I love to sing. I mean belt-it-out-at-the-top-of-my-lungs-shatter-the-glass-Ella-Fitzgerald sing. Not that I’m of Ella’s caliber. Quite the contrary.
“Everybody can sing,” my friend Bebe explained one day.
I gave her my you-can’t-be-serious look.
“Everybody can sing,” she replied. “I didn’t say everybody can sing well.” Indeed. But Bebe is a triple threat in the world of performers – she excels in acting, singing, and dancing. And she teaches choreography. And she writes musical shows. And she’s as cute as a bug’s ear. If she weren’t so darn humble and kindhearted, I’d hate her.
I’m more of a single-threat kind of gal; if I threaten to sing, people flee the room. Including my non-singing husband, Flash. And the more I like a song, the louder I must sing it. Like "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” Or anything by Rod Stewart. Or Styx. Or Carole King. Or Fleetwood Mac. Or Barry Manilow. Or The Eagles. Or Alabama. Or Lynyrd Skynyrd. I hit new decibel levels with all genres. Often, as he makes a face that looks as if he’s constipated, Flash walks to the back of the house during my concerts.
“Oh my gosh,” I hear him say too loudly to be under his breath.
“You’re just jealous. Come sing with me, Flash.”
“That was singing? I thought you’d pulled a muscle or your appendix had burst.”
I glare, lovingly.
“You sing really well when you’re singing to Cowboy,” he’s told me multiple times, probably to make up for all the times he has run out of the kitchen as I’m bellowing into a wooden spoon. “You even do that shaky thing with your voice,” he adds, referring to vibrato.
Personally, I think my in-the-shower concerts are the best. Great acoustics. No ugly looks from my audience. My little pretend recording studio. Still, I often come out of the bathroom to see Flash shaking his head and laughing.
Those who don’t do, shouldn’t judge. I can’t even coax The Quiet Man to sing with me in the car, with the radio volume turned up all the way. Married over 20 years, and we still don’t make beautiful music together. Unless we’re in our favorite Irish pub in San Antonio, Texas. Suddenly, Flash starts making requests of the piano player, and yelling out lyrics to David Allan Coe's "You Don't Have to Call Me Darlin'" or Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Last year, I moved my piano to our house when Mom sold her home, but Flash still refuses to sing. I’m going to put a tip jar on top of the piano, invite over a few inebriated friends who can yell out requests, serve pretzels, and dim the lights, to see if that will loosen Flash’s vocal chords.
When he’s not in our pub, Flash’s only other public singing venue is in the presence of Blake Shelton. Several years ago, we saw Blake in concert at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. My Flash transformed before my eyes. With arms waving in the air, skin glowing, and a dreamy look in his eyes, he sang every word of every song throughout the performance. Give my husband a man-crush on a country singer, and he unashamedly comes out of his silent shell. And I silently wished he were a little ashamed.
I grew up in a progressive Church of Christ; to me, it felt like a non-denominational church. I was ignorant to the ways of traditional Churches of Christ for many years, except for one: the tradition of singing a cappella in worship services. Sometimes, instruments accompanied our singing during special occasions, but never during Sunday morning worship. Then, eventually, instrumental music was added during church services, slowly, to help us adjust. In later years, a full band accompanied worship. Throughout the history of the congregation, the blending of voices was exceptional, with and without instrumental accompaniment; we had countless talented singers. I’ve never heard a cappella singing in any other church that compares to the singing in that church. One of my favorite memories is of being a small child with my head in Mom's lap, and hearing her sing "How Great Thou Art." It was the first song in our blue songbook, on the back of the hard cover. Every time I hear it, I think of her.
Because I liked the lower register of voices, I sometimes sat directly in front of my friend Bathsheba, because she was an alto, and I could follow her lead. However, most of time, I sang in my own range and switched between parts. Sometimes soprano, sometimes alto, and sometimes I tried to sing bass with the men. Anything was fair game as long as my voice didn’t stand out above the others. I was striving for humility, not humiliation.
When praise teams at churches were first in vogue, someone said I should join ours.
“Have you lost your mind?” I graciously responded. “No, I will never do that.”
“You would be great, because you love to sing.”
“I love to eat, too, but that doesn’t make me a chef.”
“It’s okay. We can turn off your microphone; we do that for some of the others.” I was stunned. At the next service, rather than praising the Lord, I sat there trying to figure out who was lip syncing.
My theory, which makes me feel better about myself, is that we all sound good to God. Since He invented singing, it only makes sense that He uses some kind of Godly Voice Changer by which He hears our voices as heavenly. After all, why would He give an obnoxiously clamoring gift to His own children? That’s the job of aunts and uncles.
As a kid, I was like Flash when it came to singing in front of others. I was too embarrassed to sing in front of my own mother. I don’t know why. Perhaps that quirky trait comes from the same gene that makes females ages 13 to 20 hold their hands up in front of their faces when their parents try to take their pictures - the everybody's-going-to-see-my picture-and-my-hair-is-out-of-place-and-then-the-world-will-end-because-the-earth-revolves-around-me gene. But in my 30s, I quit caring what other people thought. Except for strangers. I still care what people I don’t know think.
My nephew Bowie and I were in the same car during the Great Hurricane Rita Evacuation. Mom, Flash, and our kids were in our van ahead of us. Being one who likes to change lyrics to songs, I “entertained” Bowie, my captive audience. I came up with a little ditty I titled "Lovely Rita, Hurricane" set to the music of "Nowhere Man" by the Beatles. I meant to set it to "Lovely Rita," but in the pseudo trauma of fleeing a hurricane that never showed up to the Houston area, I picked the wrong tune. As we traveled 15 hours to get from our house to Mom's house, which usually took 20 minutes, Bowie and I used walkie-talkies to serenade our family in the other vehicle. It never occurred to us that fleeing strangers who used CBs could hear us, too. My public musical debut was to an unseen audience.
My goal for several years has been to sing karaoke in public. It’s number one on my Scary Bucket List. Maybe Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" or "Last Dance" by Donna Summer. Although, if I choose a duet, I'd only have to sing half a song. My first duet choice would be "Cruisin’" as sung by Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow. Bowie is my only taker for Huey's part.
The fear of public singing is scarier than skydiving. After all, if I skydive, and my parachute doesn’t open, there won’t be people on the ground pointing, laughing, and throwing tomatoes at me. I hope. If I drive to another town to karaoke, at least an hour out of my general listening area, I'd never see any of those people in the audience again. A wig might be good, too. I could pretend I have talent. Then, I'd slip off to the ladies room, take off the wig, and change clothes. It would be like The Lady Vanishes, set in a dimly lit, sparsely populated Mexican food restaurant. I could buy a round of strong margaritas for those listening, which would improve my voice exponentially.
A couple of years ago, I thought I’d found my destiny. For a summer trip destination, Flash, Cowboy, and I picked a Texas town we’d never visited - Georgetown. Contrary to the norm, I didn’t even book a hotel room before we arrived; I felt like living on the edge. After finding a place to stay, we drove to the center of town and found a cute little restaurant advertising “Pizza” on the front window. As we sat down, I looked across the table and saw a poster proclaiming “Karaoke Every Tuesday Night.” As fate would have it, it was Tuesday afternoon.
“Flash! Look at that. They have karaoke tonight at seven o’clock. Let’s do it.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“Oh, come on. We’ll never see these people again.”
“But we’ll see them after we sing. I don’t want to see that.”
I sighed, but my courage grew. “I’m going to do it. Let’s come back for dinner.”
When we returned later, I saw a man hooking up microphones.
“I’ve never done karaoke. How does this work?” I asked him.
“If you want to sing, let me know. I’ll put you on the list, and you can select the song you want to sing.”
I walked back to my seat, a little shakier. There was a birthday party that took up three long tables; the place was packed. I thought I’d watch a few people perform before I committed myself.
First, an eight-year-old boy walked to the makeshift stage. As “Uptown Funk” started, I thought, This will be a train wreck. Instead, that train left the station, sailed through a perfectly-tuned, dance-crazed countryside, and made it back to the station, flawlessly. Impressive. Bruno Mars would’ve been proud.
Next up were two girls, about six years old. They were fantastic.
And so it went. Kid after kid attending the birthday party performed, and knocked it out of the ball park. It was creepy. As if a prerequisite to coming to the celebration was the ability to make it to the finals on The Voice. Flash and I sat there, our mouths gaping.
“What are the odds of this many kids in one town being such talents singers?” I asked Flash. “It’s like The Stepford Wives, but with children who have bionic voices.”
Finally, someone over the age of 10 took the stage. A forty-something-year-old woman stepped up to the mic with her friend. I don’t recall the song, but I recall the quality. Flash winced a few times.
“I might be able to take her,” I told Flash. “I’m as good as she is.”
“Go for it,” he encouraged.
I thought long and hard about it. But my ego shriveled in the shadow of the freakishly talented five-year-old that performed next.
“You know,” I told Flash, “I’m okay with losing face to a 40-year-old, but I will not look worse than a bunch of elementary school kids.”
And so, my dream remains unfulfilled. Of course, Bebe and my friend Coco are willing to go with me to face my giant. They’ve got bigger slingshots; they sing beautifully. I excel at less than mediocre; mediocre would be an answer to prayer. I’d hoped to face my fear by the time I was 50, but 54 will soon be in the rearview mirror. So, I’m extending my deadline to 60. Of course, if I wait until I’m 80, that might be better. The audience will be impressed that I walked up on stage by myself and held my own microphone, and nobody would boo and hiss at an octogenarian.
Last New Year’s Eve, Cowboy hosted another of his blockbuster parties, complete with karaoke. We hooked up a couple of microphones to our Wii, and The Voice: Home Edition began in our living room. There were no blind auditions; we’ve known each other for years. Cowboy and his friends took turns singing by themselves. His special needs friends who attended the party all speak in sentences. Even so, it’s challenging for them to annunciate, follow the words quickly, and sing on key. Cowboy, with verbal apraxia, does not speak in sentences. He struggles to form even single words, although he never stops trying. Yet, each one of those young adults sang from their hearts. It was purely beautiful. I’d never seen Cowboy enjoy singing so much. With his own way of singing, he performed songs from various genres – rock, country, hip hop, R & B, pop. As he finished each song, we cheered, and he gave himself a thumbs up, a rating better than any judge’s favorable critique on America’s Got Talent. His self-confidence, pride, joy, and lack of inhibitions in using his voice, while dancing simultaneously, were inspiring. After several duets and singles, he didn’t want to give up the microphone. Finally, we had to intervene and remind him to share with his guests.
Of course, we adults had to get in on the action. For the first time, I sang karaoke. Surprisingly, I wasn’t embarrassed. I sang my heart out and felt uninhibited, too. The freedom our special needs young adults exhibit is contagious; they keep us young.
The Spirit of Freedom must have moved Flash, too. He got on his feet and sang “Cruisin’” with me in front of our first audience. But the highest point of the evening was watching Flash and Tommy, the father of one of Cowboy's friends, sing “I Had the Time of My Life” together. Another man-crush may be in the making; they poured their souls into the song, along with a few quiet expletives when the lyrics were going by too quickly for them to keep up.
Our private karaoke night embodied the nature of singing: It lifts us up. It heals us. It brings joy. It helps us express ourselves. And, it sets us free. I sang my imperfect songs in front of others, and I survived. Maybe that dark, Mexican food restaurant isn’t too far into my future. As long as I remember why I’m singing, and ask that no tomatoes be served that night, I’ll be fine.