I still get a funny look from people who are taken aback when I say I did a gig a cappella, by myself, with no other singers or instruments. I have to remind folks that the voice existed before all the other instruments entered into the psyche of man! We heard each other calling out, and it was “music to our ears”, and for thousands of years, man communicated everything by a growl or a coo or a scream or groan that conveyed everything necessary to deliver the message.
When I open my mouth, especially in this hi-tech era of karaoke, lip-sync, cover, I love to be able to stand flat-footed and sing in key, in any key, arrangement in mind, no chart needed, no dependence on any other player to enhance or aid me in the performance of this message.
When I was a child, I sang, even at 6 months, and was in tune. My first solo was at age six, “In the Garden”, standing in the pulpit of First Virginia Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, too short to be seen over the lectern, but not too young to know I was special.
I always used to struggle with the look I got when I opened my mouth and just sang. The faces of people who don’t know me and have no connection with this lady standing before them, suddenly light up and soften with relief and joy. Relief that I haven’t wasted their time and been just another tone-deaf, un-musical and attention-seeking narcissist, making noise to get attention. Then the joy floods into their faces and they “color up”, getting that blush of happiness. Yes, I know I have this effect on people. I have the same effect on myself when I truly believe in the song I’m singing!
I remember being young and searching for that right sound, the lick that will be the show-stopper, the run that I can sing for ten bars and show ‘em ALL up! Or play a record in one spot for three hours straight, learning and perfecting the notes or inflection in a run, and making a practice of doing that with every artist I covered. This became the basis for my, for lack of a better word, versatility.
When I was learning how to sing, just as I was getting old enough to start knowing what I wanted to do in life and seeing I had this effect on people, The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews, was released and I went to see it at the Rialto Theater in downtown Louisville, KY.
Now, my home was a musical dream factory! In the kitchen, I could dream of being a revered and celebrated gospel singer listening my mother and other great spirit-filled vocalists like Mahalia and Tennessee Ernie Ford, George Beverly Shea, Edwin Hawkins, Andrea Crouch, the Barrett Sisters, Sarah Jordan Powell, Larnell Harris, all revered and cherished by my Mom.
Just ten feet away was my Dad, wearing his trusty headphones so as not to miss a note of Louis’ or Miles’ or Trane’s or Dizzy’s or Prez’s or Lady Day’s or Nancy’s or Mancini’s or Mitch Miller’s(HAH!) or any of the classic contemporary artists of the jazz or big band era. My parents never competed, but they always made it clear:
“When I’m listening to my music, don’t come in here with that mess!!”
And we didn’t if we knew what was good for us! We established our own listening format and territory:
Beverly rehearsing her aria in the bathroom, kitchen, or our little bedroom, or wherever she could hear herself, rehearsing “Misty” for her competition in the WHAS-TV Crusade for Children Contest, which she went on to win second place in, to accompany her scholarship to Centre College in Danville, KY, catapulting an academic career that still flourishes today;
Felix in his room listening to Procol Harum or Hendrix or Joplin or Iron Butterfly or The Byrds or some psychedelic band of the day, in that little room in the middle of our little house with the window open for “ventilation”;
Fred in the same room later in the day listening to a mixed fair from Motown to Miles, but mostly anything African American and declarative, from The Temptations to Curtis Mayfield to speeches of the Civil Rights leaders of the day, Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, or reciting his own poetry, speech of acceptance, or declaration of independence from the little bedroom reeking of his older brother’s psyche-rock forensics.
It was only natural then, that Donna Maria would be singing all kinds of songs, but mostly influenced by her mother’s sweet and reverent sound. The truest singing I listened to before all the other singing was my mother’s singing. All my current criteria for vocal exceptionalism is stemmed from the womb experience listening to my mother. Imo could SING y’all!
It would stand to reason that my attack on any song is not subtle or indirect. I wanna KNOW what the composer was saying to the audience, and who that audience is/was! In my own writing I follow that same m-o, writing a song with a specific listener-type in mind. Usually, admittedly, it is a listener who thinks like I think, but sometimes not. Sometimes I try to just be universally appealing. Funny, that doesn’t work as well for me. I’m not gonna lie, I can’t presume to speak for you; I sometimes find it difficult to even speak for myself, but I know when I have created the composition it will be pleasing to the ears of listeners, even if not relatable!
Whatever I sing I truly MUST believe in! If I believe it, I can sing it anywhere, anytime, any situation. I tell my students to choose songs they could sing a cappella if they had to. If you can’t hear the melody in your head, hear it with your inner ear, you don’t know it as intimately as you need to! I mean, suppose you’re on live broadcast and your monitor doesn’t work!!? Just sayin’…
When the song is on your heart, when you know that you know that you know it, when the folks you sing it to are emotionally in need of a SONG, not a “cover’ of someone’s recording, or a pyrotechnic demonstration of how many notes can be squeezed into one syllable, then you have to just let the song do some of the work, let the message breathe, let the lyrics live, and let your ear carry you through the performance. Isn’t it curious that there are some folks who will read ALL these criteria for the best a cappella power, and still get up and try to sing. These folks would probably sound bad with accompaniment, I suspect!
All this is my way of praising the person who can hear the CONCEPT of key, interval, melody, range, and can find said key taking into consideration all these other aspects of the song and its melody. Thinking of the countless YouTube posts of the National Anthem started in one key, and visiting many, many more keys before the rendition is complete! Sad, and nobody can have that three minutes back! Solo singing is not for the many, but the few. That’s why I love a cappella performances! Kudos to the singers who get out and do it! And if you sing alone, know that you, singing to anyone else, can move a whole population!
Not for the applause!
Sing it for the Joy of Solo Singing!
© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.