When I was a boy, singing was a technique for handling children in bulk. We did a lot of singing, at the direction of the adults in charge, anytime we were taken anywhere or otherwise handled in a group. Scouts, school trips, all manner of meetings, assemblies, and of course at church for the old Latin mass, we were little singing fools. “The Bear Went Over the Mountain;” “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall;” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat;” “Frere Jacque;” we sang these a lot.
So I grew up thinking that singing was something that I could do. It was never a point of pride, just a simple fact. I remember singing along with the radio in the car as a boy, “Don’t Be Cruel;” “Lonely Teenager;” “Wake Up Little Suzie;” “Travelin’ Man;” singing because it seemed like a socially acceptable thing to do, and it was fun. Singing in cars with my one-year-older “big sister” cousin was a lovely bonding experience. I could sing, I was sure of it.
Before too long, I got old enough to become very shy about it, and after that it was a long time before anyone heard me singing. I learned to play guitar too over the years, but it was the same thing. I worked hard at that, and eventually I got pretty good at it, but except for my wife and sons in another room no one heard that either. It was my dearest wish to play with other musicians, be in a band even, but I was frozen in a state of social anxiety that prohibited it.
Finally, in my early forties, I got the chance to do both. My son was taking piano lessons, and the teacher’s husband was a sax player and also a music teacher. Music is a tough gig, and people who make a living at it must be very creative. So this guy decided to try “group lessons,” so that his sax students could have practice playing with others. It was good for them, and it was good for him too. I was invited along, and it was great. This fellow was a band and orchestra guy, very experienced. He could play multiple instruments, and he could always come up with material that was just challenging enough and never boring. Never square either, he made little charts for Ray Charles songs, James Brown standards, and even some Miles Davis. He also had a great handle on the parts to be played and the musical ideas. I found that I wasn’t shy about playing anymore. I was functioning well, and a little praise put the whole thing over the top.
I started to host a Sunday jam at my house, and it was there that I started to do some singing too. I quickly realized that there was a trick to it that I was missing. Although I could carry a tune and my timing and counting were good, I wasn’t breathing right. Most casual singers utilize the same set of muscles and organs that they employ for general speech; this is a mistake. So I set myself to figuring it out, this singing thing.
Speaking takes place in the upper respiratory tract, including the sinuses and the mouth. The voice box and the tongue are very involved. Singing, proper singing, is completely different. It must start from the diaphragm, and the rest of that stuff should be involved as little as possible. The throat, voice box and mouth should be as open as possible, and used more in the manner of a horn, an apparatus for amplification. Bypassing the sinus all together is a good idea. Moving as much air through this apparatus as you can, as efficiently as you can, is very important to the enterprise of singing.
I learned by listening to singers, by listening much more critically to much better singers that I was accustomed to. Lots of standards from great jazz singers, for one thing. Many Brazilian singers were instructive. I was surprised to discover that the singer that helped me the most in figuring out the breathing thing was Karen Carpenter.
Never a big Carpenters fan myself, not my style. But I discovered that this tiny woman, singing so gently, was breathing up a storm and getting great results. Besides that, she had a tear in her voice, a crying tone, that is, that I began to really appreciate. Her’s is a very neutral presentation, seemingly with very little effort, that yields very emotional results.
Now I live in Asia and I can tell you, years of Karaoke singing have really matured my talents (such as they are, I’m not making any great claims here). It’s good practice, one has to be flexible. Singing Billy Joel songs in impossibly high keys without a chance to adjust the machine can be a real challenge. Karaoke machines seem to favor the key of “F” for some unknown reason. And Thai’s make the darnedest requests, they love “My Way,” and “New York, New York,” difficult songs that are not very enjoyable to sing. The entire Eagles catalog is popular, and except for “Hotel California” I don’t mind that stuff. I was surprised at a seminar party last year, one hundred Thai’s and me, when in one voice they requested “La Bomba!” I never figured out where that one came from, but they really loved it and it was a lot of fun for me. Nobody here speaks Spanish.
Whatever, I always smile and go for it, even singing the dreaded “Country Roads” on way too many occasions. God, I hate that song. You have to be careful too, every couple of years in Asia somebody gets killed over “Country Roads,” sometimes they get shot for singing it over and over, and sometimes for singing it badly. It’s a real problem.
So, is singing easy or not? I don’t know, but it is kind of fun.