Fifteen more minutes.
Maybe he’s late again.
He has always been late. I glance at my cellphone. Maybe I have a message: He is not coming. He might call as he did but I doubt if he will after I write this in my thoughts. He will call an hour later like he did. Two hours later, maybe. I review my schedule. I check the dates. Maybe I have forgotten that we are not supposed to meet today. But maybe he has forgotten all about me.
Today, I only require 30 minutes of his life yet it sounds difficult to accomplish for a man who has proven his worth to the world. I haven’t had enough sleep. I was in a hurry to be here. I made sure I ate something to avoid bad breath. Still, every time we meet, I am always the first one to arrive.
More sun rays enter as each minute passes by. I kneel at the bench and look outside the window. The trees have been there like retirees who enjoy the comfort of their home. On the other bench, beside me, a girl is having her value meal breakfast. Her mother is present as always. She places her John Thompson’s book at her lap as they wait for her teacher. I hear someone playing a flute. It gets better every time he repeats playing the same notes. Somewhere near me, a lady is reaching the highest note she can sing. Along the corridors, the piano music keeps running in my ears. It aches my fingers imagining if those fingers pressing the piano keys were mine. The music speeds up every now and then. I make the most of my time by absorbing everything I see and hear.
In front of me is the little room where we always meet. Like most of the rooms in this place, it just has enough space for two people, a piano, and a mirror. I read my music sheet as if I know how to read notes. I sit quietly. I hum a little. While I have nothing else to do, I predict what it is going to be like inside the little room again.
It was more than an hour that I was waiting for him. It was our first time together. I was there at the bench waiting. I did not want to leave because it was my first time. And even if I had to wait till noon, I would. I could not contain my excitement. I fantasized that I would be trained by a well-known musician. His gray hair would inspire me to be at my best. His eyeglasses would fall in his nose bridge as he taught me how to sing his piece. He would be like a father, stern and endearing.
My thoughts were disturbed when a young man appeared before me. He wore a shirt and jeans which reminded me of engineering students around the campus.
“Are you Jocelyn?”he asked.
“No,” I replied.
He immediately rushed to the little room.
He came out of the room. He then asked me if I was the girl who should be his student that day. Upon hearing my name, I gladly said ‘yes.’
We came in. I saw the grand piano as expected. The mirror was there. I did not really like the idea that I was alone with a man who was a few years older than I was. For our next meetings, I would choose the clothes I wear. I should avoid wearing skimpy clothes. I would worry a lot if my clothes revealed some flesh. And I bet I would have awkward moments with him. The fact that I was alone with a young man gave me lot of reasons to be self-conscious.
“I did not know my schedule,” he said casually. Deep inside, I was complaining how late he was. He should have known that I had been debating with myself if I should go home or not. I even asked the secretary downstairs if I was in the right room, the right class, the right teacher indicated in my enrollment form. I asked the security guard if they knew him and if he was coming. But I only found out from the security guard that my teacher had fair skin.
He smiled most of the time. They were not just smiles. They were huge smiles. His teeth glimmered. His eyes smiled too. I then forgot how late he was and how delinquent he was for not having a double-check on his class schedule. He asked me why did I take voice lessons, was there a special occasion, and did I have any vocal training. I was timid to admit that the only reason I was there was because of plain curiosity.
“So you don’t have singing experience at all? But you sing in the bathroom?”
He laughed as if I made his day.
“So let’s start from the basic: Posture. Look at the mirror. Stand up tall. Shoulders relaxed.”
Seventy-five percent of our session was dedicated to the topic of posture. A proper posture could make you sound better. That’s what he said all the time. From the way I stood, the way I dropped my jaw, it mattered on the quality of sound I produced. I looked at myself in the mirror, not only to observe if I carried out his instructions properly but also to see if I was pretty enough for him to regularly stare at my jaw, my cheeks, my nostril, my throat, and my eyebrows.
Funny it was, not to be good at something I had been doing every second of my life, breathing. It was easy to say breathe from your diaphragm but my diaphragm did not coöperate when I asked it to breathe. He let me released air with “ttttt-tuh-tuhhhhhh.”
“Sir, it’s just so hard! Because my muscle has not memorized how to breathe that way.”
“Exactly,”he said. I was happy at the thought that I could verbalize my weakness to a musician.
“Breathing for singing is also breathing for life. We breathe through our diaphragm naturally but because of environmental factors, such as our insecurity. We breathe through our chest in singing.”
He made an assessment on my voice. I started to sing different combinations of syllables.
“Just keep singing,” he said while his hands swayed along the piano keys.
I followed the chords he played. I panicked as the notes got higher. I kept singing to the best I could until I struggled one of the last keys of the piano.
“Wow! Are you a singer?” He joked.
“You could reach this F minor .” (I can barely recall if it was F minor. I know nothing about chords, and I do not know how to play any musical instrument) He pointed to one of the last keys of the piano.
“You know not all singers could reach that,” he continued. My heart instantly grew bigger. I could not believe what he said. Horray, a musician told me I was a singer! I felt all my body cells were jumping. Who would have thought I could sing?
Before leaving, I had a final look at my attendance sheet. He wrote in his remarks: clavicular breathing, the last note I sang, and I had good listening skill.
“Sir, our class starts at nine o’clock,”
I left him playing the piano and I looked forward opening the same door and learning from the same teacher who would be late in the next session, next month, and for the rest of our classes.
Another day in the little room….
“Lay your tongue flat behind your upper teeth. You goal is to show your upper teeth and hide your lower teeth. Move your mouth upward or downward movement but not sideward.” he instructed.
I realized that learning how to sing was as exhausting as learning how to use a mathematical formula. Sure,many people could sing if singing only meant opening your mouth but to sing following all the mechanics of producing a quality voice was memorizing a formula yet don’t know how to use it in an equation. I was perspiring. I had been planting wrinkles in my face as I was singing. All those neural connections of my brain were compressing and expanding as I tried to put in my voice all those details of proper singing.
“Drop the jaw,” he reminded me for the third time.
I pitied myself. I just could not execute everything he said at the same time. I had to drop my jaw. I had to open my mouth as oval as it could be. My tongue was fighting back as I tried to lay it flat behind my lower teeth. Not to mention, I was racing with the notes moving to the tip of the piano. And my major problem, breathing, had kept me from reaching the note I used to reach.
“Sir, it’s just so hard,” I said.
“You can do it,” he said. I knew he would say that. I needed him to encourage me.
Days ran fast. My teacher had been wearing jeans and shirt. He was like any other boy in the campus. I did have a feeling that he just woke up and remembered my class then he went straight to the bathroom and ran to the school building. But if he put on some gel and combed his hair in style, he would look like a matinée idol. He was potentially telegenic. Sometimes, he laughed at my mistakes. I liked him to laugh at me rather than to scold me. He made fun of my voice. He said I sounded like a chipmunk. Anybody could tell his vocal range when he talked (which applies to everybody. He, one time, asked me to sing the way I talked ). I could not visualize his Adam’s apple. Occasionally, I got to hear his operatic voice. If I closed my eyes, I would have thought that it was an old woman singing. He was another man, not the man who wore sneakers all the time. He was an Italian wearing a nice suit and slacks.
I marveled at his intelligence in music. He could tell what was happening inside my mouth when I sang. Without looking at me, he knew what went wrong in my voice. He taught me to know what it was like to breathe from the diaphragm. “Think that you are sipping a large bowl of soup,” he said. When he wanted me to sound like a classical singer, he let me imagine I was swallowing an apple. The apple then stuck on my throat occupying a lot of space.
I had been singing incomprehensible sounds until he asked me to master a song I already knew.
And there I was with one of the songs I had its lyrics stored in my head. I always had poor memory with song lyrics. It had always been chicken for me to pick the tune and seal it in my memory but my brain consumed 10 gigabyte or more to memorize a complete lyrics of the song. Because of my memory, I decided to pick “On my Own,” as my recital piece. Believe me, this had been one of my most sung songs in my lifetime but I could not simply sing the entire lyrics.
“You want that song? But the song is too low for you.”
What? This song had helped international performers established their career. I’m just a mediocre for him to say that the song is too low for me.
After I finished singing On my Own……
“Your voice has the characteristic for Broadway-”
I giggled. It was the same sensation when I heard him said I had a very high voice.
“But I’ll teach you this way.”
So I started to learn the song all over again.
Instead of singing “ All the lights are misty in the riv-uhhhr,” I had to sing: “All the lights are misty in the rivaaaar.” The vowels should be uniform in singing. “It’s either you compromise the pronunciation or the tone of your voice,” he explained.
I sang the song again. I love the way he pronounced ‘better’ every time I sang the lines in his semi-classical style of singing. I had the illusion that ‘better’ is an Italian word or a French word.
‘Better…better..’ echoed in my ears after I succeeded in each line.
I could not wait for the next session. I wished he would say, ‘better’
I was standing in the little room again. But this time I was about to give up.
“Sir, it’s just so hard,” I said.
This time no reply came out.
I had to focus. Why can’t my muscles and vocal cords obey my mind? I was failing. I could not achieve the two most important lines of the song: the first line and the last line.
“I understand that the song is too low for you but do not use your chest voice to sing the low notes. Use the head voice all the time. Our goal here is not to let listeners know that there’s a shifting of the voice. But because we don’t want the shifting of the voice to be obvious, you better use head tone in the entire song.”
He taught me a technique how to reach low notes using the head tone. I opened my nostril in order to sing the first line: “On my own” . I thought it sounded airy and I thought I was ugly with the big holes of my nose. Much worse, I could hardly hear my voice. Was I really producing a sound or was it just an air?
“It’s okay if you can’t. Don’t force it. Just let it be. It will just come out.”
I was puzzled if I should take it as a compliment. Should I really be happy in discovering that I was a certified soprano? Or should I be frustrated for not singing what I was supposed to sing?
The last line took ten minutes or more of our moments together. We were trying to have a dramatic ending for my song. The last line was still “ on my own”. I did not know how to describe it. To me it seemed that the word ‘own’ should sound be in crescendo and in decrescendo. I called it ‘dynamics’ in my voice.
“But only on my ow————n-”
When he could no longer resist,he touched the lower part of my chin. This was the problem: something near my chin. It was stiff and immovable. I could not sing smoothly the last word ‘own’ from a strong loud voice to a soft audible voice. I shrank inside. He had to stand up from his chair just to tell me what was wrong with how I sang.
“Yes, time is over!”
He rejoiced as he went back to his piano and saw his watch. It annoyed me that he was eager to go home while I would grab an opportunity to extend another minute in that little room with him. He should have been tired with the day’s session. I understood my voice was polluting him after repeating the same lines all over again…
I would like to believe that a voice lesson session is an intimate activity. It is like two lovers who make most of the dark. It is as intimate as a guitarist strums the strings of his guitar. He has to hold and touch his guitar to make music. There has to be immediacy for music to have life. There has to be connectedness. The songwriter binds the lyrics and the music. The singer builds emotion with his pitch and tone. A song from the radio brings back memories to his listeners. In some sense, music is always physical. The sound waves will always hit you eardrums even if they travel from your iPod or from a stereo. It has to be something close to you. It is the way Beethoven taught his lover to play the piano, the way singers are trained by their vocal coaches. They have to be close to their mentors. They have to be close to their music……..
He is here.
He is not a few years older than I am. He is not too old either but he is old enough to teach me.
I will sing again: “ I love him but only on my own………….”