Finding My Own Key

What does it say about me that every metaphor that comes up in my life takes the form of a cliché? Yeah, I’m a lazy writer, but as Gavin used to say, “All clichés are true.”

Each night for the past five years I’ve sung two lullabies to my girl- - “Down to the River to Pray” and a single verse of the Brahms lullaby. My Mom sang me to sleep with Brahms, never in her daily harsh judgmental tones, but with the sweet magic enabled by arcane words like “bedite” and the hard-to-decode “o’ersp’ead,” as much of a mystery as that “elemenohpee” two-thirds through the alphabet song.

Is every mother’s singing voice perfect and soothing? I can tell mine spins an oxytocin spell over Shortie, even with its strains and starts, even though I’ve such a limited repertoire.

It took me a while to wish to mix things up at lullaby time. Perhaps I’m respecting my girl’s new, strong opinions about music. (She’d make a fresh mix for the car every day if she could read.) Maybe I’m realizing that in my next career (which I haven’t discussed with y’all yet) my voice will have to lead. I do know that I’ve often been told I have a “good instrument” that could be trained for excellence, but since my huge mouth is usually what gets me into trouble, I’ve had no faith. Or been too scared.

Of course I wasn’t born like this. When I was a kid we sang in season: “Silent Night,” walking through the snowed-over West Village with candles sheathed in foil. “Go Where I Send Thee,” by the piano in a warm sweet-smelling loft on Second Avenue. “Star of Wonder” with incense in the local Episcopalian church (the one with the garden). And I loved singalongs at camp, if we were all together I couldn’t be picked on. But it was not permitted to be serious: music was my sister’s territory and in my “deep shadow” she needed it. (Art was my department.)

As a younger adult, when I made dozens of nativities starting every September, I spent hours singing the Roches versions of carols in my garret studio, the older and more religious, the better. Fortunately no one was listening.

It pulls a bit of the rug away from the self-conscious adult to know someone enjoys hearing me (though “NOT in the car, Mommy”). I can admit I really adore “Good King Wenceslaus” and that it’s fun to sing “Cielito Lindo.” Trying these a few nights ago, somehow, strangely, I shifted into a lower key. Wow: some weight in my throat disappeared. My voice opened up, stronger, even in lullaby hush-mode: maybe that word is “smoother.” All of a sudden I could choose my phrasing, instead of being forced into it. An occasional consonant dropped spontaneously, as it would have for Judy Garland, if I wanted a rounder note.

I’m growing comfortable with this voice. I’m moved to add “Dona Dona” and “Morning Has Broken” from camp; “Moonshadow,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” Christmas stuff, free to lose the Roches’ harmonies, which I obviously can’t fake, even for my kid. And from church, “Dodi Li,” “Come, Come, Whoever You Are,” “This Is My Song (Finlandia),” and others.

I’ve heard music is natural, the notes like numbers, inevitable, not made by man. But I didn’t believe it till now. Is this what it means to find your key?

Yeah, I bet I sound like a broken record… change, transformation, metamorphosis, reinvention.* Blah, blah, blah. I doubt I’d sound anywhere near “good” to less loving ears, but it’s a sign.


*Mr. Fresh wants me to write a post in the style of Don Marquis. So we’d add “transmogrification” to the list.

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