9. Finding My Voice
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Nine Finding My Voice “It’s like Purgatory,” wrote a friend of mine from music camp. I knew exactly what she meant, even without reading the rest of her letter. I felt it too, that suffering that came with the music. Burning with desire. Doing penance, as I submitted to the regular discipline of practice. Eyes fixed on the elusive goal of mastery. Like my friend, I agonized, wondering whether I’d ever make it across the gulf that separated the music of my imagination from the confining limits of my own experience. It was a painful kind of limbo—and I knew it had to do with something beyond frustration over my accordion skills. More was at stake: finding my place, gaining access to half-hidden parts of myself , satisfying the hunger for connection—to a larger community, a deeper experience of the music, to something outside myself. My recent trip to Louisiana had intensified this yearning, along with a sense of not measuring up. I fell into my unfortunate habit of comparing myself to other people. Not to the Cajuns and Creoles , because they were in a class by themselves, but to everyone else. Outsiders. Américains. People like me. Three of our Chicago friends had recently taken the final bold step: they had formed a band. They had even talked to Steve about joining. They needed a triangle player, but figured he was versatile enough to play a little mandolin and second fiddle, too. Steve declined ; for one thing, he didn’t actually know how to play the triangle . But I felt excluded, like the last kid picked for a team in gym class. I felt buffeted by strong and conflicting emotions, as insistent as the waves that must have battered that piece of driftwood Larry Miller found on Holly Beach, and then fashioned into an accordion. All washed up, or waiting to be found, depending on how you looked at it. Ready to be shaped into something new, to become a unique instrument with a strong voice. 96 Finding My Voice 97 Maybe that’s why I started to sing. It was just after Augusta when it happened, surprising everyone, especially me—because I had spent most of my life convinced I couldn’t sing. I’m not sure when I lost my voice. I used to chime in freely with the other kids, at least during my early childhood years. But toward the end of grade school, I developed an unshakeable belief that I couldn’t sing right. That’s what my mother always said about herself, that she couldn’t “carry a tune.” She insisted she’d lost her voice in college, when she had her tonsils out, and had to quit the glee club. So my father took the lead in any family singing we did, while my mom sang along faintly, in a kind of scratchy pantomime. My grade school music teacher didn’t help matters. Miss Sibley was an intimidating figure: tiny, white-haired, desiccated, impossibly elderly, and with an odd way of looking frail and fierce at the same time. She reminded me of a character out of Dickens, dressed in an old-fashioned dark shirtwaist dress with neat white collar and tightly belted skirt almost to the ankles. She presented a picture of precision and containment—except when she flushed bright crimson with anger, her small body flooding with more feeling than she could handle. She would spin around and glare at the class, shaking , trying to figure out who had strayed off key or who had dared to snicker behind her back. I kept my head down and studied my songbook, in the vain hope of simultaneously following Miss Sibley’s waving arms and the notes wandering up and down the staff. I loved books and was used to pleasing my teachers, but this singing business didn’t come so easily to me. And the songs she taught us were heavy and joyless— nothing like the gentle folk tunes about un canadien errant we learned in French class, or those ribald camp songs we belted out at Girl Scout meetings. I worried—a lot—about what might happen if my voice strayed into some territory considered out-of-bounds by Miss Sibley. So I found the perfect solution: lip synching, or something close to it. I learned to sing under my breath, hoping my classmates would provide a convenient cover. Before long, hiding out vocally...