As soon as I could read, I started writing poetry. Not very good poetry, you understand, but I knew it had to keep to a meter and rhyme. I memorized songs that I heard on the radio and sang them to myself, or with a girlfriend on the back porch “stage.” (She could not carry a tune, I soon realized, but she was blissfully unaware of that fact.) I had no piano until I was 13, but was drawn to every piano that I saw, and wanted to pick out one-finger melodies by ear.
Both my mother and father could sing by ear, and my dad, I learned later, had a few piano lessons as a boy, but neither of them could really read music. I learned basic sight-reading in grammar school and sang in choirs every chance I got. But I never received voice training as a solo performer, except for one semester in my freshman year of college. I knew how to sing, but I was not born with a “set of pipes” that set me apart as someone who could be famous one day. No power, no style, and certainly no burning ambition to be a star.
And yet, I was never so happy as when I was “hanging out” with musicians who did have talent. I could play a bass line progression on the piano to give the lead pianist a break while the sax, trumpet, and drums continued to jam. I once filled in on piano for a frat party just so that the group could keep its commitment, but I was very nervous. In high school and college I also was drawn to try out for the dramatic productions, just wanting to be part of the glamour and that certain atmosphere. Only once was I actually on stage with a speaking part: as one of the witches in MacBeth. I wore a ragged wig, long false nails, and some of my teeth were blacked out. But when my line came, I ran to the edge of the stage and pronounced it with as much evil affectation as I could summon, frightening a little boy in the front row!
And to this day, I have a wide streak of “ham” in me, which I channel into occasionally disguising myself on Halloween so completely that no one recognizes me (see “I Am Not An Old Grouch” in the October 2007 Archives.)
In 8th grade I won a contest to write the school song. I also became famous as the girl who did an imitation of a dog-and-cat fight in the Talent Show. In high school I designed the cover of and contributed poetry to the literary magazine, and wrote and recited the class poem as Poet Laureate of the Class of 1956. It was not until much later that I found acceptance and encouragement as a serious singer-songwriter by fellow members of my Unity Church.
There I continue to write new songs and perform them myself with my barely adequate chording and strumming on the acoustic guitar, and no one seems to mind that I don’t have an outstanding voice. They even think my songs ought to be recorded, and that may yet happen before my life is over. Right now, I am a little excited about ending our Christmas Eve service with a sentimental rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, backed up by a professional performance track. If I see a few tissues dabbing at tears, I’ll be happy.
I think it’s the energy that I feel while performing music, especially with other people. It flows right through me when I am doing it right, and there is no effort to it, even at my age.
Oh, and there is one other “act” I used to have! When I was in my 40s, newly single, and still slim, I used to go to a local coffee house on Saturday nights. All evening I would behave myself, but at midnight, when they closed, the band would strike up a rocking rendition of “In the Midnight Hour.” That was my cue to shout, “All right!” and jump out of my chair and dance like nobody was watchin’! Once they got over their surprise, the patrons loved it. That song still has that effect on me, but these days I don’t have the wind to get all the way through it!