Sing a note. Any note. On the count of three. Don’t think about a chord. Just choose a note.
Hold that note.
Others around you will have chosen a note as well. There is no reference chord, so, hopefully, the notes won’t seem to fit. They will bump up against each other, rub wrong, cluster and hurt and feel absolutely, solidly wrong in your ear.
Do not move your note to make it right.
Do not bend your note to fit to a chord.
Do not lean into the pleasing.
Lean into the wrongness.
Hold the note.
If you wait long enough in this cacophony of wrong, something will happen. A shift. And the wrong will seem right and the ugly will turn beautiful and the random will become musical.
The wrong will be right.
Ugly will be beautiful.
This is what Kathy Mattea was describing to me last week about an exercise she experienced at a vocal workshop held by Bobby McFerrin called Circlesongs. She was explaining the experience of being in the middle of that cluster of notes where everything in her voice wanted to move her note to fit into something more understandable, more western, more pleasing, and that the challenge was to sit in the awkwardness of her choice until it changed into something perfect. She explained what happened to her skin, to her ears as the cluster morphed into beauty. And I sat listening, lapping this up, wanting that experience so badly, understanding the metaphor that living this chord would be like.
We had just drifted on a couch for two hours in a conversational river from writing projects to my new baby to her new record to my fears about what would be next for me and her patience with what would be next for her and our ages and how turning 50 is walking across a bridge to a new frontier but leaving behind the years of being the new and shiny one, the noticed one, into a land closer to the Crone than the Princess, and from there we bounced around our wrinkles, our skin, exercise, voices, songwriting, performing, teaching, writing, Botox, facelifts, makeup and hair and weight and body image and the perception of ourselves, real and perceived. And in there, somehow, Bobby McFerrin came up. As she has studied with him and turned me onto an incredible voice teacher who works with McFerrin. And we talked of being singers tied to the page, the score, the song and the release of improv, walking through the fear of screwing up, failing and falling and flying. And she talked me of this chord – this exercise of leaning into something so uncomfortable it was hard to not fight it and straighten out the crooked. Except that by staying long enough, the crooked became something else.
The next afternoon, I went to Kathy’s vocal masterclass, stood in the center of her students as a student, and on her count of three, I hit a note and held it in the midst of chaos. I almost cried.
I wonder why the act of aging skin makes me (makes all of us, let’s get real) so uncomfortable and I try very hard to not be judgmental of anybody else and their choices, but it’s hard for me to not feel a slight betrayal every time I find out another friend has taken the needle to their forehead to erase just a few years of lines and grooves. Because no matter my resolve, I look in the mirror and see the lines and the sagging skin and the spots that weren’t there a few years ago and know that there’s a fairly easy way that is socially acceptable and widely used (and really not that expensive) to just freeze time a bit. And smooth it all out. And I lean into that to see how the possibility feels in my skin.
And it doesn’t feel right for me. Right now, today, because who knows where I may be tomorrow or how I may feel, I want to lean INTO aging, to have the full experience of the Crone, to know the grief of lost youth and to write about it and by admitting it, to allow for that beauty to emerge. Because there is nothing more beautiful to me on this planet than my mother in her 70’s who looks 15 years younger than her age and my grandmother when she was in her 90’s with her “Robert Frost” face marked by the sun and salt air and my 2nd cousin Pauline in her 90’s, skin of smooth peaches powder and grace. I look back 10 years and I think now I look younger. I look back 20 years and wish I could have seen the beauty in that face when I lived in that skin. I see it now. Death is inevitable. So is aging. Why not embrace that beauty. No matter how many photos reveal the fissures of time.
Lean into the chord and stay.
Look in the mirror and stay.