Karaoke with Brunhilde

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how my recent trip to Paris had inspired me to start taking piano lessons again. (Hanging out with musicians will do that to a gal.)

What I didn’t mention is that I’ve also been studying voice.

I was quite the little songbird, as a kid: I sang in choirs through all of my school years, and in a couple of semi-pro ensembles. My choir directors loved that they could plug me—and my three-octave range—into any vacant spot.

But I never took any lessons, and I was always ashamed of my upper range. I could easily hit a high E (and if conditions were right, even a high G), but the tone was often less than pleasing. Like a hamster being stepped on. Or a rusty, squeaky hinge.

So I gradually stopped singing, and eventually I convinced myself that I didn’t have a pleasing voice.

Still, I came home from Paris singing Paul Simon’s The Boxer, Richard Thompson’s heartbreaking Bee’s Wing, Christy Moore’s In the City of Chicago. And, yes … Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien—my new personal anthem.

“I like my lower range just fine,” I told my teacher at the start of my first lesson. “But the upper half is too bright and warbly. Not great for karaoke night,” I joked. (She laughed, thank God.)

We did some warm-up exercises, and she confirmed what I knew: Once I move past the passaggio, I get tense, and I start to emit these horrible little strangled screams. Really not great for karaoke night.

But she told me not to worry about it. “We’ll work on that later,” she said. Each week, she sent me home with new exercises: Singing through the nose so I could feel my teeth vibrate; reflexive breathing; lifting the soft palate; dropping the jaw forward …

And each week, I could feel my voice changing a little bit. I felt stronger, more confident. But the upper half still sounded squeaky.

“I think it’s because you’re trying too hard to control the sound,” she said last night. “Just take a deep breath, and think ‘open.’ Lift your palate and push the sound forward. Don’t try to control the vibrato … just relax and let it flow.”

I took a deep breath, I followed her instructions, and I let ‘er rip. And for one brief shining moment, I produced a sound so rich and resonant—so powerful—that it seemed like someone else’s voice.

Here’s the thing, though: It wasn’t a karaoke voice. Unless you sing karaoke with Brunhilde …

But that’s OK. After years of trying so hard to control my voice, to make it sound like the pop stuff on the radio, I’m finally beginning to accept that it is what it is. And I feel so fortunate to have a teacher who is willing to coach me and guide me, to help me move past imitating others, and to help me make the most of the voice I have.

Bring on the Wagner.


  1. You make me feel old. You see, I went TO Paris singing Paul Simon’s The Boxer – in 1973. It was MY personal anthem. Well, that’s not strictly accurate. The anthem bit is, but not the Paris bit. In fact I went to the US with that song as my anthem (along with Me and Bobby McGee). Paris came later, the same year. But the song seemed to sum up everything then. Especially in the US. I even spent some time on Seventh Avenue, NYC – although I’m not declarin’ nuthin. 🙂

    • How delightful to find your comment here, mate!

      Music can be such a powerful thing, the way it can take us back to a very specific time in our lives. The Boxer is special to me, too, for that very reason — although I’d love to hear your story, if you’d care to share (I’ll drop you a personal note).

      By the way: I know what you mean about feeling old. I have a friend who recently turned 30. It was unsettling to think that, had I known her back then, I likely would have been her nanny. But I’m still clinging to the notion that age is relative, I do declare, dear Scot! 🙂

  2. OMG, best bra EVAR!! That picture made me choke on my tea! Madonna and JP Gaultier, eat your hearts out.

    Oh, and – good for you in taking up singing again. It was really interesting reading what your tutor suggested. I too sang in choirs for years and years and had/ have a huge range with (increasingly with age) a relatively weak top register. Since moving to the sticks nearly a decade ago, and then having kids, I have no longer been singing regularly and my singing voice has disappeared from lack of use. I’ve been thinking of trying to find a choral society, though, to ease my way back in. How typical of you to jump in and ‘do’ something about what you want – very inspiring. Enjoy your voice!

    • I’m with you on that bra, dancingbeastie! Talk about a woman who can’t be ignored!

      And once again I’m not surprised to find that we have yet another thing in common. If you’d like to join me vicariously in my singing lessons, I’d be happy to send you an MP3 file of my lessons each week. (You’ll have to put up with my squeaky voice, I’m afraid, but at least you’ll benefit from the exercises and the sage advice!) Seriously … I’d be delighted. 🙂

  3. Loved your blog…I too had similar singing experience…turns out I’m not an alto but a DRAMATIC SOPRANO….Hello Brunhilde! That part was written for that voice type. Kudos to you for not burying your instrument like I did for so many years. By the way, where did you get the photo of Brunhilde? Can I use it for a speech in need to give in my Public Speaking class at the university?

    • Holy cow!! From alto to dramatic soprano?! That’s a heckuva transformation. But I’m very glad you discovered your true voice. It’s one of life’s great paradoxes that being true to ourselves is one of the simplest things we can do as humans — but also one of the hardest.

      As for the photo … I got it from a Google search of public-domain images. I’ll check my laptop tomorrow to see if I still have the original URL.

      In the meantime, thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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