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Daddy Sang Bass, Mama Sang Alto
April 28, 2014 - Diane Laney Fitzpatrick
I'm a singer in the sense that I sing. At home putzing around the house, in the shower, I sing whatever song is in my head and this normally consists of one or more of the following:
Whatever my husband set his alarm to play. He alternates among former crush Gloria Estefan's Conga, Three Dog Night's Black and White and Mama Told Me Not to Come. My default head-song, which is currently a be-bop background melody that I have never heard performed ever. Before this it was the Ave Maria. I envy my sister Kathy whose default head-song is Let's Stay Together, which I'm pretty sure she shares with Obama. Some people have all the luck. Catchy commercial jingles, which morph into overplayed, obnoxious '70s songs, which morph into show tunes. And when I sing, I sing alto, which means I sing the lower harmony part. And unless the song was one I sang in high school a' cappella choir or church choir, I have to make it up myself. So I'm kind of a composer, too.
I was an alto, the deepest of the girl parts, in choir. We hardly ever sang the melody, which I'm grateful for, because I now love to sing the harmony, even if it's wrong. It makes me feel like I'm in 10th grade again.
The sopranos in choir were automatically considered more feminine, more diva-like than us altos. A soprano was always chosen for the solos and always got the lead in the musical. The altos were her spunky friends, her grandmother, or Marian's assistant librarian.
As an alto, I always felt somewhat like a eunuch. We sang the low notes that only boys, strep sufferers and Kathleen Turner could reach. Our choir director arranged us so that the altos were in the second-to-back row, right in front of the bass section. (To make us feel more girly?)The bass guys were forever nudging us if we were flat. Which was helpful.
When I was in college I had phonotrauma, which is a fancy word for nodules on my vocal chord folds. You know how you sound when you're just getting your voice back from laryngitis? That's how I sounded all the time. And when a regular person (a soprano) gets phonotrauma, she sounds somewhat hoarse. When an alto gets phonotrauma, she sounds like a whale and a donkey hooked up and had a baby. And then that baby grew up, got pregnant and went through a very vocal childbirth.
To treat my nodules and get my regular just plain deep female voice back, I had to go through a year of speech therapy. One of my exercises was Silent Weekends, which we will not discuss here because I'm not ready to talk openly about how hard it was for me to not speak for 48 hours. But another of my homework assignments was to get in a steamy hot shower and slowly exhale while humming, which is technically moaning. It came out sounding like a whale and a donkey . . . you get the idea. I tried to do it as quietly as possible, but my roommates could hear me.
Weirdly, they thought I was just singing in the shower like always.
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Diane Laney Fitzpatrick is the author of Home Sweet Homes: How Bundt Cakes, Bubble Wrap, and My Accent Helped Me Survive Nine Moves. Her Just Humor Me column runs here on her website at www.DianeLaneyFitzpatrick.com.
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