How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?
When I was young, no one ever sat me down and told me that I could do anything I wanted. There were no pep talks about how I could achieve my goals through perseverance and determination; no "Women can be and do anything" inspirational speeches. It wasn't that anyone discouraged me, but the deafening silence that followed a proclamation like, "I'm going to be a lawyer when I grow up," gave one pause. To be fair, I wasn't encouraged to cook or sew either, so it wasn't like they were pushing me towards a lifetime of domesticity. No one ever talked about feminism, probably because all the women in our family worked. My mother worked, my grandmother worked, and my great-grandmother worked (or rather ordered people around) at the business she owned on Clifton Hill. She had a reputation for being a taskmaster. If her name came up while filling out a job application, the interviewer would blanch, stutter and more often than not suddenly remember that they had already filled the position I was interested in. It seemed like most of the commercial business owners in Niagara Falls were afraid of her. I'd never met a man who was wary of a woman before. And though I could understand why I was afraid of her, it was a little refreshing when I discovered that her disapproval rating was universal.
She had eight children and ran three businesses, so I didn't grow up with the idea that women were frail. At the same time, the notion of me winning a scholarship, attending university, or having some kind of business acumen was not self-evident. Because of this, I pushed myself to prove everyone wrong. If someone said I couldn't possibly memorize all the cities in Belarus, I'd commit them all to memory in alphabetical order. If someone thought I couldn't play chess, I'd join the chess club and win a tournament. Bad grades? Not me. Straight A's, even in Geography and Science. In some ways, you could say that I owe any success I've had to my family's low expectations of me. Some kids need encouragement, but all I needed was the doubt of others. If I'd had any interest in politics, my family would have rolled their eyes and shrugged their shoulders, leading to a successful career as an MPP or even Prime Minister by now.
"I want to sing," I told my mother one day. To which she replied, "Who's stopping you?"
"No," I said, "Really sing. Like, take lessons."
"What for?" she asked.
"I want to be a singer."
"But I need to learn." I groaned, exasperated with this course of cross-examination.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said as she folded laundry, humming to herself, "Sarah Vaughan never took a singing lesson in her life that I know of. Neither did Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen McRae."
"Really?" I asked sarcastically, "Are you saying I have that kind of God-given talent?"
"Don't be smart," she replied, "Of course not. I'm trying to say that you either can sing or you can't. No point wasting good money on nothing. Now, go outside and play."
"One day," I said to myself, as I climbed the tree in the backyard, "I'm going to prove her wrong."
In high school, I finagled my way into crooning "Turn Back, Oh Man" in Godspell because I could do a pretty good impersonation of Mae West. At a public presentation, kids threw pennies at me, and my mother just rolled her eyes and shrugged.
"I need lessons," I said.
"You need a range." She replied.
The following year I was Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar.
"Well?" I asked her afterwards.
"You're funny. I'll give you that. Male roles suit you."
My girlfriend, Vicki, took singing lessons. She could hit high notes, whereas my register seemed to sit most comfortably somewhere near E below middle C, which meant I would never play the female lead in a musical. I looked like an ingenuine but sang like the femme fatale.
"If you won't let me take singing lessons, the only parts I'll ever get to play are hookers," I told my mother one day. "How do you feel about that?"
She looked at me for a minute, then laughed. I was the kid who did the top button-up on her blouse and wore a sarong bathing suit. "Damn," I thought to myself, "She knows me too well."
To compensate for my lack of formal training, I listened to and sang along to my parent's record and CD collection. It was extensive—jazz, folk, pop, even classical. I listened to everyone, from Blossom Dearie to Joni Mitchell. The only thing my parents did not listen to was country and western. I studied lyrics like a Rabbi studies the Torah. One day, I told myself I would be a singer.
By the time I graduated from high school, my desire had grown to include musical theatre. Singing AND acting together was the Reese's Peanut Butter cup of theatrical perfection.
"What I need," I told myself, "is to be discovered. That won't happen in Niagara Falls. To be discovered, I have to go to New York." And off I went.
* * * * * * *
At the Neighborhood Playhouse on East 54th, I took dance, speech, dialect work, and acting classes. Music was once a week, which, in my estimation, was hardly enough. I was on a fixed income, but by my calculations, I could squeeze out enough money to pay for a lesson once every two weeks as long as I didn't take the subway and found ways to skimp on food. My mother, who had passed away at this point, could still be heard in my head.
"I didn't leave you insurance money so you could starve."
"I have to feed my soul," I'd say under my breath as I walked home from school.
"Even a soul needs calories."
I decided to take private singing lessons from Mr. Clement, a quiet but confident man who taught in his studio above Carnegie Hall. Once, every two weeks, I would make my way through the hallways up to the rooms he occupied that overflowed with history and dust mites. I opened my mouth and sang, absolutely positive that he would stare at me with a look that said, "Where have you been all my life?"
Instead, he suggested I come once a week instead of two.
"Stop composing," he'd constantly tell me when I'd rewrite the last note in a phrase to fit what I wanted to hear but wasn't what the composer had written.
"Music is punctuation for the lyrics, and not some random notes thrown up on a page. Start again."
And I would sing:
All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the cold night air
With one enormous chair
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?"
"Well," he'd say, "you hit all the right notes. But what on earth are you saying? If you lived in Central Park, would you sing that song like that? Go home and think about it."
And off I'd go, obsessed with Lerner and Lowe.
On one of these bi-weekly lessons, I happened to see an Audition notice posted to a bulletin board for the New York Choral Society. "I could do that," I told myself, imagining what it would be like to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall. What better validation? What finer proof of my greatness? The fact that I'd never sung in a choir before was of no significance. And even though I knew my range was small, I reasoned that they would need altos. "Women always want to be sopranos," I thought to myself. "I'll be the alto they've been looking for."
"I want to audition for the New York Choral Society," I told Mr. Clement.
"I want to live in Paris, but it's not possible," He said, "Now, about Lerner and Lowe."
There it was, all the incentive I ever needed. With Mr. Clement's lack of encouragement still burning in my heart, I booked an audition the following day and began my preparations.
I chose a song that would show off who I was and give the audition panel an excellent idea of my voice. It was the perfect piece, something my mother had loved and which I'd listened to repeatedly on CD when I was feeling depressed at school. I shuffled over to Colony Records and found the sheet music. "It's a sign," I whispered under my breath.
It rained on the day of the audition. I remember this because I was soggy and cold by the time I got to where I was going. I sat in the foyer of a penthouse that had marble floors and blue walls. There was a skylight above my chair. The way the rain hit the glass, it sounded like gossip. Across from me, a young woman in a black v neck dress, hair piled up in a tight bun, was studying an extensive array of sheet music. I pulled out my five pages and pretended to be in my element. The door to my left opened and out poured a statuesque blond and a distinguished-looking gentleman. They were in high spirits laughing and talking in that good-humoured way that signifies a successful audition.
"Thanks," He said, "That was great, Ariel. Talk soon." He glanced around the room. "Hi, Brita. Great to see you. Come on in." And just like that, I was suddenly alone.
"Is there somewhere I can freshen up?" I asked the man at the desk whose job was to check our names.
He pointed, half-heartedly, to the washroom down the hall as he glanced at me over his magazine, registering distaste at my antique cotton skirt and sneakers streaked with puddle water. Self-conscious, I made a hasty retreat and, staring at myself in the mirror, valiantly made an effort to clean myself up.
"Listen," I told myself, "you are ready! You can do this! You are—."
From off I heard the girl with the bun start to sing:
The vengeance of hell boils in my heart
Death and despair flame about me
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
"Holy shit," I said out loud, "Is she's singing the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart's Magic Flute?" And indeed, she was. I stood in shock, listening as she hit notes I thought were reserved only for certain birds and whales. What to do? Clearly, I was out of my element.
Could I escape? If I was quick enough, I thought, I could be in the stairwell before anyone noticed I was gone. The only problem was that I'd left my umbrella on my chair and I could not afford to buy another. Besides, it had been a gift from my Dad, and I had a sentimental attachment to it. I peered out the door. By my calculations, I could be free and clear in less than two minutes. I dashed for the chair, grabbed the umbrella, and faced the exit when the door opened, and they came out.
"That was wonderful," The man said to the Queen of the Night as she prepared to leave. "We'll be in touch." Then he turned to me and said, "Next."
I slunk into the room, all my confidence dissipating like air leaking out of a balloon.
"I don't think I should be here," I said as introductions were made. "This was a mistake. I just heard that woman before me, and I don't sing anything like that," I confessed.
"Not to worry," one of the five men in the room said, "What did you bring to sing?"
"Well," I whispered, "I have prepared "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian."
"Sorry, I didn't catch that," the man in charge said.
"At Seventeen," I repeated, handing over my sheet music.
"Okay, that's a first," the pianist said. "When you're ready."
When I'm ready? I would never be ready. There was no such thing as ready. Nevertheless, I began.
I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew.
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen, I learned the truth
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone --
"Okay," one of the men said, "I think that's enough.Thanks."
There are times in your life when you want the ground to open up and swallow you. For me, this was one of those moments. I could see myself through their eyes, and it wasn't a good look. A 19-year old singing a song with a G3 to E5 range filled with delusions of grandeur wearing what looked like some clothes pulled from her grandmother's tickle trunk. The final chord vibrated and finally stopped to a silent room.
"Thanks for that," the director said, "Let's see how good of an ear you have."
"Really?" I was thinking, "you can't just let me go?"
I was starting to feel like I was in a doctor's office. "Open your mouth, and say, Ah."
Next was the sight-reading portion of the audition, where I bravely proceeded to make sense of the notes on a piece of music. With no formal theory education whatsoever, this was probably the MOST humiliating moment of the afternoon, and that's saying something.
"Do you have any questions?" they asked.
"Yeah," I was thinking in my head, "What the hell am I doing here?"
Instead, I simply said, "I think I've wasted enough of your time," and rushed out the door to the street, where I was liberated from my embarrassment.
As weeks went by, the sting of the experience slowly faded away. There were plenty of other things to be embarrassed about at theatre school, and I chalked it down as experience.
About two weeks later, I came home from classes to an officious-looking letter.
Dear Miss Wade,
Thank you for taking the time to audition for the New York Choral Society. We very much enjoyed your audition. Unfortunately, we cannot accept you at this time, but the society would be happy to re-audition you if you were willing to take a sight-reading course.
We wish you all the best,
I smiled. "Well, what do you know?," I said to myself, " I can sing. I just can't read."