When I was little, I used to sing stories to myself. I would walk to the library, make up a story, and revise it over and over, all to some endless tune in my head. My mother loved that I would sing around the house, and she wanted me to sing more. It was her idea to find me a voice teacher when I was in eighth grade. She wanted me to know that my voice was worth taking seriously.
My first voice teacher had an opera background, but she spent most of my lessons on vocal exercises and breathing exercises, teaching me how to breathe from my diaphragm, and stand up straight, and relax my shoulders. I’d never much liked practicing scales on the piano, but vocal exercises made more sense to me. She taught me to sing through the mask of my face, like a raccoon, and to change the shape of my mouth to make the consonants clear and the vowels more open.
My father insisted that we sing songs together after Friday night dinner, as a family. But, he didn’t believe in normal limitations, like that a baritone might struggle to hit a glass-shattering high note. He refused to choose a key that everyone, including him, would be comfortable with, and he didn’t care about the quality of the note when he was done with it. He could rip it and strangle it, and drown the note in coughing, but if he hit that note, even for a second, he’d won.
And he did not like competition. He didn’t want me to practice singing between voice lessons. He would complain that I was “caterwauling,” even if I practiced in my room with the door closed. He’d complain about the money Mom was spending on my lessons. And eventually, he made it clear that he believed in the ban on kol isha – the voice of a woman – that we’d learned at school. I could sing at home, but it would be unacceptable to allow my voice to be heard by men outside of the family. He believed that singing, for a woman, is a salacious, sexually provocative act, and if I do it, I am a whore.
Unfortunately, around the same time as I was getting used to my voice lessons, we had a guest speaker at my orthodox Jewish school. Only the girls were invited to the gym to listen to her. She performed for us first, doing her own version of beat boxing, using her mouth like a drum and her hands as tambourines. The things she could do, the sounds she could create with no musical instruments to back her up, were incredible. There was something like bird song about her voice, as if she was born with these songs in her body and she just had to release them. She wasn’t just hitting notes, she was putting spin on them, like a tennis player, top spin and back spin, hollow sounds and full sounds, cold and warm, shivery and strident, all from one voice. I wanted her to be my teacher.
After her performance, she told us that she’d been a voice student at a prestigious conservatory, training for a professional music career, when she started to visit Chabad (a Chasidic Jewish outreach group) on the weekends. She gradually became more and more religious, until it became clear that as a religious Jewish woman she could never sing in front of men. She’d pieced together a career as a speaker, and sold her music to strictly female audiences. Her message was clear: being religious comes first, before anything else you might want, or love, or need in life.
Her visit haunted me. I didn’t stop singing altogether, but I felt her hand tightening around my throat.
My black lab mix, Dina, came along when I was sixteen years old, and she was a singer too. You had to hit a certain note, something in the howl-range, and that would set her off. Her pitch was pretty good and she could sing a nice clear note or series of notes, but she didn’t seem to enjoy it. She seemed like a button had been pressed in her brain and she had to sing, and had no control over it, and no choice. She seemed relieved when the singing stopped, as if it had taken so much out of her and now she could rest in silence.
I took a few years off from trying to sing, until my last semester of college, when I had two credits to kill. I’d been feeling like a robot, detached from myself and my voice, and I hoped voice lessons would help unlock something. I didn’t have to perform in public; my lessons would be in a safe, partially soundproof room. I still couldn’t practice at home, though, so I’d sing in the car on the way to and from school.
This was my first male voice teacher, and he was closer to my age, and friendly, and an opera singer. Whenever he actually sang something I sort of cringed, though. I’m not an opera fan. The vocal quality they strive for is bombastic and brassy and kind of hurts my ears, but he was very nice. He had me singing from an opera workbook, in Italian. There was something freeing about singing in a language I didn’t understand.
I sang to Dina at home, but not too loud, and never in full voice, and gradually, the hand around my throat grew tighter and tighter, telling me to stop singing, and I did.
When I think back to that girl singer, though, telling us that she had to give up her dreams in order to be a good girl, I wonder if I ignored something important. With her words, yes, she told us to hide ourselves from the world, but her body carried a different message. Her voice seemed to be saying that, if you have a bird trapped in your chest, flapping its wings and trying to sing its song, you have to let it sing, or it will die.