July 19, 2018

miss baker's singing lessons

I'd just sung with Kate for the first time, a young twenty-something, and I was spread-eagled on the king-sized memory foam bed of Cloud Nine, taking up all the space and floating.  It was intermission, and I was drifting toward the bathroom, and the lady stopped me in the hallway.  "Where'd you learn how to sing like that?" she asked, her eyes wide and amazed.  I just stared at her and went blank, because how does a person answer such a question?  Then I mumbled something like I-don't-know-church-choir-thank-you-that's-very-sweet and then drifted faster.  My cloud had a manual transmission.


A few weeks ago, Kate said the part that Emmylou Harris sang in "Crazy in Alabama" was difficult, that even Emmylou had trouble with it because it's just plain hard.  I still didn't know what to say, except that practicing in the car five hundred and seventeen times pretending to be your hero's backup singer tended to give a person the needed foundation.

But I realized this morning that there really is an answer to that question.  How was I able to pick out and sustain a difficult harmony?

I learned it from Miss Virginia Baker.

Miss Baker was an elderly alto in a choral society that I belonged to in my early twenties, a small group in a small town.  At that age, everyone was elderly to me, and I sat beside Miss Baker in the alto section.  Come to think of it, she sat on the end, so I was the only person who had to sit beside Miss Baker.  She was remarkable because her vibrato was so wide that it made a perfect third.  It was clean and accurate, the stuff of tuners and the careful ear.  She harmonized with herself.

I'm sure the poor dear couldn't help it, and it didn't really work with the pieces we were singing (think Daniel Pinkham's "Gloria In Excelsis Deo"), but if you put her in church and handed her a Baptist hymnal turned to "Sweet Hour of Prayer" or "Silent Night" or "Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling", she could sing by herself with no one else needed and cover all parts.

You couldn't sit next to Miss Baker and not learn to hear your part with your right ear while tidily blocking out the left.  Miss Baker taught me to pick out a difficult harmony.  She was a very good teacher.

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