My only solo singing "gig" this past year has been the singing of the Star Spangled Banner at our kung fu graduation ceremonies.
For the past several years, until last year, I had several solo performing opportunities throughout the year. I would usually sing one or two times with my women's choir, and then get some solos at church on special occasions, and substitute as a cantor occasionally. I found that situation very fulfilling, and I thought it was all I could ever really want or need as a singer. I could have gone on doing that forever and been quite content.
But, for some reason, and I think this is the way it is with singers, this season of my life turned to one of drought. Things changed, and other singers stepped in to the slots I had been occupying, and before I had quite realized what was happening, I once more found myself in the position of having to "begin again." I will write another post sometime about the ebb and flow of generating singing opportunities, but for now I would like to explore a little here how this change in circumstance has caused me to grow as a singer.
At first, I was disappointed to have my singing ventures dwindle down from being numerous enough to satisfy me to just this single opportunity. But after a while, I have come to see it in a new way. Instead of thinking of my solo performance life as having "dwindled," I have begun to think of it more as having been "pruned back" for growth, because something interesting has begun to happen.
I have just this morning realized that the Star Spangled Banner is acting much like the "One Crayon" in a story my Uncle told me a long time ago.
My uncle is a very talented pastry chef, whose creative cakes have appeared on the cover of Bride's Magazine. He is a pride and joy of our family with his artistic and creative talent and skills.
Now, when my son was a small boy, I wanted so desperately to give him what I thought was an environment where he could explore his artistic and creative side. I provided him with everything a potential budding young artist might need. Easels, finger paints, markers, special marker paper, clay, crayons in every color. I went way beyond the standard box of 64, and bought all the metallica and jewel tone add-on Crayola packs, lest my little Renoir was lacking in just the right nuance he needed. I figured with this abundance of supplies, he was all set to bring out his inner artist.
Then, one day at a family gathering, I heard my Uncle tell his One Crayon story. It seems that when he was little, my grandmother used to take him along to her doctor appointments, and she didn't want to carry a whole box of crayons, so she would bring along a coloring book and one crayon for him to color with. He said that he developed his artistic skills because he had to make that crayon look a whole bunch of different ways.
My jaw dropped when I heard that story and in a moment I realized that perhaps, in a kind of new-mother blindness, I had not developed a proper concept to my approach at all.
So, while practicing the Star Spangled Banner again for tonight's rendition, a light bulb moment happened as I remembered the One Crayon story. This Star Spangled Banner is my "one crayon." Because it is the only performance moment I have, I have been growing each time I sing it. And because I have been working with it so much, I am finding all kinds of interesting things within the piece, and learning how much more there is to a piece of music than one encounters the first time around.
Because it is the crayon I have been handed to use, I have been practicing molding and shaping the piece and the phrases in various different ways, much in the way I imagine my Uncle did with his crayon. He must have pressed hard to color one area in dark, and then lightened up his pressure to color another area in light. He may have started crosshatching to fill in the different parts of his coloring picture, and then tried dots (ala Seurat).
The Star Spangled Banner, sung in hushed reverent tones, or dramatic triumphant tones? What is the shape and structure of each phrase? What key is the one that sits the best? Try different keys. Sing it in classical style. Sing it in a belt style. Sing it in a speech-like way. Experiment with each phrase to see what shapes make the most sense, and then see how each phrase fits the unified whole.
I truly value this one remaining gig, my singing of the Star Spangled Banner, and I am preparing right now to sing it for the third time this year at our graduation tonight. I feel that I make a contribution to the event, which is always an exciting display of martial arts talent. People have told me that they get chills when they hear it. I like the idea that I am helping to set the tone for the fun celebration of martial arts skills that will follow. Since my own martial arts skills are not too exciting, I really appreciate that my Sifu is allowing me to show the skill that one his students has developed in another discipline.
Like all things right under our nose, this circumstance of my only gig being singing the Star Spangled Banner over and over again may be a blessing in disguise that has come to help me develop more of my artistry.
Like the crayon held in the grip of my grandmother's little son, this song has been provided for me by someone else. And I find it so interesting that it has not been provided to me by the musical community, nor one of those dedicated to advancing the musical arts, but by one who has stated that he has a mission to help the "children" of his Kung Fu school family explore and develop their talent and potential, whatever it may be.
(Click here to hear: Star Spangled Banner Bflat))
(Click here to hear work in progress: Star Spangled Banner key of C)
(Click here to hear it in a belt-style: Star Spangled Banner key of F)