Sunday, July 04, 2010

Karaoke as Cheap Therapy

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut

"I think it heals the soul," she whispers, as if a secret.

"I think it does too, Aunt." I reply.

My Aunt Mary Lou and I are on the phone. We're talking about singing instead of addressing her daughter, who is dying of cancer. My aunt needs a break.

"Do you still sing, Bethy?"

Hearing "Bethy" always warms my heart. It's my child name.

"Yes, Aunt. I do. I sang with a choir for the last few years. I even sang a solo once."


[Me singing with a small group ensemble in Brooklyn's Bella Voce. It's an Emily Dickinson poem put to music. I'm one of the two altos.]

"Really!" my Aunt Mary Lou exclaims. "Well, isn't that wonderful. How about now?"

"Well, it's kind of...stupid. It's...I just sing karaoke sometimes at the local bar here."

"That's not stupid, Bethy. That's practice."

I smile, wiping away a wandering tear. My cousin is my age. She had a routine gall bladder surgery and found cancer. Lots of it. Suddenly, she has weeks to live.

"It is practice, Aunt. I'm not sure for what but..."

"Life. It's practice for life."

Back in the day, my mother and father, my aunts and uncles, would sing all night long, if you let them. That's when people were more full of goodness, it seemed; content with sitting around a kitchen table until the wee hours, connecting, conversing, debating, joking, laughing, singing songs - just being simpler and happier. Before computers. Before cell phones. Before a million TV channels. Before a great disconnect.


[My family sitting around singing in 1971. That's me at 4 singing in the background.]

Occasionally the gang would go out to a local piano bar, sipping the same drink all night and singing until their voices became whispers the next day. I loved watching the women prepare for their big night out - coral lipstick, bright floral patterns, hairspray...layers and layers of hairspray.

[My Aunt Mary Lou on the left.]

Years later, after many of the old crew had died, I would visit my aunt in Pittsburgh and she would insist on us singing. She'd sit down at her organ - those crazy organs with a million buttons - and start playing at full volume. And I was expected to sing...loudly. Show tunes, I remember.

"I am sixteen, going on seventeen," I'd sing. (Although I was 34 going on 35.)

"I enjoy being a girl!" I'd meekly proclaim.

"Louder, with feeling. Sing it out, Bethy!" she'd demand, a Kool cigarette dangling out of her mouth.

"Come on, Aunt, please. I'm not very good."

"What the hell does that matter? Just sing! You're too damn shy."

(Interestingly enough, coming from a pretty rowdy bunch, I'm still considered the wallflower.)

So I would sing. For her, for me. I'd return to singing again and again, as a source of soul therapy.

I'm not a great singer but I love to sing. A definite difference. Being in the company of good musicians over the years, I've realized how difficult it is to sing well. I've studied voice, practiced hard, and yet I can't always correct it certain issues.

That used to eat me up inside. I wanted to sing 100% well or not at all. My fierce self-loathing would often throttle me before I could even open my mouth. But I kept trying.

In New York, I was fortunate enough to sing with an amazing women’s choir. During our concerts, I’d feel transported by the music and the other women’s voices, like angels on high. When I left the city, it was one of the few aspects of my life there I genuinely missed.

At the Jersey shore, the outlets to sing are few and far between. So with a thread of embarrassment, I found myself going to karaoke on the weekends at a local grungy bar.

What’s there to say about karaoke that hasn’t already been mocked? Yes, it can be bloody awful, an insult to real music and occasionally just plain circus-style creepy. This place was no exception. But desperate times called for desperate measures, so there I was each weekend, singing everything from Led Zeppelin to Barry Manilow.

Slowly I became part of a peculiar yet kind sub-culture of fellow wannabe singers that cheered and supported me even if I kinda sucked. Because the name of the game wasn’t to nail it but to simply try. A perfection-free zone where I could practice singing and if I failed? Who cares? It’s just karaoke.

As months passed and I got a little bolder, my singing evolved into a kind of performing. I’d allow myself to be taken by a song. I’d dance or act out a song. Who cares? It’s just karaoke.

Once in a while, I’d experience this feeling of transcendence, simply by letting my voice free. It became a form of soul therapy. I’d go home feeling at peace and charged up…and drunk, yes drunk.

I practiced in my bedroom a lot. Which could be awkward. Because others can hear you and it’s hard to sing past that self-consciousness. Then you even push yourself past that feeling, forcing yourself to not care. Or to sing anyway. Exposing your voice. It’s so nude.

Years ago, a friend pretended to strangle me, as a joke. The moment her hands reached my neck, I started sobbing, much to her and my surprise. That area of the body can be so loaded with energy. My mom was dying at the time so somehow my emotions were just stuck there. Singing moves it through you. That’s the magic of it.  

Over the years, my singing has gotten better but I certainly not great. I’ve joined a rock band. We suck a bit truth be told. But it’s not about perfection. It’s the expression that matters.

When it comes to singing (literally or metaphorically), it’s easy to be strangled by insecurities or crippled by perfectionism. You may flail and cringe at what you’ve created. You may meet up with old monsters that want to destroy you for even thinking of trying. But if you allow yourself to create in spite of it all, you just may save your soul.

Beth does Karaoke from Beth Mann on Vimeo.

(Leo Sayer, singing the song maybe a little better than me. Okay, a lot. But note, his open-throated sound and dead-on diction. That's solid technique.)

(After Gary introduced me to the better mike.)

There are Worse Things I could do....really. from Beth Mann on Vimeo.

1 comment:

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