Bagpipe Singing

I like to play music, but I’m not crazy about performing for an audience. That’s just not the interesting aspect of music to me. My fascination has always been with the puzzle of playing the right chord on the guitar, and then adding some bass notes with my thumb, and finally imagining what other notes I might slip in without completely losing my place. Once, for example,  inspired by  Chet Atkins, I learned to play Yankee Doodle and Dixie at the same time. Whatever the idea, it is impossible at first and only becomes music after much repetition, and sometimes not even then. Singing a song while playing a complex guitar part and remembering all the words doesn’t leave much brainpower available for producing good vocal sounds. So I’ve never worried too much about that; improving my voice doesn’t intrigue me. I’m an adequate singer for most campfires.

Practicing guitar is my second favorite musical pastime; nothing feels as magical as the process of writing a song. Whether the resulting song is good or bad doesn’t matter nearly as much as entering that magical place where you move through the shadows of an idea, setting down notes and words and chords as stepping stones, then following the path you create into a world that’s slightly transformed because a new song exists. I’ve written a couple hundred songs in my life; at last count I could still play and sing all the words to maybe sixty of them. In every case, when the song was finished, I nodded to that “presence I don’t name” that is greater than my understanding and say, “thank you.” Writing music is just fun; getting to do it feels like an honor.

Being a guy who isn’t crazy about performing who also realizes that he does not have an American Idol kind of voice, results in a bunch of unheard songs that languish in cardboard boxes. Sometimes I think it would be fun to share them. But how?

I formed a music group with some excellent singers, but not too many of my originals fit its dynamics and the varied tastes of its members. We were together ten years and recorded maybe ten of my songs. At that rate, I realized I may not live long enough to record all 200 songs.

I’ve started to put a few bits of my music on my own website, but that seems  like playing for my family when we’re snowbound together. Almost not fair.

I tried sending songs to better musicians in the hopes they’d record them.  For example, Gordon Bok’s voice could transform any song into something lovely. Because his voice is lower than mine, I transposed a few songs down a key or two and sent him a recording. He sent back a fabulous hand written note, saying he’d listened to them while sharpening tools. He thought my songs were very well crafted, said he’d consider them and encouraged me to keep writing songs. Then he suggested that my voice might sound better if I sang them a key or two higher. I received similar notes from other musicians: great songs, they’d keep them in mind, and here’s some advice on how I might sing them better.

Now I’ve got a weird dilemma. I’ve arranged some Irish songs that are 200 years old and would like to bring them back into the world. (I talk about that here.) But, if I can’t perform my own tunes well enough to seed the world with them, how am I going to re-launch these archaic and vocally difficult songs?

Maybe I just have to become a better singer. Listening more carefully (and critically) to some of my recordings, I noticed that nearly all the goofy sounds, bad notes, and weak spots seem to come from a lack of air. I don’t think I pay enough attention to having a full chest of air when I sing. So that’s my first step.

I call it “bagpipe singing.” If the piper doesn’t keep his bag full of air, he gets squeaks and squawks. I think that’s been my mistake.

My favorite singers all have voices that sound big but relaxed. Guys like Bing Crosby come to mind. If you picture the first notes of White Christmas, you can hear that he’s got this huge bunch of air in his lungs. Marty Robbins did that. So did Elvis. I decided I’d forget about hitting the right note, or the right words or chords and focus on just keeping my “bagpipe” full of air. Once that becomes a habit I’ll move on. I already know I can hit the notes and remember the words, so I’m not too worried about ignoring those for a while.

Sure, I sound like Homer Simpson singing opera in the shower. That’s probably not what I had hoped for. I try to practice when I’m alone, out of mercy. On the other hand, I can actually hit the notes better and my voice doesn’t tire so quickly. That’s encouraging enough to press onward.

The human voice begins to deteriorate at age 55 or so. That’s a landmark I can scarcely see in my rear view mirror, so this may be too little and too late. I may not have the patience or perseverance to succeed at this. I don’t know yet if I really care to invest the time and effort. I may not be able to overcome a half century of careless singing habits. Altogether possible.

I relay all this to you by way of encouragement: whatever you want, it’s  probably not as silly as the goofy stuff I try. Relatively speaking, you’re pretty normal. You may have reached some milestone in your life where you believe it would be silly to try to learn something new, master some new skill, take up a difficult hobby or career. Too late to get that next degree, to start jogging, fall in love, or start a business. And maybe it is, for both of us. But one thing I’ve learned is this: what’s really silly is to let the idea of an obstacle stop you. Keep plugging away until the obstacle itself stops you.

The idea that you’re too old, for example. If you’re too old, your body will stop you with pain. You don’t need to stop yourself in anticipation of that. If you can’t pass the class, the teacher will flunk you; don’t let the idea of flunking prevent you from taking the class. Your new business might fail; fine, maybe it will. Maybe you won’t get the financing you need. But is getting the financing the next step? Probably not. Don’t let the possibility of a bank declining your loan two months from now prevent you from thinking of a name for the business today.

The next step is the crucial one. For both of us, it’s simple: keep your bagpipe full of air.

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