In trying to bash out a story per day, I find I’m mining my memories and setting them into bite-sized stories. This one stood out to me as it was actually a huge transition point in my life where I met some of the best friends of my adult life. Seemed worth putting up here. Oh: and welcome to a new site layout.
A song. A song? As in, I need to sing a song? This seems like a bad idea.
I’m on a hard chair in a cafeteria at Microsoft. I came here before my night job, working nights answering tech support calls. The late afternoon sun crawls weakly through the giant windows, filtering through fall branches that still retain the odd withered leaf or two. Other strangers around me clutch papers in their hands, their mouths moving silently, reciting. Memorizing. Practicing.
I’ve never been what you might call “musically gifted”. A more apt description might be “musically challenged” or even “musical menace, don’t let within six yards of noise making devices”. In second grade I decided I’d like to try violin. The expression on my father’s patient face as he tried to help me learn to form a C or E flat on the cruel device was not unlike someone trying to smile encouragingly while cats mate beside his ear. Several years later I would try piano. I got as far as learning the opening notes to Close Encounters of the Third Kind before giving it up. Trumpet followed in Junior high, and was quickly jettisoned for Science class. Guitar was attempted in high school. Because, you know, chicks, man.
None of it stuck. When I was married, I remember gleefully singing along to a song on the radio. My lovely wife attempted to inform me in the nicest way possible that I really was not cut out for this sort of thing. Ever the perceptive lad, I was able to piece together all the clues and arrive at the conclusion: music and I are like a camp fire and a block of ice trying to be friends. At a distance we are alright, but trying to do something together could only lead to disappointment. And potentially damage.
So why would I subject myself to singing a song in front of strangers on purpose? Madness? Did I lose a bet? Do I crave humiliation?
Well, I was recently divorced. I really had no social circle to speak of, and I craved a creative outlet. I had fond memories of drama class in high school, and a play I took part in Junior High (even though I ended that with a broken nose). There’s nothing like the camaraderie of a cast after a performance; nothing like the rush after stepping off stage to applause. So when I saw an add for a community theater play being put on by a bunch of fellow Microsoft folks, I swallowed the nervous lump and chose to dive in.
The requirements: memorize a short monologue (comedic preferably), and choose a song to sing.
Monologue was no problem. I knew several Kids in the Hall sketches by heart already. A frivolous choice? Why not something from Shakespeare? Nah, too dry, too expected. If people couldn’t appreciate a good KITH sketch, they weren’t my people anyway. Anyway, the idea of performing one of my favorite skits in front of people just got me eager and excited, so I stayed with it. But a song? Like, to sing? With my own voice? And likely ‘a cappella’ since I don’t know how to play an instrument. This seemed less of a try-out tactic than a hazing ritual.
Still. Their show, their rules.
Nervously I selected “Candy” by the Presidents of the United States of America. Because it was as ridiculous as I felt. Oh, and I love candy. Plus it had about three notes to the entire song.
So now I watch nervously as people are called, one at a time, and enter through a plain office door into god-knows-where, to do god-knows-what. The waiting numbers dwindle. Then, far too soon I hear a woman call my name in a questioning voice. I stand up and manage to blurt out “here”.
The room has long tables with more hard chairs; it is a conference room usually used for presentations. Three people, a woman and two men, sit at one table. I hand them the paperwork I was to fill out. They smile, and one of them invites me, with all the politeness of a recruiter asking for one’s resume, to begin my monologue “whenever I’m ready”. I’m pretty sure I will never be ready.
I had a bad stuttering problem as a kid. Couldn’t get a word out without skipping across the letters like a needle stuck on a record. I suddenly feel it will come back. I open my mouth to begin and the words won’t come out. I’m sure if I can just get started it will all flow out fine. But the air won’t come out. There is a boulder in my throat, nothing gets by. I close my mouth and turn sideways, picturing in my mind how the sketch played out on TV. Mimicking exactly, I turn my face to them and begin: “Want to know something? I’m a bad doctor…”
I blitz through the skit, gaining speed as I go.
It is over before I know it. I’ve seen some smiles, a little forced laughter, but overall encouragement. I’m heartened. I smile weakly and sit down. They ask some questions about my past, my acting experience. I don’t remember it well; that familiar adrenaline rush that follows a performance is spinning in my head.
Then the crucial moment: “so what are you singing for us today?”
How is that a question that can just be asked? You can’t expect someone to just, well, sing. That’s not how it works. There has to be some kind of lead-up, some fore play. You must ease them into the mood. Maybe light a few candles? I don’t know, but I know it’s not supposed to be like that.
But there it is. The question hangs in the air, smoke from a gun. I explain my choice and they look at each other for any recognition. Seeing none, the woman says “well, we are eager to hear it, begin whenever you are ready.” She also asks if I have accompaniment, and I kick myself for not arranging something. Anything. A kazoo. A small badger beating a drum. Anything.
And then, without knowing it I’m belting it out. Singing. In front of people. My hand lightly and nervously slaps my leg to keep time.
And it feels good. It sounds good. And I get into it. I like this! It’s great singing for other people! Why doesn’t everyone do this all the time every day? I’m a changed man. I’m pretty sure from now on I’ll be singing my order at the lunch counter, serenading support calls at work, rising every day with a full-throated bellow and yodel.
In short order the song is done and I look back at them, having avoided any kind of eye contact during the song, and I’m suddenly, thoroughly, and powerfully embarrassed.
The man who I learn is the music director explains that I have “a really interesting sound” and asks what my range is. I bunch up my brow like a wad of paper you are about to throw away. He asks me to sing scales as he taps away on a keyboard that he has in front of him. I oblige. He goes low, low, lower, until I just can’t hit a note any more. Then he takes it higher, higher, into squeaky teenager territory, and sure enough my voice cracks and strains at the top.
And then they thank me. And I’m dismissed.
I walk out buzzing in my head and at my limbs. I feel exhausted. And I feel energized. A bird chirps his song in a barren branch above me. I quietly mimic his song. Very quiet, right under my breath. But out loud nonetheless.