Human Guinea Pig

Song of the Damned

I’m tuneless. In four weeks, I make my concert debut.

I have always considered my husband the most supportive of spouses. But this belief was shattered when I started taking singing lessons in preparation for my concert debut. As I practiced my trills and glissandi around the house, he took to making comments such as these:

“You know how some performers throw up before they go onstage? In your case the audience is going to throw up after you go onstage.”

“Are you deaf, woman?”

“For the love of God, stop singing!”

In Human Guinea Pig I do things the rest of you have too much dignity to do yourself. However, American Idol has shown that far too many of our fellow citizens think they have singing voices worth inflicting on millions. I have never suffered from that delusion. I have tried never to sing in front of others—at birthday parties I only mouth the words to “Happy Birthday.” My family actively exploits my handicap. On long car rides, while some people play the license plate game, my husband and 9-year-old daughter egg me on to compete against them in “The Worst Singer Contest.” I am undefeated. My husband describes my voice as like “a police scanner searching for a frequency.”

Strangely, despite this tunelessness, I have long had fantasies of becoming a nightclub singer. I have spent countless hours when I could have been learning Spanish or straightening out my closet holding a fake microphone, listening to Sarah Vaughn, and singing along like a feral cat caught in a trap.

I decided to turn dream into reality. This spring I brought myself to the studio of Washington, D.C., singing teacher Deborah Benner to see if she could turn me from a complete non-singer into someone who could respectably perform in front of an audience. Deborah—who herself sings everything from opera to bossa nova—was warm and enthusiastic as she ran me through a series of drills. I sang nonsense sounds: me-may-ma-mo-moo, and hee-hee-hee, ho-ho-ho, up and down the scales so she could evaluate me. The verdict was surprisingly good.

She said that, despite popular opinion, I was not tone deaf. I was able to respectably stay on pitch. “I’m here to help you open your mind to singing in a different way. If you can speak, you can sing.” She said my biggest problem was that I wasn’t breathing. “Without breath, the melody has nothing to float on.” She showed me the breathing exercises I was to do at home for at least a half-hour a day.

I came home lightheaded but excited. For my husband and daughter I demonstrated what I’d learned and sang the old standard, “The Very Thought of You.” They winced, looked at each other, and burst out laughing. My husband, trying to keep the coming weekend from being living hell, realized he needed to backtrack.

“You have a confidence about yourself as a singer I’ve never seen before,” he said. Then, unable to help himself, he added, “Your confidence is not justified.”

My daughter chimed in. “Mom, I don’t think you should do this in front of an audience.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“You want to help people keep their sanity.”

But I went on. During our month of weekly lessons, Deborah remained kind and encouraging. There was no doubt I was making progress, the drills and the breathing exercises allowed me to actually get out a line of a song without seizing up into a squeak. She taught me how to make the leap between chest voice and head voice and to bring my sound forward into the front of my face, where it resonated better. But an irresolvable problem was that even if I wasn’t horribly off-pitch, I knew the sound of my voice was not pleasant. Deborah dismissed such negativity.

She said that singing was not just a matter of making a pleasing sound—which was good news for me. “A singer is a storyteller,” she explained. “If you tell the story the song will sing itself. What makes a singer memorable is evoking a mood and a memory.”

Since all the classes were about leading me to some kind of performance, I had to figure out where I would perform and what song I would sing.

My performing venues were limited. I could have a concert for my friends at my home. Or I could sing at a piano bar at a restaurant where Deborah knew the house musician. (That didn’t seem right because people would be trying to digest their food.) Then Deborah came up with a perfect, if appalling, solution. She would have me join her teenage students at their recital at a local performing arts center.

Now it was time for a song. I tried out various pop standards at home. When I sang “Moon River” to my husband, he looked as if he had just sat on a sharp object.

“What was wrong with that?” I asked.

“Look, I love you, and I don’t want to see you set yourself up for pain,” he replied. Out went Henry Mancini.

We settled on “More Than You Know,” which has been recorded by everyone from Judy Garland to Cher and has a blessedly limited range. I began obsessively singing, while vacuuming, walking the dog (let neighbors stare!), driving my daughter around. She gave me valuable feedback. “Mom, some notes are good. But your problem is when the notes go up or down.” Yes, I should switch to one of those one-note concertos by Philip Glass, or better yet, one of those silent numbers by John Cage.

Deborah was a weekly boost to my confidence. “You have great range, great potential,” she said. “You’ve got a gorgeous rich, sexy torch-singer voice.” Then I would come home and sing and have Neil LaBute-style exchanges with my husband.

Husband: Your singing is dramatically better. You sound really good.

Me: You don’t look like I sound good.

Husband: Every note you sing is off-key. Can’t you hear yourself? It’s incredibly jarring.

Me: Then I’m not good.

Husband: You do sound good. You just consistently hit the wrong note throughout the song.

I knew I wasn’t good, but as I wore a groove in my head with “More Than You Know,” there were times when even I could feel that the song came together. But these occasions were like cold-fusion experiments: They could not be reliably repeated.

One week before the performance I came to Deborah’s studio to have a run-through with the pianist, Jerry Allen, who was to accompany me. There was something destabilizing about singing in front of a stranger, let alone a professional musician. I viscerally understood what it meant to “choke.” My throat tightened and I felt as if a knife was twisting in my larynx. Every time I tried to sing the phrase, “If you got tired and said goodbye” the word goodbye barely came out as a croak.

Even Deborah looked alarmed. She told me if I needed to talk the song I could. “If you can’t hold a note, don’t hold it.” It seemed a little late to rent “My Fair Lady” and adopt Rex Harrison’s talk-sing style. I came home in a panic and demonstrated the song to my husband and daughter. My daughter put her face in the pillow, and my husband threw his elbow over his mouth to hide his giggles.

I had one more class before the recital, and I realized as I got to Deborah’s door that I wasn’t so concerned about humiliating myself—I’d lost that battle many Guinea Pigs ago—but I didn’t want to embarrass her. She was a great teacher, and I didn’t want the assembled parents to think otherwise. Somehow that opened my throat and some not-horrible sounds came out. We ran through the song while she called out “Breathe!” every few words. She seemed relieved, and I was as ready as I ever would be.

The night of the performance I drove to the hall with my daughter in the back seat. My husband had an out-of-town work trip he swore was just a coincidence. I sang “More Than You Know” over and over in the car. My poor daughter knew enough to bring her Game Boy. She interrupted me only once. “Mom, when you sing the word ‘show’ it comes out ‘cho.’ People are going to get very agitated because they don’t know what ‘cho’ means.”

Then it was time for my simultaneous debut and farewell tour. The performers were two boys, 25 teenage girls who sang like angels and were in that first blossoming of young womanhood, and me. When Deborah introduced me I thought I would feel faint, but I had come to the conclusion that it would only be two awful minutes out of everyone’s life, and I calmly took my place in front of the piano. The crowd of about 120 looked back expectantly.

And how was it? Who cares! I did it! It’s over! As I sang—not as well as I had in the car, but not the worst I’d ever done—the audience’s faces seemed to wear a collective expression of half-amused torment. (Listen to the whole song here.) I finished and Deborah jumped up and embraced me.

When I got back to my seat my daughter took my hand. “Good job, Mom,” she whispered.

“Was I off tune?” I whispered back.

“Yes, Mom. But it was still OK.”