Mack Williams column: A singing life
I think my brother Joe was the first to hit upon the idea that I might possess a halfway decent singing voice. It was one of those days of my Old Concord Road childhood, and I had gotten angry about something (unrecallable now). While I was yelling and storming about, Joe said, ”If he can holler that loud, then he must have a singing voice!”
My ability to sing never made itself really evident during grade school or high school. I learned of it during my sophomore year of higher learning at Appalachian. Actually, I should go back and say, however, there was a chorus conscripted for one of the Granite Quarry School’s PTA programs which I was in, during the fifth grade, I think. I was singing full force when some little girl in the chorus standing in front of me turned around and just looked at me for some seconds, before turning back around, and resuming her singing. There was no frown of disapproval nor stating of “tone the volume down.” Sadly, and in reflection, there was also no stating of “wow, that sounds great” either, so who knows?
In addition to my present singing voice, I was possibly once a “boy soprano.” Of course, any word out of the mouths of boys of that age, either sung or spoken, is “soprano” (except for “Froggy” of the “Our Gang” comedies).
The time, in college, when I knew I could sing was six years after my father’s death. After the movie, “I Never Sang for My Father” came out, I remember my mother making a poignant statement regarding me and that film’s title.
Since then, I have sung a multitude of church service solos, some choruses with the Greensboro Opera Company, and have been called upon to sing at many weddings, and almost as many funerals. I think it was wise that they made a movie titled “The Wedding Singer,” instead of “The Funeral Singer,” as the latter would probably not prove to be a box-office draw. (But there may be someone out there who would enjoy such a film, with a “Poe-ish,” “Mahlerian” bent.)
Through singing at a number of telethons over the years, I have met cool people such as Sandra Hughes of WFMY and Frank Deal of WGHP. Sandra had me as a guest on her “Sandra and Friends” show, and as the name implies, treated me as a friend would. Frank was equally as friendly, and I still miss his “experimentation” with the English language during his broadcasts of the weather.
He would often take two descriptive weather words and put them together to make a new one, truly his own. He only took parts of each word, in more or less Dr. Frankenstein fashion (not stringing several complete words together to make a new one, as the Germans are wont to do).
Offhand, I can’t recall some of Frank’s inventive words. The first thing which pops into my mind when I attempt his “art” involves the construction of a new word from the words “sunny” and “hot.” The only thing I can come up with from those two is “snot,” and Frank would never have used that, even if he had thought it. (But that doesn’t preclude some tasteless individual from writing it.)
I don’t enjoy singing “The Messiah” as much these days. This doesn’t imply any loss of faith, but instead the loss of a few very high notes that were always “iffy,” even at age 30, much less 63. I’ve heard people say that Handel hated tenors, but maybe he just hated people who thought they were tenors.
I remember seeing faculty programs in Appalachian’s Music Department, in which my late voice professor Hoyt Safrit would sometimes be listed as “Tenor,” sometimes as “Lyric Baritone.” Perhaps I should follow my old teacher’s example, and then, if an occasional, very high note does pop out, both bases will be covered. (And in that sort of vein, I do have a few, really low notes.)
In addition to being a “wedding singer,” “funeral singer,” etc. I have sometimes been a “sick singer” (nothing twisted, just bacteriological). With the spirit of “The show must go on,” I was singing in a church cantata one time with a sinus infection that had boosted my temperature to 102 degrees.
The “aerobics” of singing, plus the thickness of the choir robe caused my fever to “break” in mid-cantata, much the same as that of a feverish child who had been covered with quilts in order to “sweat the fever out.”
There weren’t any special dynamic markings at that point in the cantata where my fever broke, but I had the same joyous and revived feeling as that experienced during the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, or Gustav Mahler’s Symphony N0 2, “The Resurrection.”
One thing about being a wedding singer is that the soloist gets to witness the great individuality of each couple, in this first great “joint effort” to make their service “their own” and hopefully, memorable for them, their family, and friends. At this point, I could paraphrase Han Sol, and say, “Kid, I’ve sung in many weddings, in a lot of different places for over forty years, and I’ve seen a lot of really weird stuff ...”
One couple for which I sang brought real meaning to the term “candle power.” If Thomas Jefferson had filled his rooms with the same number of candles as were in that church sanctuary, then Monticello would have been a preview of the garish fluorescence we encounter in present-day visits to Walmart.
In another wedding, the sanctuary was filled with so many green fronds that for a moment, I thought it was that special Sunday from which Easter is only one week away.
I remember glancing up from my music, only to see “green” (and only green) a few inches from my nose. In the Book of Isaiah, there is the “voice crying in the wilderness,” but that day, I was more like the “voice singing in the rainforest.”
I still enjoy singing at church and at other functions, and am glad that my voice is still holding out at age 63. When people say “you’re a little man with a big voice,” I sometimes tell them that spaces in the head helps provide resonance, and always throw in that quote from Toscanini: “Tenors have resonance in the same place where most people have brains!” One hears all kinds of supposed “Toscanini quotes.” (I wonder if they are about as true as all of the finger bones once attributed to Saint John the Baptist.)
A musical instrument has a case in which it is kept when not in use, or when it’s player is traveling somewhere to play. One day, the physical “particulars” of my instrument will be placed similarly in a “box.” Hopefully, my voice’s spiritual equivalent, upon reaching its destination, may sing again, after being warmed up (but not too warm).