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My Voice

My Voice

When I was little, I used to sing stories to myself. I would walk to the library, make up a story, and revise it over and over, all to some endless tune in my head. My mother loved that I would sing around the house, and she wanted me to sing more. It was her idea to find me a voice teacher when I was in eighth grade. She wanted me to know that my voice was worth taking seriously.

I was always singing, or shouting, it's hard to tell.

I was always singing, or shouting, it’s hard to tell.

My first voice teacher had an opera background, but she spent most of my lessons on vocal exercises and breathing exercises, teaching me how to breathe from my diaphragm, and stand up straight, and relax my shoulders. I’d never much liked practicing scales on the piano, but vocal exercises made more sense to me. She taught me to sing through the mask of my face, like a raccoon, and to change the shape of my mouth to make the consonants clear and the vowels more open.

My father insisted that we sing songs together after Friday night dinner, as a family. But, he didn’t believe in normal limitations, like that a baritone might struggle to hit a glass-shattering high note. He refused to choose a key that everyone, including him, would be comfortable with, and he didn’t care about the quality of the note when he was done with it. He could rip it and strangle it, and drown the note in coughing, but if he hit that note, even for a second, he’d won.

And he did not like competition. He didn’t want me to practice singing between voice lessons. He would complain that I was “caterwauling,” even if I practiced in my room with the door closed. He’d complain about the money Mom was spending on my lessons. And eventually, he made it clear that he believed in the ban on kol isha – the voice of a woman – that we’d learned at school. I could sing at home, but it would be unacceptable to allow my voice to be heard by men outside of the family. He believed that singing, for a woman, is a salacious, sexually provocative act, and if I do it, I am a whore.

Unfortunately, around the same time as I was getting used to my voice lessons, we had a guest speaker at my orthodox Jewish school. Only the girls were invited to the gym to listen to her. She performed for us first, doing her own version of beat boxing, using her mouth like a drum and her hands as tambourines. The things she could do, the sounds she could create with no musical instruments to back her up, were incredible. There was something like bird song about her voice, as if she was born with these songs in her body and she just had to release them. She wasn’t just hitting notes, she was putting spin on them, like a tennis player, top spin and back spin, hollow sounds and full sounds, cold and warm, shivery and strident, all from one voice. I wanted her to be my teacher.

After her performance, she told us that she’d been a voice student at a prestigious conservatory, training for a professional music career, when she started to visit Chabad (a Chasidic Jewish outreach group) on the weekends. She gradually became more and more religious, until it became clear that as a religious Jewish woman she could never sing in front of men. She’d pieced together a career as a speaker, and sold her music to strictly female audiences. Her message was clear: being religious comes first, before anything else you might want, or love, or need in life.

Her visit haunted me. I didn’t stop singing altogether, but I felt her hand tightening around my throat.

My black lab mix, Dina, came along when I was sixteen years old, and she was a singer too. You had to hit a certain note, something in the howl-range, and that would set her off. Her pitch was pretty good and she could sing a nice clear note or series of notes, but she didn’t seem to enjoy it. She seemed like a button had been pressed in her brain and she had to sing, and had no control over it, and no choice. She seemed relieved when the singing stopped, as if it had taken so much out of her and now she could rest in silence.

Dina as a puppy.

Dina as a puppy.

I took a few years off from trying to sing, until my last semester of college, when I had two credits to kill. I’d been feeling like a robot, detached from myself and my voice, and I hoped voice lessons would help unlock something. I didn’t have to perform in public; my lessons would be in a safe, partially soundproof room. I still couldn’t practice at home, though, so I’d sing in the car on the way to and from school.

This was my first male voice teacher, and he was closer to my age, and friendly, and an opera singer. Whenever he actually sang something I sort of cringed, though. I’m not an opera fan. The vocal quality they strive for is bombastic and brassy and kind of hurts my ears, but he was very nice. He had me singing from an opera workbook, in Italian. There was something freeing about singing in a language I didn’t understand.

I sang to Dina at home, but not too loud, and never in full voice, and gradually, the hand around my throat grew tighter and tighter, telling me to stop singing, and I did.

Dina had a lot to think about.

Dina was a very good listener.

When I think back to that girl singer, though, telling us that she had to give up her dreams in order to be a good girl, I wonder if I ignored something important. With her words, yes, she told us to hide ourselves from the world, but her body carried a different message. Her voice seemed to be saying that, if you have a bird trapped in your chest, flapping its wings and trying to sing its song, you have to let it sing, or it will die.


About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

130 responses »

  1. I started singing in the little Southern Baptist Church my family belonged to when I was five years old. My daddy led the singing for the church (as a volunteer) and my mother played the piano (also as a volunteer). I couldn’t read the hymns, so my mother would teach me the words by rote – and then stand me on a folding chair to sing in front of the church for the special music in the worship service on Sunday morning. I was very short, so that’s why I needed the chair. I always loved to sing because everyone said I had a natural gift of “carrying a tune.”
    Many years later I enrolled in a Southern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas and did graduate study in music with a major in voice. My teacher was an opera singer who taught me to sing in languages like German and French and once again I didn’t understand the words. It was like having my mother make me memorize the hymns – only magnified by trying to form unnatural sounds to go along with the foreign words. I was an abysmal failure and a seminary dropout.
    Fifty years later I still love to carry a tune, but it’s more like making a joyful noise than anything else.
    Make your own kind of music – sing your own special song.

    • I would love to make a joyful noise. I think that’s the goal, no matter what kind of music you’re working with. But it takes so much work to strip away the expectations and technical considerations and fear and judgement, to get to the joyful noise at the center. Like a tootsie roll pop.

  2. Pingback: with deep gratitude | Riddle from the Middle

  3. Love this one. Keep on singing, even if it’s only for yourself! Music carries healing power…I nominated you for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award (no obligation!).

  4. This is what Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) refers to as a U-turn and it is amazing how many of us have U-turns when it comes to music. Creative expression needs to be birthed into the world; it wants to be. How sad that it was discouraged because of religious beliefs.

  5. Who gave you that voice? God. To be heard, not silenced by the fear of men. The world needs to hear your voice. SING!

  6. Wow Rachel- it was just a bit sad to read this post of your’s…and thank you for stopping by to read mine. I never thought anyone would have it so hard to try singing. It ought to be every growing up child’s right to learn, sing and express themselves joyfully in any manner they choose for themselves. singing more so- for it is a primitive thing to express joy through singing. It just tells me what scores of other children could be experiencing. Regards and appreciation for your beautiful writing.

  7. I ‘sing’ all the time Rachel, I sing to help me do the housework, I sing to the cat (and make up songs for and about her – I think that I must any the neighbours – the mad English woman lol

  8. Thank you for reading my post, Rachel! This reminded me of when I used to sing and play guitar when I was in middle school. There was a group of girls in my class (I went to Catholic school) and we’d all stay in for recess with our guitars, singing both religious and secular songs. We’d also play in church on Saturday nights. The thing was, most of the girls were very shy about singing, so they often wouldn’t open their mouths in church. I, on the other hand, would feel the need to compensate for the whole group, so I’d sing extra loud. It was kind of weird, since I was actually quite shy and also don’t have a very good voice. But something would happen when I was in that situation. Unfortunately–or perhaps fortunately–I came to realize that my voice wasn’t the most pleasant to most people, and at the end of 8th grade, I stopped singing in public for many years. Now I just sing around the house and my family doesn’t appreciate it at all. But it always makes me feel better to let it out!

  9. This used to be such a common problem. My father thought that “real men” held real jobs, and that music wasn’t for guys with their feet firmly planted on the ground.

    I was told that because there were six of us, I couldn’t join the band, because he couldn’t afford it. I worked from age twelve at our small town family grocery store. I didn’t work for free, I worked for room and board.

    My first guitar was something I built out of a flimsy peach-crate and rubber bands. Then I adopted the plastic guitar a neighbor had stepped on and thrown away.

    The last two kids in our family were fortunate to get band lessons.

    I’m now fifty-seven, and the only one who still plays an instrument. I don’t play well, but I enjoy it immensely.

    All three of my children play an instrument, and two of the three made it to the top ten in the nation at the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz competition, and played at Lincoln Center.

    My parents tried to do better than there parents, and I tried to do better than mine.

    My daughter has two of her own, and she is a better parent than me. My grandchildren are thriving.

    I’m okay with this.

    I enjoyed your post, and thanks for the opportunity to rant!

  10. Lovely post. I enjoyed it so much. Never stop singing 🙂


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