Waltzing Mathilda; or Finding Your Voice

When Tom Waits sings a ballad I want to weep. Is it the contrast between that hard-lived, pack-a-day, whiskey chaser, broken glass voice and the tenderness of the tune and tone and text? Would it move me as much if I didn’t already know that voice rasping about keeping the devil down in the hole, or how the piano has been drinking? (Can we only know something through its contrast — pleasure/pain, happiness/misery, or is that that duality of thinking we fall prey to? Do I need to know hot to know cold? Nah.) I went to the opera recently and enjoyed how one of the main singers, playing that darling of theater, the prostitute, soared upward in full operatic voice, then burred and hardened it on the way down as the text called for bitterness, regret. We all have a head voice and a chest voice. Our voices can travel up and down between the two, and ideally meld them in the middle. Some of us get our voices stuck in our noses, some of us sound like our voices come from a disembodied throat. The two readers I heard last night both had pleasant voices, just burred enough, and read with just enough emphasis and character, but not too much, not too much flourish or drama. It was easy to listen to them. Their warm tones were invitational. A friend of mine makes fun of her own tendency to let her voice get small and high when she’s uncertain or nervous. It’s wonderfully full-throated when she lets it. I love my mother’s voice, for its chesty tones, for the memory of being read to as a child, and her hint of a Maine accent. My sister and I have an array of funny voices we use. Others find it odd. I took voice lessons for many years and my teacher would speak of how we hide emotions in the body — the throat, shoulders, the diaphragm. Singing can break it all open. Let’s notice our voices today. Let’s unsqueeze our adenoids, open our throats. Let’s make some joyful noise. Let’s laugh out loud. Then get soft and wistful. Let’s whisper. And then, later, let’s open our throats to all our late night laments, our wee hour longings, half-forgotten dreams, and let’s sing a blue valentine.

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