I never liked my own voice. It didn’t sound like Barbra’s. It was the 80s and – for me – it was all about Barbra. Vintage Barbra, Yentl Barbra, totally Barbra.
As a 14-year-old singing in my room along with her records, I tried to match my tone and vibration and phrasing up…just…like…her. But I was a 14-year-old. And an entirely different person altogether.
But thus began a long relationship with myself where I was unhappy with what I was and always trying to be better, different…perfect.
I remember beginning to do community theatre in my small town and this irascible director named George – err, rather, he liked to be called Jorgé – sort of had a monopoly on musical theatre there. Everyone was afraid of him, as he yelled and bellowed his displeasure. But I could handle it. It felt so familiar. I was already deep in the throes of trying to make difficult or insane people like me from growing up with my family, so what was the big deal with this cranky guy?
Besides, he seemed ultimately harmless. And I admired his passion for theatre. His intense focus.
And sometimes he would nod off, slipping fast asleep, his head to one side as a cigarette burned down in one hand and his other arm crossed in front of his chest. He was a narcoleptic.
Then, without warning, he would shoot up straight and shout:
“FROM THE TOP – 5, 6, 7, 8!!!”
He kept people on pins and needles, but maybe in our small town, people thought it was a big-time-big-shot way of doing theatre and so we ate it up. And for me, walking on eggshells was a special skill, so I kinda aced this.
And George liked me. And I liked him.
He would nod his approval of me, cast me as a lead in shows, give me notes, and then beam a little on opening night – but not give me too much praise because in his world, perhaps he didn’t want to create a 15-year-old prima donna.
But I would have eaten up that praise. Devoured it. I was malnourished in the nurturing-and-acceptance-from-authority-figures department and a “hey Sarah, you’re pretty terrific just as you are — even if you weren’t able to hit a high C or cry real tears when you act ” would have gone a long way.
Really, I longed to hear that who I was beyond my performance skills mattered, but I didn’t know that at the time. So I focused on becoming better as a performer to feel better about myself.
The one time I asked him what he thought my future held as a professional actress in musical theatre, he said this:
“You’re 16 and you sing like a 30 year old. It’s a well developed voice and it’s surprising when it comes out of you. But that novelty will get old.”
He took a long drag of his cig.
I stared at him, waiting for more. “Yes? Yes?” I thought inside my young, starved-for-guidance head, always willing to work on myself, do more, do it differently, do it better; awaiting some instruction, some antidote to what he had just put forth.
He fell asleep.
I waited as he began to snore.
I was sure I would never find out what to do about this dilemma of my mature sounding voice. He seemed to suggest I was washed up and wouldn’t have anything more to offer the world – me, this 16 year old force of nature singing her guts out from one show to the next, desperately hoping to find her place, her family, somewhere in the theatre.
I sighed. He woke up.
“What was I saying? Hummmph. Hand me those cigarettes, would ya? I need to get some coffee.”
And he rose from his chair and disappeared in to the next room. I would never find out what could be done about this novelty voice of mine. And I was too ashamed to say anything to anyone else.
A year later, I developed nodules on my throat from singing through a rock opera with tonsillitis and had my tonsils removed.
I did a couple more musicals after that, but I put to rest my singing future and focused on becoming a dramatic actress. Through the years, when I’ve sung, boyfriends would clasp their hands to their ears and say: “Whoa you’re loud “ or “That’s really high.” Not exactly a standing “o” or a “brava”.
But that was OK, because by then I was deep in a Shakespeare and Chekov phase, bathed in suffering as an artist, traversing my psyche through iambic pentameter, and finding solace in age-old problems written in prose that connect us all. My singing glory days were long behind me, left on the doorstep of a tiny town that once actually encouraged my opening my mouth and letting loose my voice on stage in front of an audience. But once I hit 30, I rarely let anyone hear me sing.
Today I found myself letting loose in my apartment. Rusty. Thin-voiced in the top notes. But it’s still there.
I don’t know if I have a 30 year old’s voice anymore, but probably not, since I’m well past 30. And I certainly don’t have Barbra’s. But I don’t care. The scratch, the funny vibrato, the years etched in to my sound doesn’t bother me the way it used to. My imperfect singing reflects an imperfect being. A divine mess. And I like it now.
George has since gone to the great Beyond. Maybe he can hear me and is chuckling to himself – or staying awake long enough – to notice I’ve grown in to my voice.