional credits include weekly blogposts at Nadjamaril.com. Follow her on twitter at SN Maril.