Am I America's worst singer?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
June 22 2005 1:25 PM

Song of the Damned

I'm tuneless. In four weeks, I make my concert debut.

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Deborah was a weekly boost to my confidence. "You have great range, great potential," she said. "You've got a gorgeous rich, sexy torch-singer voice." Then I would come home and sing and have Neil LaBute-style exchanges with my husband.

Husband: Your singing is dramatically better. You sound really good.

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Me: You don't look like I sound good.

Husband: Every note you sing is off-key. Can't you hear yourself? It's incredibly jarring.

Me: Then I'm not good.

Husband: You do sound good. You just consistently hit the wrong note throughout the song.

I knew I wasn't good, but as I wore a groove in my head with "More Than You Know," there were times when even I could feel that the song came together. But these occasions were like cold-fusion experiments: They could not be reliably repeated.

One week before the performance I came to Deborah's studio to have a run-through with the pianist, Jerry Allen, who was to accompany me. There was something destabilizing about singing in front of a stranger, let alone a professional musician. I viscerally understood what it meant to "choke." My throat tightened and I felt as if a knife was twisting in my larynx. Every time I tried to sing the phrase, "If you got tired and said goodbye" the word goodbye barely came out as a croak.

Even Deborah looked alarmed. She told me if I needed to talk the song I could. "If you can't hold a note, don't hold it." It seemed a little late to rent "My Fair Lady" and adopt Rex Harrison's talk-sing style. I came home in a panic and demonstrated the song to my husband and daughter. My daughter put her face in the pillow, and my husband threw his elbow over his mouth to hide his giggles.

I had one more class before the recital, and I realized as I got to Deborah's door that I wasn't so concerned about humiliating myself—I'd lost that battle many Guinea Pigs ago—but I didn't want to embarrass her. She was a great teacher, and I didn't want the assembled parents to think otherwise. Somehow that opened my throat and some not-horrible sounds came out. We ran through the song while she called out "Breathe!" every few words. She seemed relieved, and I was as ready as I ever would be.

The night of the performance I drove to the hall with my daughter in the back seat. My husband had an out-of-town work trip he swore was just a coincidence. I sang "More Than You Know" over and over in the car. My poor daughter knew enough to bring her Game Boy. She interrupted me only once. "Mom, when you sing the word 'show' it comes out 'cho.' People are going to get very agitated because they don't know what 'cho' means."