Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Love Song for Walter

So I was in the car by myself the other day, and, as I am wont to do when I am in the car by myself, I started getting my diva on and belting out songs along with the radio. (Much to the amusement of everyone driving past me who happens to look my way, I'm sure.) All my life, I've been convinced that my singing voice should be better, as if by sheer force of will, I should be able to hit all of the notes right along with Mary J. Blige when she's on the radio.

I've never stopped being frustrated by the fact that sometimes, I open my mouth to sing and my voice hits a wall in the form of a high E. (Think the key change in Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On and On." No, wait. Don't think about that. Yuck. Just suffice to say that key changes and I don't get on well together, and it's not for lack of trying.)

Anyway, I was leaving the gas station last week when an old Concrete Blonde song from the early 90s, "Joey," came on. For those of you who don't know the song, the verses start out quite low--lower than is comfortable for most sopranos, though I rather like them. So I'm pulling away from the pump singing along in my best tenor, when the chorus hits. Now the chorus to this song suddenly jumps up over an octave, and needless to say, things generally get quite ugly about then if I'm somewhere alone with this tune.

But somehow, for the first time in my life, I hit the chorus. Easily. On a relative Tracy scale (i.e. not a Mary J. Blige scale), I knocked it out of the park, comfortably nailing "Jooooey, I'm not annngrryyyyy, anymooooorrrrrre" without sounding like my vocal cords were about to explode in agony.

For this small moment of happiness, I have one person to thank: Walter Ayotte.

Walter was my voice teacher my senior year of college. I'd dabbled in getting a music minor but pretty much decided against it when I realized how many math-like music theory classes were involved. (Yuck.) But just for fun,throughout my four years, I'd take a semester of piano here, a year of wind ensemble there, a couple of years of chorale. My senior year, I got brave and decided to take a semester of voice lessons, despite the fact that I was going to have to get up and perform classical music in front of all of the other people taking voice lessons. Regularly.

So on my first day, I met the man who insisted I call him Walter, a quiet, balding professor in his seventies, dressed in a sweater vest and a pair of neatly pressed pants. I explained to him that I had no soprano range to speak of, or even, really, an alto range, but I could do a mean tenor. He smiled a little and said, "Let's run through some scales."

First, he took me at my word and let me try to impress him with what I hoped was my smoky, Melissa-Etheridge-esque low range (SO not the case). Then, we went up. And up, into my head voice until I was squeaking like a mouse hopped up on helium. Then he took his hands off the piano keyboard, swung around on the seat to face me, and grandly proclaimed, "Tracy, you're a soprano."

"Oh, ha ha ha, Walter. Good one," I responded.

"No, really," he said. "You're a soprano."

"I so am not!"


"Tenor. Maybe an alto." I was seriously panicking now. If good old Walter was going to insist that I was a soprano, I was going to look like a shrieking idiot when it was my turn to perform for the students of the four, count them, four vocal profs on campus. "I could maybe do alto."


"Are you sure?"

"Trust me."

"This sucks, Walter."

"I know. But you'll see."

Somewhere in there, he let it slip that he'd been trained in voice at New York's prestigious Juilliard School. No ego involved--just a subtle message that he might know what he was talking about. I stopped arguing and painfully stumbled through a piece that had the misfortune of being both high and in French, and then we called it a day.

After a few sessions of Walter's rigorous vocal exercises, which were both intricate and so catchy, I hummed them in the shower, I got the notes in the much-hated French piece down enough that we started working on pronunciation. And then it was my turn to sing for the class.

I had a cold, so we backed out the first week I was scheduled to perform. The next week, I had another cold (I had REALLY bad allergies in college that I've since outgrown for the most part). And the week after that, my cold was gone, but my allergies were going nuts. Walter and the head of the voice department had had enough of my sickly ways and decided I was going up on stage, come hell or some really flat, strangled notes.

"Walter, this is going to be ugly," I said, clinging miserably to my Kleenex box.

"It's OK," he said. "You'll be fine."

Basically, I sucked. After I was finished, there was a smattering of polite applause, and then some gutsy little freshman lambasted me for singing from my throat instead of my chest. (I squashed one of his theories in a Shakespeare seminar we had together a few days later, out of sheer, embarrassed spite.) I slunk off the stage to where Walter was waiting. "I'm so sorry," he said, confirming that I had, indeed, blown huge, gelatinous chunks with that song. "I probably should have listened to you." I asked him if he minded if I hid behind him for the rest of the class. He didn't.

At our next meeting, he brought out a Lenten dirge called "For my Transgressions" that was blessedly in English, but about a hundred octaves higher than the French piece. I wondered if there was some hidden meaning in the title referring to my French Massacre in vocal lab the week before. "Walter," I said, "I can't sing this."

"Oh, just try," he responded genially, as unmovable as a very cheerful Rock of Gibraltar. I stumbled through the Lenten dirge, dreading giving the smug little freshman another chance to publicly humiliate me.

A couple of weeks later, I was not only singing the Lenten dirge--which had become decidedly un-dirgelike--I was belting it into the stratosphere. Sure, my soprano voice was never going to bring crowds to their feet, but it was full, clear as a bell, and, much as I hated to admit it, fun to sing in. Walter said something kind about looking forward to showing me off at lab. I asked St. Jude, the patron saint of miracles, to pray for my continued health until then.

A couple weeks later at vocal lab, I was allergy- and illness-free (Thank you, St. Jude.), so Walter and I headed onstage, and I sang all about my transgressions, hitting all my notes and having a great time listening to how my newly minted soprano voice floated and soared (soared!), aided in no small part by the recital hall's most excellent acoustics. "By God, Walter," I said after we'd finished. "I'm a soprano." He just smiled.

The class response? I can't remember what the freshman who'd snarked at my French said exactly, but it was somewhere along the lines of "Holy crap." Again, I'm not the most stunning soprano in the world, but it was a marked difference from the auditory dying swan I'd inflicted on everyone last time. One of the other profs, clearly jealous of the miracle Walter had wrought from my measly talent, grumbled, "I could have improved your voice more than Walter did." Whatever, dude.

On my last day of voice lessons, just before graduation, I told Walter I'd always regret having waited until the last semester of my senior year to work with him, and that the one semester with him was the single best musical experience I'd had in my life. I can't remember how we got onto the subject--I think I just started asking questions about Juilliard and his life before that. But he told me he had been the navigator on a B-17 (I think) bomber during World War II. Fascinated, I sat down next to him on the piano seat and insisted that we blow off class so he could tell me all about it. I wish I had a better memory of his incredible story, but I do remember that close to the end of the war, he was shot down and parachuted out of the plane, captured by Nazis, and rescued by none other than General MacArthur himself, who congratulated the men from his plane "on living like gentlemen" even under POW conditions. That was Walter to a T--always a gentleman, whether faced with Nazis or a silly student who misguidedly insisted she was a tenor.

Walter passed away a few years ago. I'm sure he now knows in depth about the impact he had on his students. But, just in case, I'll say it anyway: Thank you, Walter. You're the best. Every time I open my mouth to sing and pleasantly surprise myself, I think of you.


The Queen-a Athena said...

Oh, Tracy. What a wonderful, wonderful story. I'm all ferklempt.

Walter sounds like a true treasure. i'm so glad you had the chance to spend that time with him.

Jen said...

Tracy, I just have to say you totally rock. Somewhere up in heaven Walter is nodding and saying, "I told her she was a soprano."
What a great story.
I'm so glad you got to have that experience. And I'm grateful you shared it.

Tracy Montoya said...

Thanks, you two! I'm glad I got to spend some time with Walter, too. He was a great, great person.

Sharron said...

I wish I had a Walter. Sigh Next time we get together, we must sing. In the car. With the radio cranked (from one soprano to another).

Tracy Montoya said...

Sounds good! I'll bring the Concrete Blonde.

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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