Thursday, December 03, 2009

Shira Means Song

Mary Rodgers teaches voice in her tiny studio apartment, well-situated in the heart of the Upper West Side – West 72nd Street, next door to Ricky's, down the block from Fine and Shapiro's, a hop, skip and a jump from Columbus Avenue.

Like Mary, the apartment is neat and spartan. Students come and go on a half-hour turn-over schedule throughout the day. Doobie the dog is the only other steady inhabitant. It is rare that the lessons start on time so I treat my 30-
minute lessons as if they were actually one hour long.

Mary is Middle Babe's professional coach, discovered when my daughter embraced singing as her art while yet in elementary school. I first encountered Mary’s empire from the perspective of the parent who sat on the couch in the dining room/living room during her child's lessons.

During those years, I loved to sink back into the cushions and hear my daughter discover the range and possibilities of her voice in the other room, adored hearing Mary give out praise and guidance, thrilled to the thought of my child getting the proper push to pursue her dreams.

When Middle Babe hit high school, she went to Mary's on her own, sometimes on the way back from her school, located on the East Side, nearly straight across the park from W72nd Street. During the gap year after high school, Middle Babe went abroad and the lessons stopped. From there, it was off to college in Maryland and only nostalgic visits back to Mary; a half hour here, 30 minutes there, separated sometimes by an entire year.

Last spring, Middle Babe developed polyps on her vocal chords with weeks left to her school play, in which she had a prominent singing role. She had to drop the part -- and her major -- start therapy and concentrate on healing.

Virtually overnight, my songbird became a philosopher, excelling in her new pursuit, stoically redirecting her energies until such time that she might resume her musical trajectory...if so she chooses.

Paradoxically, it was during the autumn following Middle Babe's voice trauma that I underwent a series of personal cataclysms that pushed me to contemplate an untapped instrument that I possessed -- my singing voice.

And while I harbored no illusions about the professional potential of my endeavor, I believed strongly in the power of my breath, in the passion I might express -- the anger, the disappointment, the pain, the hope, the quest for transcendence and redemption -- through the act of allowing melody to pass through my lips.

I wished to reclaim something that had been taken from me and singing was my means.

So I called Mary and set up regular sessions. On my first visit, I told her about my name, which means song or poem. I told her that this pursuit was spiritual, not artistic or career-directed. I spoke to her about the singer-songwriters I love, the lyrics that speak to me; the music that has provided the soundtrack to my life.

Thus we began. Mary’s lessons are half vocal exercises, half singing. The choice of the music is entirely up to the student. I told Mary that in about two weeks, she would begin to see a pattern to the songs I selected.

It began with “Sisters of Mercy,” morphed into “Halleluyah,” moved into “The Gypsy’s Wife,” turned into “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” and is currently perched on “Alone Again, Naturally.”

Singing alongside Mary is unlike anything else I’ve undertaken. It makes me feel goofy and graceful at the same time; self-conscious and weirdly self-satisfied. Though I’ve sang along with each of the aforementioned songs dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of times, the experience of singing while standing by her piano, facing a mirror, is entirely new.

I mostly read the lyrics from the sheet music or close my eyes when I know them by heart, but every now and then I catch my reflection and regard it in a combination of embarrassment and admiration. Do I look normal singing, I wonder? Could I do this in public? How should I set my features? Should I even think about what my singing face looks like?

“Ogod, your singing face!” groaned Middle Babe recently at the Shabbat table. We were singing Shalom Aleichem and I was really into it, closing my eyes, swaying, clapping my hands. Little Babe joined his sister in snickering. Over the past couple of years, I have learned from my children that I have a variety of highly amusing faces, chief among them - the dancing face. Middle Babe has lampooned this to no end, affecting a hipster’s expressionless mug, shaking her hair, shimmying her shoulders, mouthing the words, “I’m so cool.”

But much more than the startling reflection of my face in song, it has been the lyrics that have jumped out at me over the past five weeks, providing commentary on my life at this moment in time. I have hugged certain words to my heart, been shocked and pained by others, soothed and comforted by still others. The melodies that accompany the words seep straight into my soul. Like an adolescent fixated on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or the Beatles’ White Album, I am obsessed with reading meaning into these songs.

Within and without the cocoon of Mary's apartment, the words of Leonard Cohen, Elton John and Raymond O’Sullivan have befriended me on my personal journey. Even now, there is a multi-colored swirl of lyrics in my head, forming a magnificent cloak of sorts, perhaps like the one Jacob fashioned for his favorite son, Joseph. It goes like this: we weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be alright and even though it all went wrong I stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Halleluyah she said my body is the light my body is the way more than ever I simply love you more than I love life itself seems to me that there are more hearts broken in the world that can’t be mended left unattended what do we do what do we do?


audances2 said...

hi. i used to study with Mary years ago. i googled her in order to get her number, that i lost, to no avail. can you help me how to reach her. if i remembered the apt # i would simply mail her a note but i don't. i don't want to appear as a stalker. i would love an email address if possible.

audances2 said...

i have often thought to go and mill around her building but don't want to get in trouble. i just want to take lessons with her again. you can private message me at