singing woman

singing woman

Halfway through my 36th year, on a hamster-wheel day packed with lunchbox-making, cat feeding, working, going to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, vacuuming, and frantic bathing, I tried to remember what joy felt like.

What even was joy? I wondered with my gloved hands submerged in a sink full of gray water studded with a flotsam of cat food. What did that word even mean?

I couldn’t remember.

I knew I was capable of joy. I felt immense exhilaration in my twenties when I traveled the world, I felt bliss anytime I was immersed in the wild ocean, and I felt glimmers of delight while absorbed in a new hobby; but I didn’t currently have any of those things. Joy had never felt further away.

As a child, I collected treasures in the woods. I built forts, wrote stories, baked cookies, and sang in my high school’s all-girl madrigal choir.

God, I had loved to sing.

When my idiot high school boyfriend was acting particularly idiotic, Mr. Taylor’s choir rehearsals had kept me tethered to myself. I loved how singing felt in my body, the way the air moved out of my lungs and up my throat, the way my voice sounded and merged with others — that our bodies could make something so beautiful and universal.

The problem was that I wasn’t quite good enough to do anything productive with my singing. I could hold a tune and my voice sometimes sounded very pretty, but I was never picked for a solo and was always cast in the ensemble during musicals. In college, after getting rejected from the school’s acapella groups two years in a row, I stopped singing altogether. I wasn’t Capital-T Talented, so I moved onto other, less frivolous things.

During that joyless summer 16 years later, I suddenly wanted to sing again with such ferocity that I could think of nothing else. I wanted to feel my voice make something sweeter than the voice I used to nag my daughter or yell at the cat to get off the counter, but the thought of auditioning somewhere after my failed college attempts made my heart sink. I didn’t want yet another thing to be “good” or “bad” at. I just wanted to do.

Without thinking too hard about it, I picked the first voice teacher I found on Google and scheduled a lesson.

A week later, standing in this strange studio with an opera singer named Matt, opening my voice to mutter out the first notes of Dear Theodosia, I felt like I was coming home. It felt like yoga, or great sex, where your brain turns off and all that exists is sensation. It felt like falling back in time and entering the body of my girlhood self.

An hour later, you couldn’t have broken the smile off my face with a jackhammer.

I started practicing at night in my acoustic-blessed bathroom. Outside the door, my daughter applauded at the end of every stanza. A week later, my husband shyly told me that he was inspired by my renewed creative energy and wanted to take guitar lessons.

Between his daily practice and mine, our house is now full of music.

Every week, I carry my sheet music into Matt’s studio. The student in the session before mine is a hedge-fund guy in his 50s, and we giggle at each other in the doorway between our two lessons, as if we’re seeing through the graying hair and trench coats and wedding rings to greet our promising, 16-year-old selves.

As Matt teaches me about breath control and diaphragmatic support and the functionality of my soft palate, I feel like he’s teaching me how to re-enter my own life.

“Drop your jaw,” he says. “It doesn’t work if you’re not going all in. You can’t be tentative about it and expect the sound you want to come out.”

“Just rip the Band Aid off,” he tells me, when I wince at an upcoming high note on my sheet music. “It’ll help you learn what it feels like. Just throw it out there. Hail Mary!”

“We’re not trying to sound like Sara Bareilles, we’re trying to sound like Marian.”

And every week he reminds me, “We’re not aiming for pretty.”

The first time he said this, I had no idea what he was talking about. Wasn’t pretty the whole point? But no, said, today’s work is not the final product, it’s meant to stretch me. “Polish comes way down the line.”

Last Tuesday, when I made a sound not unlike a dying cat, Matt said, “Thank you for keeping going even though you might not have been liking everything that you were hearing or feeling.”

Thank you for keeping going.

It’s been four months since I started singing again. This music is different from the music of my childhood. It is better. Back then, I had waited for someone else to give me the solo. I was plopped in the alto section — a decent background voice designed to support the higher, prettier ones. I was the baseline, never the melody.

It feels audacious, even revolutionary, to spend all this time focusing on something that matters to literally nobody but me. It will never make me rich or famous or even popular at karaoke. It contributes nothing to my family’s income. But I am now the melody and the rhythm and the whole damn song.

No one gave it to me. I took it for myself.

Marian Schembari is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. She grew up in an Italian/Puerto Rican family and has lived all over the world. She has also written for Cup of Jo about getting diagnosed with autism as an adult, and her memoir, A Little Less Broken, comes out this September. You can pre-order it here, if you’d like.

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