This little story took place back when I was in the guitar and keyboard band, “Eye of the Needle”. So music was on my mind. I usually played the bass guitar. The bass guitar, having only four strings, was not too great a burden on my skills. However, one of the first things I did after joining the band was to take actual bass guitar lessons. This turned out to be a very good idea.
Bass guitar instructor on the occasion of my first lesson: “Go ahead, play something for me.”
Bass guitar instructor: “Oh my heck! You play just like an engineer!”
From the look on his face, I could tell that was a bad thing.
So over the next few months, he taught me not only to play, understand music and technique, but also feel and enjoy the music.
“It is NOT an exercise in getting all the right notes at the right time. That’s what I meant when I said you play like an engineer. Feel the music, enjoy the music!”
So, after those lessons, I was comfortable that I could add to, and not distract from, the band’s music. I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Bear in mind, our first gigs were at rest homes so that no one in our audience could escape. But still, we were getting pretty good as a band.
I discovered, however, that the choir lessons I had in St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Grade School were not sufficient to ensure melodious strains would issue from my mouth. In fact, it seemed I could not carry a tune in a bucket, as my mother used to say. Eye of the Needle band practice quickly turned into an intervention session whenever I sang.
So I had some motivation to want to sing better.
Oh, well, let’s face it. I wanted to be able to sing — period.
So I took voice lessons.
It should be stated at this point that this little story occurred when I was in my mid-40’s. The “old man” in the title of this post is a relative term. Relative to the fact that every other student to this voice teacher was in their teens.
I had decided that with the right instruction, anyone can sing. And it was just a matter of learning how. I don’t know why I thought this. But it turned out to be true for me.
So voice lessons were needed. I took voice lessons. Seems like kind of a crazy, bold move in retrospect.
My first lesson confirmed my mother’s assessment of my skill level. My voice lesson commenced with my teacher asking me to “sing a bit of something”. (Sound familiar?) I don’t recall what it was, but I remember picking something I was comfortable with and felt fairly confident I would not embarrass myself too much.
My teacher had been a singer in the USAF band and had a brief career in New York before moving to Ogden Utah. As I belted something out, her eyes got wide. But not in a good way:
“Oh good!” She said, trying to put her best spin on it. “You won’t have to unlearn anything. You don’t know the first thing about singing.”
“Heh, good.” I muttered.
I did learn that the most important organ for singing was my ear. I had to be able to tell what I was doing in order to improve. So, perhaps, it should really have been called ear training.
Recitals were a deep and abiding embarrassment: “If you take voice lessons, you WILL attend my recitals and sing. It is all part of the package.” That package included the aforementioned teens and their doting parents, many younger than me. And, oh yeah, mostly ladies and girls.
A man who was less self-confident might have felt uncomfortable. The first one certainly placed me in the position of counting on the kindness of strangers. Yeah. I performed pretty badly.
As the lessons progressed, I found the intense multi-tasking I had learned to master as a jet pilot in the Air Force was nothing compared to our lessons. I would be trying to remember a dozen technical points along with the notes and words, all the while she would be constantly throwing out suggestions, pointing out errors, or shouting encouragement. It wasn’t this bad in pilot training. But maybe the instructor pilot had a fear of crashing and burning. No such fear on the part of my voice teacher. Crashing and burning were just part of the package. Maybe it was supposed to be a Zen thing.
One day, I was having a particularly difficult time with all this multi-tasking. And especially having a hard time keeping the notes “on key”. Actually, I would have been happy if the notes were some recognizable member of any key. Inevitably, they were all randomly sharp or flat.
Meanwhile, she kept shouting various words at me and repeating fairly often the word “intonation”.
“Intonation, Charles, Intonation!”
Finally, pretty flustered, I just stopped mid-note and said: “You keep saying that word, intonation! I don’t know what it means!”
“Oh” She said, simultaneously embarrassed and amused. “It means you are singing off key. You are not hitting the note.”
“Yes. So, now let’s work on the blocking for this song.” Blocking is the pre-planned movements of the singer as they perform. It was not enough that I be able to sing without having people be embarrassed for me. But I must also perform as I sing — so as to engage the audience.
(Sheesh! What next? Juggling?)
So we had a lot more lessons and a few more recitals. And I must say, the later recitals went much better than the first.
I believe any leader or even manager should take voice lessons, if only to learn about performance art and how to deal with performance anxiety. For instance, as a performance artist, you are putting yourself out there, delivering a message. Hopefully, that message reflects the intent of the songwriter and you successfully “move” the audience with that emotion. However, early on, your main emotion is embarrassment and nervousness. This will be the main message you send to your audience until you get better at it.
And things did go better after a few more recitals. My confidence increased as my skills increased.
Our band was asked to play at a party at a friend’s house where the place would be packed with people from the office where many of us worked. As part of my general plan to jump into things I am terrified of, I worked up the courage to ask the band if I could do one of the numbers I had done at a recital. After listening to me perform, and watching my “blocking” with some amusement, they said yes.
So I performed in front of scores of my friends that night. And, you know what? I did OK.
…for an old man.