A few days ago I casually mentioned to a friend of mine that I used to sing professionally. Her response flabbergasted me. She thought it was, well, absolutely fascinating. She went on and on about it and wanted to know what I’d written about it in my book. I had to confess that I hadn’t written much at all about it because I didn’t think it was important. Honestly, I told her, there’s not all that much to say about the singing…what am I gonna say? I went to the gig, I sang…big deal.
I guess I’ve always been a bit jaded about my singing because I had to do it to make a living. I didn’t want to sing…I wanted to be recognized and appreciated as a pianist, not a singer. To me singing was easy…anybody could sing, but playing the piano was hard and took years of dedication and practice, and I was kind of miffed at the idea that people seemed to like singers better.
Well, I’m not talking about opera and Broadway singers, of course, when I say singing is easy. I’m talking about people like me who sat behind a piano in cocktail lounges for years and sang standards and popular tunes night after night. I never had any voice lessons, I just did it because it was hard back in the 70s, 80s and even 90s for a woman to get a job playing piano if she didn’t sing.
There have always been exceptions, of course, great jazz pianists like Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams, Joanne Brackeen, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and so on, but even Barbara Carroll, who to me was and is a terrific pianist, ended up singing, although I can’t speak for her…maybe she genuinely wanted to.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy singing. I do. I just didn’t enjoy being made to sing because otherwise I wouldn’t get the gig. And I didn’t enjoy singing songs that I really didn’t like all that much (or that I actually despised) night after night.
But I realized that my friend was quite serious. She thought the fact that I sang was pretty awesome. She said, “Maybe it’s not to you, but to others it’s a big deal. To those who have never sung it’s fascinating. Sorry, but it’s true honey…”
So I ended up taking her seriously. I realized I was being self-centered. I tried to put myself in her shoes. She claims she doesn’t know how to sing, can’t sing, will never be able to sing, so I understand why she thinks it’s so great that I sang.
But I think anyone can sing. I really do. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I honestly think that if I could sit down with my friend, or someone else who swears they can’t sing, that I’d having them singing in a very short time. I think part of the problem in the Western world is that we tend to see singing as a “performance.” We generally pay go to listen to someone else sing, unless we’re singing in church. But in other parts of the world, singing is a natural thing that people do spontaneously, either alone or in groups, to express joy, to celebrate, or just to keep themselves company while they wash the clothes. No one cares whether they’re a “good” singer or not.
Maybe I should look at my own singing that way, too. That I do it for fun, to express how I feel, to relax, whatever, instead of remembering it as something I had to do for years against my will. I think I like that idea. I’m heading for the shower now…