Playing Big

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When I was in “opera school,” there was an ongoing joke about singers sneaking into the biggest empty rooms they could find in the music building or theatre building or, frankly, any near-abandoned building at any time, to open up the volume and really let loose. For non-musicians, you will never know the love-hate relationship that exists between the musician (especially the singer or brass player) and the Practice Room. Music schools are stuffed full of these closet-sized monstrosities, decked out in asbestos tile and ‘70s wallpaper or, if you go to Julliard or Manhattan School of Music, leaking pipes and those blue blankets they use to move furniture. Yes, from hoity-toits to hoi polloi, we all slummed it in the slummy practice rooms of our alma maters for hours a day, playing or singing into a wall, achieving no resonance, sensing no reverberation.

But oh… for the clandestine moment in an empty hall. The thrill of finding an unlocked classroom late at night. The pure joy of warming up alone on stage. The satisfaction came from the sensation of it – the freedom; the endless, undaunted volume; the sympathetic resonance with everything around you and the unbridled ability to manipulate the entire space through the air.

The bigness of it.

When I was a kid, as many kids did, I used to play the piano in my family living room. I played for hours. Endlessly, joyfully playing. I played through high school, becoming technically adept, and into college, when I switched over to focus on voice but still delighted in playing at home. I let my love for piano fade as my concentration on singing took hold for more than a decade, but I’ve recently revisited it, and I’ve discovered something so sad but so true about piano, about singing, and about being a woman.

As I got older, I grew increasingly tense in my playing posture. I developed extreme pain first in my ribcage as a teenager, then in my hands as a young adult. This tension and pain followed me through my years of singing, plaguing me, leading to everything from pulled abdominal muscles to endless jaw pain. It haunts me still as residual pain from a learned rigidity; a tightness across my back and in my arms that my body has knitted into itself.

In returning to the piano, now in my own home, and confronting this pain again, I notice something: my tendency is to sit, and play, so small. I make confined movements. I play quietly – hushed, even. Looking back, I remember playing so big and free as a child, and so confined and tight as a teenager. I can feel my joy and freedom collapsing inward when I look back. I can watch myself growing littler and littler as I grew.

At the end of this year that was very difficult for me personally and quite horrible for women everywhere, I am engrossed in the idea of littleness. How convenient for the oppressors that society conspires to shrink women down as they mature, telling them to shrink their bodies and voices and opinions. I am also fascinated by that feeling of freedom I used to melt into in those big empty rooms, and how much I long for it now – how much I can feel all women longing for it together. The feeling of unrestrained being, of absolute expression free from fear. There was no volume too great, no experiment too daring, no expression too extreme or hysterical or tender. Oneness. Wholeness. Resonance.

Freedom.

My wish for 2018 – for myself, and for women everywhere – is this resounding, beautiful bigness in absolutely everything we do. As they say south of the border, we need it now, more than ever.