“If you could be anything in the world and talent and money weren’t an issue, would you still be doing what you do, or something else?”
My husband posed this question in an attempt to liven up a rather staid Upper East Side party one night. The gathered Wall Street wizards, lawyers and M.B.A. types thought about it. “Exactly what we’re doing,” most of them concluded. Finally it was my turn. I didn’t hesitate. “I’d like to be a torch singer,” I said.
Even my husband was startled. I don’t know why; he knows all about my years with a singer named John Kuhn.
I first knocked on the door of John’s music room thirty-one years ago, when I was 23. “I understand you perform miracles,” I said by way of introduction, and he laughed heartily.
John still recalls those words to me now, telling me that he was so charmed he immediately agreed to squeeze me in, even though I had not much ability and no professional aspirations at all.
John was a professor of voice at New York University, plying his trade at the piano in a small cubicle in a West 4th Street building with an uncertain elevator. That fall, while I was enrolled in the graduate journalism program, I had also signed up for guitar lessons with an instructor named Mary Roof, who worked patiently with me on chords and fingering. But every time she tried to get me to sing along, I would freeze. “You really need to get over that,” she’d say. I was painfully self-conscious; my voice was small and whispery. Eventually she said, “You ought to see the man next door.”
“It’s hopeless,” I said.
“Oh, you should hear some of the people he gets in there,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I hear them through the wall. You’d be amazed what he can do.”
And that’s why I knocked on John’s door. I was ripe for transformation. I arrived at his doorstep carting my trunkload of emotional baggage, one of the walking wounded. A year before, I’d had a boyfriend, a heartbreaker musician and actor named Kenny with whom I’d lived the last year in college. He would jump out of bed to compose ballads on his guitar, and would stare penetratingly into my eyes when he sang. What his voice lacked in size it made up for in confidence. I was still young and stupid enough to mistake his self-absorption for an artistic temperament. When the group he played with wanted to make a demo tape, I took them to a family friend who was a sound engineer, and for several weeks I listened as they laid down tracks in the studio, an achingly lovely four part polyphony that Kenny had composed. The girl singer, Laura, had a clear, pure voice without vibrato, and I yearned to sound like that. I knew better than to try, however. Once, reading a book, I had dared to hum to myself, and Kenny looked up, startled. “You can carry a tune?” he’d said, his amazement clearly an insult. That summer, he performed at the Village Vanguard and other clubs around town, and I would sit in the front row, a good little girl friend, clutching an extra set of guitar strings in case one snapped. Then one Friday night, Kenny was going to make his acting debut in an off-Broadway production, and arrived to pick me up on his way to the theater. His best friend Mark waited in the car. Kenny seemed excited, glittery-eyed, as he said, “Sit down, we need to talk for a minute.” I waited expectantly, ready to offer the pep talk I thought he wanted. “We always said we’d be honest with each other,” he said, taking my hand. I’ve since learned to hate when people say that. You know you’re about to hear something you’d rather not.
Kenny looked long and hard into my eyes and said, “I’ve met someone else.”
And with that bombshell, he told me that Mark was waiting so we had to hurry, pushed me out the door, and drove to the theater. Chilled and nauseated, I sat through the first act, then spent Acts II and III sobbing on Mark’s shoulder in the front seat of his Trans-Am. Later that evening, in the midst of breaking up with me, and making sure I heard all about the sexy, talented actress who’d snared him, Kenny said, “I forgot to ask, what did you think of my performance tonight?” I stared at him, and finally said, “You mean, ‘aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’” The truth was, he’d probably been good; Kenny was good at many things, except kindness.
So when I knocked on John’s door a year later, I needed to prove something.
John started me out on scales, of course, and songs. Wonderful songs. Show tunes, pop music, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim. Melodies from little known musicals, and poignant songs from World War II that somehow seemed to be about my lost love as well. “I’ll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places…” I would sing. “You have a small voice, but your pitch is professional,” he told me. He taught me breath control by having me blow at a candle without extinguishing it, and showed me how to sing from the diaphragm, supporting my voice from below my rib cage, not from the throat. He demonstrated the difference between chest voice and head voice, showing me how to feel the buzz of sound through my sinus cavities.
John had performed with the NBC Opera company, recording and touring. He was born in Munich, where both his parents had been opera stars. His mother sang with Caruso.
But because he was half-Jewish, he had fled Germany in the thirties. His wife Erica, also German, had been a dancer, though by the time I met her she was a day camp director, big, hale and hearty. They lived on the Upper West Side in a prewar apartment with high ceilings, dark furniture, and Erica’s mother, who would answer the phone in a little girl voice, though she was well past eighty. He and Erica had no children, but John fussed over a terrier that he always referred to as “my little fellow.” He would often invite me for parties, where with very little urging the guests could be persuaded to sing. But never me. And I told no one I was taking lessons, for fear they’d ask me to sing. I did it for love, for the pure pleasure of it, because it was better than therapy, it was therapy, and I felt exhilarated at the end of our sessions, floating along the east end of Washington Square, home to 10th street, where I’d bound up the stairs humming happily. Daily I’d practice my scales in the bathroom, because John said the acoustics from the tiles would amplify my voice pleasingly. I sang even when I had a cold, because John said that the stuffiness gave you more chest resonance.
John was short and ebullient, and when he needed to teach me how a phrase should sound, he would mimic my range by singing in falsetto. But occasionally he would demonstrate a few notes in his own voice, a powerful tenor, which was a joy at such close range, and always so unexpected from this puckish, red-haired man who was a shameless flirt. He was a wonderful teacher, excited, animated, encouraging, and I loved him for it. Often I’d bring him little treats — homemade brownies, or champagne grapes. Because I knew he went long hours without eating, frequently I’d surprise him with coffee and muffins. I’d tell him stories about my boyfriends, or my career in book publishing. I could always make him laugh; he could always coax music out of me.
Whenever he returned from Europe, he would always bring me back a bag of his favorite, cherished nougat cookies. “You don’t know how lucky you are,” he said. “It took every ounce of my self-control not to finish them. You are the only woman I share them with.”
“I bet you tell that to all your women,” I said.
Sometimes I’d meet him at the end of his teaching day, and we would go to one of the many overheated coffee shops that ringed the campus, all of them smelling of dog, damp wool and scruffy students. “You shouldn’t drink milk,” he’d tell me. “It gums up the voice.” Always animated, he would order the blue fish platter, and, wiping flecks of food from his chin, regale me with stories about the places he’d sung, the people he’d known.
“You must be bolder,” he’d tell me. “Sing. Emote. You’re too controlled.” I took it metaphorically: I was too tight, too constricted. Life lessons, music lessons, they were one and the same. Take risks, let your voice crack, don’t be embarrassed, it’s only the two of us and the piano, he’d say. And I’d reach for that note, sometimes failing, laughing with embarrassment, and still he’d push me further.
“It’s time you sang in a group,” he told me the summer night he took me to an open sing on 57th street across from Carnegie Hall. One of his students was doing a solo. I couldn’t sight read, but clutching the sheet music they’d passed out at the door, I managed to stumble along beside John as we worked our way through the “Carmina Burana”, a medieval melding of voices and glorious sound.
“You want me to sing what?” I said the time he handed me the music to “Hey Big Spender.” “You need to be looser,” he said. “Oh yeah?” I said. “I suppose you want me to wear a boa and do a bump and grind too.”
“I don’t think my heart could take it,” he said. “Just sing.”
And I sang. I sang all the time. My voice became a small, tuned instrument, a source of pleasure, and healing.
Eventually, I married and moved out of the city, and the lessons tapered off. The last time we met for lunch, I told him my news: I was pregnant with my first child. Today we don’t see each other often, but we talk a few times a year on the phone. “And how is the great American novelist?” he’ll ask. Each May, I remember his birthday, and always send him delicacies at Christmas — Royal Riviera pears, chocolate truffles, linzer tart cookies. Always food. Summers, when he and Erica go to Maine, he visits the Harbor Candy Store I told him about in Ogunquit, and never fails to send me a few pounds of fudge. Our friendship has lasted more than thirty years, forged from love of food and song, contrapuntal sustenance for stomach and soul.
“Sing out, Louise,” the stage mother in Gypsy calls. And I do. John gave me back my voice. I will never be the chanteuse of my fantasies; I still sing sotto voce, low and soft, not meant to be overheard. But still, I sing, trusting that the notes John taught me will be there when I need them.
Liane Kupferberg Carter’s essays, articles and fiction have appeared in the New York Times syndicate, McCall’s, Parents, Child, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Newsday, The Westchester Review, Mom Writers Literary Magazine, Memoir(and), Literary Mama, and Writers’ Bloc. She is a 2009 winner of the Memoir Journal Prize for Memoir in Prose.