This is Why I Sing (Uxbridge Cosmos Sept. 2013)

If you look at my business card, you'll read that I list myself as a “vocalist” (yes, we have business cards too.) Though you may roll your eyes or snicker at my possibly pretentious use of the word “vocalist” as my vocation, I'd like you to know that I use the term, because it truly describes not only what I do, but who I am. Allow me to elaborate.

Though I've always sung - to myself, to my teddy and to My Little Ponies, in mimicry of my big sister and later on in choirs and other vocal ensembles at school - it was only during a moment of intense clarity, back in 2008, that I really became a singer. 

I was about to turn 29 and that year, I had allowed myself to take a step back from my acting career - such as it was. I hadn't performed as an actor for about a year. I had just started taking a jazz singing class once a week and I LOVED it. I used to call it my “session class,” as it was a once-a-week opportunity to learn a new standard (jazz tune) and then sing it with a real live trio. When I wasn't floating on air in my session class, I was slogging it out as a hostess in a fancy North Toronto restaurant, trying to pay my rent and forget about how disillusioned I had become with the acting biz. On a particularly busy afternoon at the restaurant, I had to welcome my most feared surly regular. A wealthy pit-bull of a man with a voice that sounded like an Orson Welles hangover and a face like a handbag. Every time he patronized the restaurant he'd ask us the same question: “Who the hell do I have to f*** to be able to smoke on your patio?” To which I would cheerfully reply: “Actually, that would be Dalton McGuinty.” 

On this specific day, the restaurant had treated him and his predictably cold wife to a very fine anniversary meal - a great table, a specially tailored menu, etc. When he left, I helped him with his jacket, thanked him for his business and asked, not thinking, if “you guys” had had a nice time. He gave me a pointedly hard time and insisted - without a hint of sarcasm - that I call him “sir” because “what the hell kind of place is this, McDonald's?” I took his belittling very much to heart, bawled my eyes out privately in the coat check and wished on him some fairly nasty ailments. I decided that I hated my life. 

For the rest of the day, this feeling of downheartedness weighed on me more heavily than ever before. What the hell had I done with myself at almost 30 years old? Was I to be condemned to a life of virtual servitude to entitled old trolls insisting I call them “sir”? Now, I suppose if I was a praying woman, I'd have said that someone must have been listening to my confusion and plea for direction. You see, later that night, I sang in a sort of talent show made up of the many skilled writers, comics, musicians and actors of a catering company that I worked for in addition to my hosting job at the restaurant. For my part of the show that evening, I chose to sing Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” - a song I had loved for many years but never attempted to sing as a soloist. I got up on stage in the gloomy club we had rented for the show, made a couple of mini quiche-centered catering jokes, introduced the tune and finally, began to sing. Mid-song something happened. I had an epiphany. The room was dead quiet. Everyone was listening. The pianist was with me, the room was with me and finally, with a new feeling of space in my head and in my heart, I was with me. After this terrible, disheartening day, the only thing that could exorcise how low I felt was what I now call “a good sing.” By the end of “Hallelujah” I knew that I was a singer and whether I sucked or was a star, I needed singing in my life to make me a whole and happy human being.

I'm not deluded. Being a jazz vocalist isn't going to win me the Nobel Prize, or an Olympic medal, nor will it likely make me a mountain of money, but it definitely makes me a more expressive person, and consequently, a more balanced and compassionate mother and individual. You can bet that, if one day I'm ever faced with the polite flattery of a young hostess, I will most certainly never order her to call me “sir.”

The greatest job in the world... um, besides motherhood, of course (uh, don't tell my kids I said that.)

1 comment

  • Penny Barr
    Penny Barr Toronto
    Good piece, Whit. I feel the same way. A good sing does wonders.

    Good piece, Whit.
    I feel the same way.
    A good sing does wonders.

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