At an age so young I may not have known what “virgin” meant, I used to sing the “Virgin of the Sun God” right along with Yma Sumac. On my father’s record player–vinyl, can you imagine? I marveled at the diva’s Inca-princess costume on the cover of the Voice of the Xtabay album.
Yma Sumac had a four-and-a-half octave range. Well, maybe it was four. Or maybe it was five. She’s a legend, after all, and her range was legendary, unparalleled to this day except, some say, by Minnie Ripperton and Mariah Carey. In any case, Sumac’s high notes were too high for me no matter how much I screeched, and I growled when attempting her low notes. My range was a little less than three octaves. I didn’t know this was impressive. I just loved to sing.
By the time I was 14, Respighi’s The Pines and Fountains of Rome had become my favorite piece of music even though there’s no singing in it. Now, I think it’s boring. But back then the piece seemed to me to be “stentorian”—also several other words I didn’t know at age 14 like “sonorous” and even better, “orotund.” At the time, I said the music was like riding along the “iter” that was pictured on the album cover. (“Iter” means road in Latin. I think my mother told me that.)
At home, the music was always classical, which all during my growing up years we played on my father’s increasingly older record player, carefully handling the vinyl discs only on their edges so as to keep oil and dirt out of the grooves. That record player might have been the most expensive thing my family owned other than the house and the car.
Outside the home, everybody was listening to the newest music: rock and roll. I got to get in the groove that year because I was on the basketball team at school and was therefore popular enough to get invited to sleepovers. Dressed in our pajamas with cold cream on our faces and curls bobby-pinned to our foreheads, we sleepover girls would ooh and ah over all the latest rockers: Elvis Presley (“I’m in love; I’m all shook up.”), Debbie Reynolds (“Tammy … Tammy … Tammy’s in love.“), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Shake baby shake.”)
My favorite was Buddy Holly, a singer my mother would have described as “clean cut” if she had seen his picture. Buddy, as we girls liked to call him, as though he were our special friend, had just that year released a 45 record. We played it over and over, first “Peggy Sue” for three minutes on the A side, then turn it over and play “Everyday” for three minutes on the B side, then turn it over…. We sang along to both songs at the top of six or eight pairs of healthy lungs until somebody’s mother announced that it was time to go to sleep now.
I still like “Everyday,” with its kitschy catchy confidence:
“Everyday it’s a-gettin’ closer, Goin’ faster than a rollercoaster, Love like yours will surely come my way A-hey, a-hey-hey”
When I came to the attention of the high-school music teacher as a freshman, it was because I was walking home from school singing “A-hey, a-hey-hey” when he drove by. He auditioned me for chorus, which proved to be no big deal. Then a year later, he selected me for a much bigger deal: to represent the school in the yearly state high-school music competition. He selected a song for me that I must confess I can no longer remember. I do almost remember singing it in practice sessions, though, belting out the resounding high notes and feeling quite dramatic, even melodramatic.
The teacher and I practiced the song before school and after school, just him and me in the music room. I practiced the song by myself on the way to school, coming home from school and while in the bathroom brushing my hair. I sang that song hundreds of times. I became that song. I felt very confident about being able to sing it well.
Came the day of the competition. I had never been to such an event. Hundreds of teenagers, almost all of them senior girls in tight skirts and flippy hairdos and an even greater number of music instructors, radio announcers, judges, newspaper people and parents all were crowded into an auditorium that was a day’s journey away from my high school and was not a converted basketball court. Everybody was shouting at somebody and practicing. How can I describe the sound? “’Tis the gift to be–Ave Maria—hey did you find out—do re mi—simple ’tis the gift—gratia plena—does he still—fa so—to be free—like me?—‘Tis the gift to come down—et benedictus—la ti—where you ought to be—do.” It all made me nervous. I couldn’t help but feel this was where I ought not to be.
Nevertheless, my instructor and I settled into a lengthy afternoon listening to mostly incomprehensible songs, among them at least a dozen attempts at “Ave Maria”—three of them in a row, if you can believe that. Though I don’t remember what my song was, I do remember being glad it was not “Ave Maria.”
Then it was my turn. I tromped up the steps to the stage. My instructor sat at the piano and played opening notes. I positioned myself in front of the piano and prepared to sing my heart out. I turned toward the audience, opened my mouth and looked out at … a colossus! 1500 pairs of eyes fixed on me.
So, as I say, I don’t remember the song. Nor do I remember how long I stood on that stage with my mouth open and no sound coming out before my instructor got up from the piano, came to my side and kindly led me off the stage.
The next year, somebody else was selected to go to the competition.
Do you suppose that was the end of what would have been a great music career? I did have talent. I can remember somebody who was supposed to know these things commenting that my voice was “fine.” But could I have taken “fine” all the way to fame? Imagine that: Years later, you’d find my picture on the cover of one of those old dusty cracked LPs you see stacked along the back walls of second-hand stores. Me and Yma Sumac, right alongside each other in an old cardboard box, she still the Inca Princess; me the … uh … I guess not.
But, you know, with some practice, I could still sing something.
“Everyday seems a little longer, Every way love’s a little stronger, Come what may, Do you ever long for, true love from me?”
Just for fun.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Katharine Valentino worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. Now retired from full-time work, she stays busy as the owner of I Write [and Edit] for You at http://katharine-online.com. When she has the time and inclination, she writes creative nonfiction and edits everything from user guides to poetry.