What It’s Like to Learn to Sing in Your Fifties
Tom Vanderbilt Embraces Vulnerability
I don’t consider myself a natural vocal talent, or even particularly musical. Whatever music theory I learned early in school is mostly lost to me. I can’t really play any instruments. I’m not a natural performer; apart from a thankfully forgotten, pre-smartphone outing at a friend’s bachelor party, I hadn’t even dipped into karaoke.
But I did enjoy singing around the house, in the shower, in the car. My wife had occasionally told me I had a “nice voice,” but, she carefully allowed, it was sometimes off-key. It was better, she said, when I wasn’t overly self-conscious about it.
But how could you not be self-conscious about this act that derives entirely from one’s self, that seems to so powerfully express that self? “It’s so good to hear your voice,” we say on a long-distance telephone call, when we really mean “it’s so good to hear you.” Parenthood had put me back, however briefly, into a world of singing, but it suddenly occurred to me I’d been discreetly and aimlessly singing my entire life—to a song on the radio, along with a band at a concert.
What would happen if I tried to go about it in a more purposeful way?
I decided I needed a teacher: Danielle Amedeo. From her website, which bore the magic words “Beginners Welcome,” I learned she lived just down the street.
A week later, we met at a nearby café. Amedeo, 38, with her first child due in a few months (she warned me her maternity leave would interrupt our lessons), studied theater and sang at NYU and, following a nine-year stint in the corporate world, began teaching full-time. Half her students were musical theater students, Broadway hopefuls. The other half were all sorts of people: actors looking to improve their vocal delivery, aspiring singers trying to refine their craft, novices like me.
With brightly inquisitive eyes, perched with the good posture and actorly poise that reflects a life of performing, she listened, nodding sympathetically, as I laid out my hopes and fears in a nervous stammer.
Am I just too old? What if I just can’t land on the proper notes? What if we discover I just don’t have a good voice?
She smiled at this last question, as if she’d heard it often before. A small number of people, she said, might physically struggle with producing accurate notes. They should see a doctor before seeing her.
Luckily, she found “no reason for concern” in mine.
But, I pressed her, what if I could hit the notes but didn’t like the sound?
“Someone will come to me and say, ‘This is my voice, this is what I’ve been doing my whole life, and I don’t like it—is this the only voice I have?’” But, she argued, we’re only tapping into a small portion of what our voice can be. Anatomy gives us a vocal default setting, but imitation, habit, and intention give us our voice. “People believe it’s a feature, like having blue eyes,” she said. “But it’s very much related to use and habit, and it’s a skill that can be learned.”
This learning would take place across the whole body. While singing is a motor skill, it’s unique in that most of what happens is invisible to the singer. “When you’re looking at a skilled athlete, you can see what they’re doing,” she said. “With singing it’s all hidden.” Even if you hold a golf club poorly, you can at least see your hands. You can’t see your cricothyroid or thyroarytenoid muscles doing the wrong thing as you tackle “My Way.”
Because we can’t easily control the individual muscles and other anatomical bits involved in good singing technique, vocal pedagogy relies heavily on metaphor and imagery. To coax certain sounds, singers are invited to imagine birds landing on branches or balls held aloft by fountains of air.
Whatever my voice was, Danielle insisted I was using only a fraction of its potential. “We can open it up, expand it, make it richer,” she said. As a near fifty-something, I wasn’t going to be able to do certain things as easily as when I was a teenager, but unless there was a long history of misuse, it didn’t mean I’d be less capable of singing.
“You should walk into this completely open and think of it as a joyful experience,” she said. She wanted me to emphasize only exploration, not limits. “We tend to start that way, and the limits we place on ourselves mentally tend to create physical limits on ourselves.”
For our first lesson, in the makeshift studio (that is, bedroom) of her ground-floor Brooklyn Heights duplex, Amedeo had asked me to bring a song to perform. Given what had led me here, I chose “Time After Time,” the jazz standard written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, a number 16 hit for Frank Sinatra in 1947. Chet Baker recorded it a decade later, in a much sparer, almost wistful version.
This was the rendition I was most familiar with—almost too familiar. Before the lesson I’d been listening heavily to it and singing along. When Amedeo, seated at her digital piano, began to play and sing a few notes, all of which sounded musically correct, I could only think, “That’s not Chet.”
I’d so associated the song with Baker’s version that I could barely hear what Amedeo was playing. “It sounds kind of . . . different than I’m used to,” I said. After experimenting with the timing, she turned to me and said, “Let me just hear you go. I’m going to plunk out some notes.”
“TIME—” I croaked, followed by the first of a series of coughs. Anxiety, unhelpfully for singing, often manifests itself in the throat.
“Drink your water, take your time,” she counseled.
“From the top!” I joked, and then, without even realizing she was no longer accompanying me on piano (because, she later told me, I had changed key halfway through and the piano was just confusing me), I was into the song, churning along until the end, a “big finish” octave jump, as the singer emphatically reaffirms his earlier thoughts with a dramatic, drawn-out flourish: “And TIIIIIIIMMMME after time / You’ll hear me say that I’m / So lucky to be loving you.”
I careened through this line with the control of a snake on ice, and on the word “lucky” my voice trailed upward in a dying screech.
Several things seemed to happen at once. Amedeo was clapping and exclaimed, “Well done for getting through that!” I was bathed in sweat. She urged me to stick my face in the nearby air conditioner. I tried to blame it on the humid New York day, but like the persistent cough I’d suddenly developed, it was almost certainly a psychosomatic reaction to this prospect of suddenly having to sing, by myself, before a relative stranger, into a room, without the recorded presence of Chet Baker in my own ears.
This may sound obvious or even naïve to the non-novice, but there is something deeply transformative about sending your voice, as music, unaccompanied by the radio or someone else, into a room. You’re not only hearing the song as you’ve never quite heard it; you are hearing your voice as you’ve never quite heard it.
Singing along to recorded music gives you all kinds of cover. People often don’t sing as accurately when singing along to recorded music, research has shown, precisely because they don’t have to. Someone else is picking up the slack.I was opening myself in strange ways at the very same moment I was displaying my incompetence.
When your voice is out there, alone, filling up space, you suddenly realize how strange it is, this thing that dwells inside you but only comes to life when it leaves you. Whatever technical limitations were there before, but were covered up in your radio sing-alongs, are now nakedly present.
But there’s something more profound going on.
You feel as if you were now out there, exposed and emotionally vulnerable. I was opening myself in strange ways at the very same moment I was displaying my incompetence, which made the experience immensely more powerful than, say, snowboarding, which I’d recently tried for the first time.
There, I was just bumbling with everyone else on the novice slope, a puppet pulled by the strings of gravity and inexperience. Here, as a person not accustomed to freely offering up his emotions or his singing voice, I felt as if I’d just extracted an essential organ and handed it, still dripping, to Danielle.
Like most people, you’ve probably been surprised and displeased by the sound of your own voice on a recording. The usual explanation is that when we hear our own voices, we’re hearing more than the voice that leaves our mouth. We’re also hearing an inner voice, transmitted through vibrations in our bones, resonating in our internal acoustical chambers.
This homegrown hi-fi system convinces us that our voice sounds deeper and richer than it actually is. But thanks to various filtering devices in our bodies and brains, as the MIT researcher Rébecca Kleinberger notes, we largely screen ourselves out. “You hear your voice,” as she put it, “but your brain actually never listens to the sound of your voice.”
When we really do listen, it can be unsettling, and not just for reasons of sound quality. When we have this “voice confrontation,” as the psychologists Philip Holzman and Clyde Rousey described it, we may suddenly realize how much our voice is saying: We hear ourselves expressing things about ourselves we didn’t realize we were expressing, or didn’t even want to be expressing.
Our unseen, humble larynx, after all, contains “the highest ratio of nerve fibers to muscle fibers of any functional system.” Our voice—this turbulent gust of air bouncing around our inner cavities and streaming into the world—speaks volumes about us, everything from our health to our physical characteristics to our desirability as a mate. From just a fleeting utterance of the word “hello,” one study showed, listeners were able to form consistent impressions of the speaker’s personality. Imagine what a whole song reveals.
“You sounded really lovely!” Amedeo said. Listening later to the recording, I’d say she was erring on the side of encouragement. “You said it’s something you’ve used all your life, just for fun, and that’s clearly there for you,” she said. “Can you tell me what went well?”
“Um,” I stammered, still flustered, “there was a bit of quavering. The timing seemed off. I felt like I needed to sing more, rather than just passively sounding the words.”
She looked at me expectantly. “Was there anything you liked about it?”
“And those high notes,” I continued, in my vein of self-flagellation. “Ugh!”
I’d made the error, common to beginners, of fixating on the idea of a “high” note as something just that—vertically high. “A singer will do all sorts of physical things to try to achieve that, like lift their head up, tighten the shoulders and neck, look up to the sky, picturing the note up here and reaching for it,” she said.
None of these things were ultimately productive for hitting a high note; they were habits that would have to be undone.
I was also trying to hit the notes using my “chest voice,” the lower register, typically used in speech. It’s named “chest voice” because that’s where you feel it, but it’s actually made by muscles in your throat.
As a presumed baritone, I knew that method was simply beyond my range for the notes in question—at least for now. To avoid potentially damaging strain, I needed to tackle the notes in the lighter “head voice.” This is felt more—you guessed it—in the head (falsetto, depending on whom you listen to, is either a weaker head voice or not a head voice at all). There too is a “mixed” register, which could combine the lightness of the head voice with the more substantial resonance of the chest voice.
Baker, a tenor, had a clear, seemingly effortless head voice, one that doesn’t often come easily to men. I took comfort in the idea that Hawke, Amedeo’s other would-be Baker acolyte, hardly had an easy time of it. “He really had to learn to use a different part of his voice,” she said.
“You already have a bit of access to that, which is interesting,” she said. My ears perked up. “From your speaking voice, I would have thought you were a baritone. But you have some really lovely high notes there, which most men do not have right off the bat.”
I felt a weird flush of pride, as if I were suddenly in some kind of competitive sing-off for the soul of Chet Baker. Take that! I had access.
Excerpted from Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning by Tom Vanderbilt. Copyright © 2021 by Tom Vanderbilt. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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