I was not healthy yet when I went to see Priss for the first time after our return to the city. You might’ve thought I would put off seeing her as long as possible. After all, I had an exhausting slew of doctors and therapists for both body and mind that I had to see that week. Carynne was ready to schedule me out the wazoo, I’m sure. So I put my foot down. “I promise I’ll see every doctor you think I should see, but you have to give me three days to sleep it off,” I had told her.
She had an argumentative look in her eyes, but she said, “Or you’ll run off and hide again?”
“Yes,” I said.
She took me seriously (but not so seriously that she had me committed involuntarily) and I took those three days to do nothing but sleep in Ziggy’s bed and eat Pop-Tarts and takeout.
Except on the third day I went up to Priss’s piano’d apartment to take my lumps. I went alone, without Ziggy. I dreaded it, but I knew I had to face her and decided sooner was better than later. Part of me wanted to know just how bad it was, instead of giving myself a month to try to get back in shape and pretend I hadn’t slacked off completely. Our vocal coach could be ruthless and I was expecting her to be.
I ran into the guy she was training before me on his way to the elevator and his face was red with effort, dragging his feet like he’d just fought a lion to a standstill and now he really needed a nap.
I knocked on her door and she came and opened it. Her frown told me I didn’t look like I was in much better shape than the previous guy. I’d at least tried: I’d showered, had my hair back in a neat ponytail, and was wearing all clothes without holes in them. “Hi, coach,” I said.
She put a hand on my cheek. “You do not look like someone who’s been in Brazil for any length of time. You’re pale as a ghost.”
“I didn’t get out much.” Ha.
She shooed me in and deadbolted the door behind me. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you got hooked on heroin. You’ve lost weight.”
“Nah, muscle relaxants,” I said with a shake of my head. “I went off them several days ago. I’m eating fine now, Priss.” She humphed skeptically and went to take her place at the keys, gesturing for me to stand at the curve of the grand piano. Before she could even strike the first note of the warmup I felt it necessary to issue a warning confession. “I wasn’t able to do my exercises.”
Her hands poised over the keyboard, her eyebrow floated upward. “I know.”
“Your guilty, beaten-dog look tells me all I need to. Let us find out how bad it is, shall we?”
I swallowed. I was going to also tell her I’d been screaming my way through a nightly 30-minute set of angry alt-prog-rock and also that I’d cried so hard and so long that night in the water tank that my throat had swollen up so I could barely speak at all. I decided to just sing. She’d know. Priss always knows.
We ran through the usual warmup, working down the scale and then up. I felt rusty, like I’d lost some of the suppleness I should’ve had. But my pitch was okay. And my timbre–let’s face it, I have no idea what my voice actually sounds like to other people. I trusted Priss to tell me how bad it was.
The pager in my jacket pocket buzzed. I pulled it out. It was the one that I’d gotten to keep in touch with Ziggy but a few other people had the number by then. Bart, Barrett, Carynne, Colin. The number it showed wasn’t one I recognized.
Priss was giving me a schoolmarm look. I turned the pager off and stuck it back in my pocket. “Sorry about that. I forgot it was on. Hardly anyone ever pages me.”
She gave me a short nod and we moved to singing intervals, a trickier exercise than the old ear-training tasks where someone plays you two notes on a piano and you name what the distance between them is. For this one, she would name an interval and play me a note and I’d have to sing it and then the target note. She opened her mouth as if she were singing them with me but she’d hold out not singing the second one for a couple of beats. I blew a few in the beginning, much to my chagrin, and then I settled in until I wasn’t getting them wrong anymore, even in the upper part of my range. Surprisingly, she didn’t get on my case about the missed notes. In fact, she was being really nice to me. Maybe because I didn’t look well and she worried I couldn’t take it?
Then she had me sit beside her at the piano and slowly sight-sing a hymn with her. It was in German, which made it extra difficult since I don’t know any German, but it’s not too hard to pronounce if you can just remember that w’s are pronounced as v’s. It had a sweet melody, starting out in the middle of my range and then going way up in the chorus.
German is kind of close to English at times though. It was a confessional hymn. One of those “I’m a dirty sinner, oh lord, but your light makes me clean” type of ones–that much I could tell even if I could only recognize half the words. Between trying to keep track of the lyrics, the notes, sight-reading and sight-singing, and listening to her playing and singing with me… every bit of my brain was too engaged to be worrying about how my emotions were doing. At least until my voice cracked. She hit the piano a little harder and I turned up the volume and got through it, and then we backed down again.
“Good. Again,” she said, “but this time, softly.”
This time she only played and hummed while I tried to sing pianissimo. My voice cracked again and it’s hard to tell if it was that which started me crying, or if I was getting choked up that caused it to crack. Chicken, egg.
She played gently to the end of the hymn even though neither of us was singing anymore and then put her somewhat wrinkled hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I can see that,” she replied.
I wasn’t crying hard, but I wasn’t stopping quite yet either. “It’s my fault I let it go. Now I have to start over again. I’ve probably made it even worse…” I wiped tears on the back of my sleeve. “I deserve to be scolded.”
She flicked me on the ear. “Bah. I don’t have to scold you. You are doing a fine job of scolding yourself.” She handed me the sheet music, and then motioned for me to get up so she could go to the file cabinet on the far side of the couch. She dug through several folders and produced a few more sheets. “Here.”
“What are these?”
“Some songs to teach yourself to be gentle on yourself for a while.” She put them into a folder. “Go to Kinko’s and copy them and then slide the originals back under my door. You have a piano? Or a keyboard? You do play, no?”
“Um, I can figure it out.”
“Good. Sing these and only these–and your regular exercises–for at least a month. I’ll see you again when you can get through them without cracking.”
Oh. This, I realized, was the punishment I had been expecting. Banishment until I proved I deserved her time. “Okay.”
At the door, as she saw me out, she said, “Be gentle with yourself, because next time I won’t be.”
I took my three German hymns and fled before she changed her mind.
(I have no clue what charity cause this Celine Dion And Her Easy-Listening Hit-Making Friends was for. This song isn’t memorable either, like so much of what was going on in 1991’s music business. -d)