Nov. 13, 2003
In grade school my voice was good enough to sing the part of one of the three kings in a Christmas musical and the lead of Casey Jones in another program. After the Casey Jones show, I foolishly asked a girl I was fond of if she liked it.
Her "No" sounded like the end of the world to an 11-year-old boy's ears.
To contend she led me to lose interest in singing would be unfair. But messages the world sends about our creative offerings usually are taken deeply to heart, especially the negative ones. I haven't forgotten that one.
Whether music or art or writing or cooking or whatever we hope to do well, if the reaction of the world is disapproval and discouragement, it's easy to get the message. But the message is wrong. Sometimes all we need is correction by someone who loves music or whatever it is as much as we do.
Curiosity about whatever happened to my voice drew me to a master class taught last Saturday by an opera singer. Judith Farris is a Cape Girardeau native who went to New York and became a very good opera singer. She has sung with many great orchestras. Now she concentrates mostly on teaching.
Some of her students are famous Broadway names. No famous people were there Saturday, just people who wanted to learn how to sing better or perhaps others wanting to rediscover their voice.
Watching Farris teach singing was like watching a faith healer in action. She stood next to the student, sometimes with her hand on the back of their neck or lightly touching a shoulder. The students were nervous, of course, singing in front of 40 strangers. If Farris was standing beside one of them it meant she had arisen from her chair because the student had sung in a way that yearned for change.
But the correction always came with the reassurance that correction is not criticism but rather adjustment in the cause of improving. "It never ends," she said over and over.
Sometimes she wanted the singers to stand differently so their voice, like a work of art, has a proper pedestal. Sometimes she corrected their breathing. She urged them to open up.
Very often she wanted them to connect to their "woofer." To demonstrate the woofer she had everyone growl like a dog and feel the vibration in the upper chest. That's not what I usually feel when I sing.
Farris makes students understand how singing is done well. It is done well the way most things are: By getting out of the way. She didn't so much teach people how to sing as remind them how they did what they did when they were babies: Let it out.
In a few minutes under Farris' tutelage, voices most of us would deem pleasant or pretty began leaping from their owners' mouths.
A woman of about 40 who loves opera just started taking singing lessons from a local singer and teacher. She bravely arose. In minutes she began transferring her passion for the music into her voice.
One after one, singers began singing as if their voices had been put in overdrive. They could hear the difference themselves. It was moving.
I didn't have the courage to sing for Farris. But at the end of the class, when all those woofers sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" together, the forgotten joy of singing flooded my heart.
Sam Blackwell is a staff writer
the Southeast Missourian