Vocal Exercise Under Pressure

By Madge Kaplan

PROMPT—Despite ...

We approach the studio in the heat of the day, from the top of a small hill that nestles the locanda. We follow a narrow path downward bordered by open-ended views of Umbrian hillsides so breathtaking it’s easy to lose one’s footing and slam into the person walking just ahead of you. At the studio, we slip off our shoes and enter the cool, single room. Ten of us have enough space to each claim a piece of the warm, varnished floor, plop down a mat, and stretch out for some meditative five minutes. I squint at all the wood and glass and light, mingled with colorful shirts and shorts and human limbs. It’s quiet. Only the sounds of bees in the abundant rosemary and the occasional dog barking float through the open windows. No one wants to be the first to stir and sit up.


At some point we are asked to open our eyes, focus on our surroundings, and scooch back against the walls. While others are receiving one on one coaching in a building back up the hill—I can hear faint piano accompaniment—we are getting ready for the program’s psychodrama exercise. It’s designed, we are told, to help each of us appreciate and then reject the 'no' voices we carry around that keep us from singing full out.


The studio starts to feel quite warm and sitting up against the wall, I struggle to find a comfortable position. I stare at the clock wondering how I might manage to avoid being called on until the hour runs out. I try to make myself small and unnoticeable.


Someone volunteers to go first and is asked to stand up and approach the center of the room. She tells a brief story of being dismissed as having any vocal talent. Then, while the rest of us watch, the two teachers take turns giving the student a bit of a shove, quickly followed by more forceful pushes, until, provoked, the student starts to shove back and gains the upper hand and her right to sing. The hell with what other people think, especially unsupportive teachers and members of one’s own family!


Amazingly, as the hour ticks by, everyone appears to have a tale of being told that singing was not his or her calling. In contrast to the talented and encouraged, many of the students tell of being asked to mouth the words in their school (or church or community) choir and not to draw attention to themselves. Some stories are heart breaking and some people, including parents, were downright cruel.


Gradually, all the negatives and the NOs are supposedly purged with help from the rest of us, who comprise a surrounding group chorus. We are asked to yell, “Yes, Yes, YES,” repeatedly to the person in the center of the room. We are all legitimate singers. The students sob and say they’re grateful for the exercise, even if draining. One woman sits down next to me and whispers, “I could sing an aria, right now!”


When it’s my turn, I’m at a loss for a tragic story so make one up. I falsely proclaim that my vocally talented older sister got the thumbs up for singing and that I never did. No one seemed to notice that I also had a strong voice. Maybe because it was deep and low as opposed to my sister’s soprano quality. I suffered as a result. The teachers like this narrative, even though it’s not true. The shoving begins; I shove back, harder than I imagined I would, perhaps in anger over having to pretend so hard in order to participate. I don’t cry. I can’t quite fathom why everyone is yelling YES at me, and then pulling me into a group hug.


When I finally get to sit down, I wonder if anyone else in the room had grasped at straws rather than risk being outside the circle of pain. I have no idea because once the exercise is over, we’re dismissed, and no one speaks of that afternoon’s experience again.


Throughout her careers in teaching, broadcast journalism, and communications, Madge Kaplan has had opportunities to work on memoir vignettes, essays, poems, and short plays. Many of her pieces have hit the airwaves, appeared in online publications, and been performed. Writing prompts have often surfaced the first brush with topics worth developing further. Kaplan loves to sing and hopes to get back to taking lessons and singing with others when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. She writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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