HORSE RACE

HORSE RACE

“Dear Linda,

“I’ve tried to start this letter three times. I’m finding it very hard to open up and talk about my life just now, I’ve been feeling so moody and strange.

“Suddenly I’ve become seriously committed to the guitar. I’m studying with a sweet guy named Charlie, who’s just about my age. I’m teaching myself to read tablature, writing guitar accompaniments and song lyrics, and looking for a voice teacher. Somehow the ambition, anxiety, and determination involved have made me very sober. Also, I’ve started painting classes. I frankly don’t know what I’m doing in there, but I figure I’ll catch on eventually. Then I’m low on cash again and feeling the pinch, and job hunting is getting me nowhere.

“I’ve had my share of odd experiences lately. I was picked up hitchhiking by a sexy older man who had just produced a movie. He took me to see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with his ‘daughter’ Kelly, whom I didn’t—to my red-faced chagrin—find out was his son until the end of the evening, when I referred to him as ‘her.’

“I had a pelvic at the Free Clinic, which might as well have been Grand Central Station. Various interns and nurses hustled in and out during the proceedings, casting sidelong glances at my crotch, while another inexperienced doctor tried to find the whereabouts of my right ovary. Finally everybody donned a glove and joined in the search.

“Then I went to see Cat Stevens perform and was so smitten that I decided to try to meet him. I called his recording company and pretended to be a representative of the Unified Churches of Long Beach who wanted him to make a personal appearance at a charity concert. All I found out was that he was on his way to New York. (Don’t ask me what I would have done if they’d said yes.)

“Also, I unofficially joined the Unitarian Church down here, tried without success to sell my dress designs, and went to the track with Monk, a cheery eccentric who studies the horses, bets judiciously, and invariably wins something. He did this time too—but the filly he told me to bet on lost. So I’m out $12, which I needed for groceries.

“How about you? Any fascinating new developments in your life? You ask about leaving Berkeley. Judging from what I’ve seen down here, Berkeley is as good a place to be as any—I’ve almost moved home half a dozen times. Somehow it’s your life style that makes the difference. Write! I luv to get letters.”

THE SINGING BREATH

THE SINGING BREATH

How would I describe the singing breath if someone were to ask me? I was wondering the other day. How did I experience it? Well, I would explain that to sing you have to take abnormally deep breaths, so your whole muscular apparatus has to learn what to do to both accommodate and utilize this super-breath (I remember Marilyn Horne saying you even have to use your buttocks muscles). When I breathed correctly, I had a wonderful sense of capaciousness—no, more than that—of boundlessness. I felt like I could go on inhaling, my ribcage expanding indefinitely, as though there were no limits whatever to how much breath I could draw. When I took a less successful breath, however, I would hit an obstruction—a physical dead end—in one place or another in my body, an area that became “locked” in a manner that didn’t allow me to open any further; the sensation was even a little painful.

When Giora, one of the directors of the Alexander Technique school in Berkeley, first guided me from a stool to a standing position—one of his hands on my neck, the other on my sternum—I had the sensation of floating upward, it was so effortless. Later he explained that by moving quickly, he could bypass his students’ usual way of using their bodies, their habits of bracing and tension. By not giving these time to kick in, he was able to trick the body into moving in a more integrated way.

My hunch is that Mrs. Unruh used to do something similar with me, that by forcing me to keep up with her brisk musical accompaniment during vocalises, instead of constantly stopping and starting me the way most teachers would have, she created a momentum that swept my body past all of my habits of holding and tension.

Unfortunately, at the time I quit my lessons with her, my breathing was still hit and miss; I hadn’t completely mastered this new way of using my body. What complicated things further is that I had a lordosis—a curvature of the spine—so that a sitting position allowed my ribcage to expand more easily than a standing one. Unlike the majority of teachers who insist their students stand, Mrs. Unruh was confidant that as my technique became more assured, I’d be able to translate what I was learning from a sitting position to a standing one.

I also remember another distinct sensation I had when I took a singing breath. I felt as though there was the midpoint of a cross in the middle of my back and my intake of air caused the lateral arms of the cross to expand outward while, more surprisingly, the vertical arms moved upwards and downwards. When I tried to do my vocalises on my own, however, I was unable to replicate this sensation that had allowed my voice to soar.

LEARNING THE HARD WAY

LEARNING THE HARD WAY

I had only a dim memory of these events until I came across the following account—written at the time—among my papers:

I got Ms. Carregio’s name from the Music Department at Long Beach State, where she taught. After auditioning for her—she tested my voice and we talked about my previous training—in a burst of hope and enthusiasm, I paid her for a month of lessons, two per week, with a large traveler’s check I’d been wanting to use, and I rashly did this despite the fact that she was willing to let me pay per session.

So I was chagrinned after my first real lesson to find that my throat ached, knowing from Mrs. Unruh that this wasn’t a good sign. I talked to Ms. Carregio about it, of course, but she didn’t seem concerned, only encouraged me to give it a chance, promising things would get better. When they only got worse and I found myself so hoarse after my lessons that I couldn’t sing for the rest of the day, I told her that her approach wasn’t working for me, that it was too different from my previous teacher’s, and she graciously agreed to refund the rest of my money, saying she’d send me a check the following week.

When the check didn’t come and I called her back, her husband informed me that she’d gone on tour and wouldn’t be back for a couple of months. Then I found myself having to pinch my pennies, thanks to unexpected expenses, so the delay was a hardship. As soon as she was due back, I phoned, and once again she assured me she’d send me a check promptly. Well, I waited… And waited… But the next time I talked to her, she announced she’d changed her mind; she was willing to give me more lessons, she said, but not to refund my money. When I reiterated how the lessons had affected my voice, she retorted that I was rigid and couldn’t learn from anybody. I told her frankly then that I was financially strapped—and, to my relief, she reversed herself again, saying she’d just been trying to teach me a lesson. The last time we spoke, however, she told me she’d decided definitively not to refund my money. Trying to keep my cool, I pointed out that I could take her to small claims court, but her response was that she’d simply say I failed to show up for my remaining lessons. I then threatened to go to the Music Department and pass out an account of how she’d treated me to the students there; I even went so far as to write one up but never followed through.