Unleashing the beast within: An old lady’s mystical musical memoir

My music muse/monster only came out late in life. Now he’s dancing on my head.

A holiday grinch would likely feel like pasting duct tape over my mouth these days.

No, I’m not counting down shopping days until Christmas. Instead, I’m a melody in motion. Either I have an ear worm singing lyrics, “The most fabulous, most marvelous, most joyously wonderful time, wonderful time… of the year” or I’m belting out that I’ll be home for Christmas.

Much to the chagrin of my husband, I’ve discovered the latent musical beast that has resided in my heart and gut since I was a child. It first came out when I discovered an old piano abandoned in an outbuilding on the 20-acre Kansas farm I lived on while a pre-schooler. I made up music for hours and sang nonsense while the dust in that old boat house swirled around, stirred up by the worn felt hammers striking the soundboard.

The day the music died

The muse got fed a little more when I took piano lessons in the private pre-school my mother put me in when my dad died. But my musical gremlin went to sleep a few years later on a family trip when the front seat occupants screamed at me to stop singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” There was an added postscript about my not being able to sing anyway. My poor music monster sniveled and moped to sleep that day.

Music muse did make a few guest appearances during my adult life. It whispered encouragement to buy that spinet piano for $25 a month and take lessons from a Juliard-trained teacher in Columbia, MO. It sneaked out again just before son Michael was born, when I took piano and organ lessons from my church’s music director. I learned to play easy piano tunes to my precious baby bump on an out-of-tune upright. In a few years I could play enough to get by as a substitute organist at church. But the singing side of the lurking music monster had to be content with hymn singing for decades.

Now I’m a bass/baritone

The “It” came out of hibernation when my second husband died and I funneled energies into a new church family, including signing up for the choir. There I learned the finer points of Gregorian chant and four-part harmony from two gifted teachers. When I remarried last year and moved back to the Kansas I left as a child, it was a given that my voice would join the small church choir. By then I had accepted the fact that my late-life range now fell in the baritone section. When my choir friends kept telling me I had a beautiful voice, I just looked at them in cross-eyed disbelief, figuring they were just glad to have another body in the choir pew. That old music beast must have been smirking all that time. Especially when two friends (they shall remain nameless for now) got me to join the Topeka Acapella Unlimited group. I questioned that decision every Monday night as my legs cramped while standing on risers way too long for the barbershop tune rehearsals.

But the music monster had it planned all along. He finally came alive and rose out of this 70-year-old body last weekend during a Sweet Adeline’s retreat. Actually, he came out shouting “Alleluia!”

About 25 of us mostly-mature-aged-wine barbershop women gathered in the great room of a lodge that normally greets wedding guests to practice music for our December 14 holiday show. Of course, the overriding goal was to improve our technique. Our coach for the weekend was Debra Lynn, a professional singer and voice coach, who uses a technique called Bel Canto. It originated centuries ago in Italian opera and allowed singers to belt out notes for hours without fatiguing their voices.

Debra and Bel Canto turned our former notions of singing upside down. We learned to forget about our vocal chords and forcing air through them. We tossed aside belly breathing, or tried to. We learned that 70-year-old voices can sound like 30 or 40-year old ones if you learn to plaster on a fake smile and thus open up your soft palette. The way I remember to set my face is by recalling the long-lost Sesame Street characters, those outers space dudes that went around going “Woop woop woop, Unh huh, unh huh!”

We also found out that if you alliterate or pop the consonants in the lyrics and think about resonating the sound up through your head and into the ceiling, magic happens.

Instructor Debra Lyn does Reiki as well as teaching the Bel Canto technique. The resident canine wanted her to scratch his belly.

The Bel Canto Technique

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. But as the bass section sat together on the front row Saturday, we tried to incorporate what we were learning in singing our sole melody line in “Some Children See Him.” As we crooned this beautiful lullaby about how little ones in different countries see the baby Jesus according to their own ethnicities, that’s when it suddenly happened. We heard a resonance coming from our vocal cavities that we never dreamed possible. The resulting emoting gave us goosebumps and made our hearts soar. We accomplished, for a brief moment, what my recruiting friends had promised: that instant when you are one sound, one unit. It sounded like the music was coming from angels above our heads.

Members of the Topeka Acapella Unlimited group at last weekend’s retreat.

Our job is to share

Now my danged music monster is skipping around, dancing on my head and the ceiling. He’s telling me, “I told you so.” At the same time he’s reminding me that I’m nothing special. Yes, I may have music in my soul, but so do many other people. Our job is to share it. If music is our thing, if it makes us happy, if it allows us to express joy and other emotions we’ve kept mostly to ourselves, it’s high time to join it with others and spread the love.

And now I no longer have the excuse of being too old to sing. I have found my voice and it ain’t half bad. I can even sing the Star-Spangled Banner in barbershop harmony now, as long as I have other voices to prop me up.