Some things you just take for granted. Me being able to sing was one. When I was young I was one of those kids that used to get up and sing in front of my parents friends to entertain them. When I was in High School I was chosen to be part of an exclusive group of singers to perform madrigals. For a couple of years a dozen of us would go ‘on tour’ to Spain or Germany to perform in secondary schools in front of kids our own age. I loved singing those medieval songs almost as much as the mischief I made on those school trips. I remember more than one occasion, stripping off my horrible costume, a tartan floor length A-line skirt and matching waistcoat straight after a concert, and climbing out the hostel window with my friend Laurie so we could go in search of the young men who had come to see us perform.
At University I was rejected from singing with the school’s jazz band because I wasn’t doing a music degree and that was the criteria for anyone who wanted to sing with the group. And in my twenties I did lots of session singing, eventually rejoining Laurie and her sister to perform complicated three part harmonies that Laurie had devised as the band ‘The Dirty Blondes.’ We had a blast, singing at various pubs and clubs where I’m sure nobody really knew what to make of three twenty-something young women singing Andrew Sisters and Rogers & Hammerstein tunes when punk was all the rage.
By my late twenties I’d moved on, teaming up with a pianist where we would perform jazz standards for hours in tiny wine bars across the city. Singing and music was in my blood. My mother had sung on the radio as a child. My uncle played drums for Janis Joplin (whom I met when I was 6) and a distant cousin was Stan Getz.
In 1988 I met my husband who was not musical but was a total music geek and photojournalist. Although he was obsessed with music, he could never understand why I would want to sing in some half empty wine bar all evening for the price of a decent steak. So I stopped singing except for humming along to tunes on the radio or a Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald record. I gave birth to a couple of kids, my youngest of whom also inherited the family’s musical gene, and put my own singing years behind me.
It took a trip to Cherry Grove, Fire Island, and a good ten years into my marriage, to re-awaken my voice. I’d gone there with a man with whom I’d been having a long distance affair. He was a born and bred New Yorker and, being August, he suggested we spend a week there to get away from the heat of the city. The place was populated almost exclusively with gay men, so much so that we quickly got a reputation as the only straight people on the Island. It was Friday night when we popped into a piano bar. One after another, guys got up to perform show tunes or jazz standards. They were mostly buff, young men who were taking a break from a Broadway show and so the bar had been set pretty high for me. I hadn’t sung for over a decade but I’d told my lover enough that he knew that with enough provocation, I’d want to have a go.
I’ll never forget that night, I went up to the pianist and said, “My Funny Valentine. Key of G.” He started playing and all those years of being silent just fell away. Suddenly the room grew quiet. When I’d finished, I went to sit down and lots of guys came up to me and asked me where I performed in the city so they could hear me sing again. “I don’t perform,” I said. “I haven’t sung for a decade.” I started to cry. I suppose I felt cheated, that I’d stopped doing something I loved so much, just because my husband thought it was a bit silly. Although I still didn’t return to singing despite feeling validated that evening.
Then the menopause arrived, and along with hot flushes and sleepless nights, I lost my singing voice. When I tried to sing to songs on the radio, all that came out was a strange and unfamiliar croaky sound. I couldn’t hit the notes I used to and I couldn’t find my way around a tune. I grieved the loss of my voice much more than my sex drive or my waistline. Singing was just so much a part of me, I just never thought there would be a time when it was something I could no longer do. I stopped singing along to the radio because it was just too painful and derived pleasure listening on the sly to my youngest son and his beautiful, soulful voice as he sang along to R&B songs in his bedroom.
Over the last year I decided to try something new, I dropped down an octave, sounding more like Barry White than Barbara Streisand. I wasn’t ready to let go of the singer in me and discovered I could still carry a tune despite not being able to hit the high notes,
Recently my friend invited me to a burlesque karaoke night. I didn’t know what to expect but when they passed the book of songs around, I worked out that it wasn’t the burlesque performers who would be singing along to the backing track, it was the audience. After a drink, I decided to have a go. I picked my signature tune and one that I’d sung with the Dirty Blondes thirty years earlier – Fever. I dropped the song by an octave and, recalling that evening in the piano bar in Cherry Grove; I could feel the room go quiet. After I’d finished, a few people came up and told me how good I sounded. At the end of the night, I got back on stage (at the audience’s request) and sang another song. I felt transported back in time, only this time with my new, different voice.
That’s the thing about getting older. It’s about acceptance and celebrating that transition. I won’t lie. It’s been hard getting used to not being able be sing like I used to, but hey – I can still make a room go quiet. And I have a new voice. That is something to relish.