Most performers have it. It might have been a company touring through their small town, or a favorite hymn sung at church, or imitating a performer on television. It’s that moment of clarity and insight people have when they know they have realized something true about themselves. For some singers it comes early. For some it comes later. If you are devoting time and energy to perfecting the art of singing, chances are you had such a moment.
Recently, on a trip to Minnesota to see my niece and nephew in their high school production of Hello, Dolly!, I reflected on the power of such moments. My nephew Tom played Cornelius Hackle, the character who sings the beautiful song “It Only Takes a Moment.” My niece Lucy was in the chorus and took her many different chorus characters very seriously. A young woman of enormous talent sang the role of Dolly.
When my nephew began his song, my sister (his mom) and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes. It was as beautiful as any experience I’ve enjoyed in the theater, on or off stage. I knew that this evening was a sacred and powerful event for every young person involved.
That the show was Hello, Dolly! provided some extra poignancy. It was at a performance of that show, at the age of about 12, that I realized I wanted a life in the theater. Carol Channing was playing Dolly, and it was the first time I had attended a professional musical. I can’t attribute my realization to Carol Channing’s performance, however. The moment for me actually came before the curtain rose. As I sat in the red velvet seat and the houselights dimmed, a very clear voice spoke to me: “I want to be a part of this!” Before that evening, I hadn’t really understood that such a world, the world of theater, existed. As soon as I was there, however, I felt as if I’d come home. I felt as if I belonged.
A couple of years earlier, I had experienced a similarly vivid realization about my love of singing. The kids in my family had always loved to sing at home. We wore out recordings of musicals and sang along with all our favorite singers. I probably assumed that everyone loved to sing as much as we did.
When I was 10, I went to summer camp. My favorite part of the day was singing after meals and at the campfire—singing, four times a day! I remember clearly one day at lunch. I gobbled my food quickly and sat waiting for the singing to begin. I looked around at my tablemates. They were eating normally, but it seemed excruciatingly slow to me. Some of them even went back for seconds. I was furious! I don’t think I had ever felt such strong irritation and it really caught my attention.
I sat there fuming and tried to figure out how this could be happening. I came to the conclusion finally that maybe not everyone was as excited about singing as I was. This seemed very odd to me, even perverse. Sort of like it might have been to hear that not all kids liked ice cream. From that moment on, I knew that singing mattered to me.
The production I saw in Minnesota was in a very small town that values its high school’s theater department highly. The caliber of the production was high, from the band to the costumes, and I had to let go of any urban arrogance about people in cities putting more emphasis on the arts. This kind of nurturing is not always present in professional singing careers. As singers progress through the many artistic, economic, and spiritual challenges of their careers, it is impossible not to feel the pain of a culture that is less than supportive of the arts. It is essential that we reconnect with those early feelings, with the love of singing, the sense of belonging, and the excitement of possibility that first thrilled us.
The young woman who played Dolly, Joia Byrnes, had already been studying classical technique and will continue her vocal studies in college next fall. If she makes the choice, the opera world will be lucky to have her. Tom Nieboer, my nephew, is considering studying theater when he goes away to school. So congratulations to Tom and Joia, and all of this year’s graduates. Let us old-timers welcome the new converts and give them all the support we can as they go out into the world to sing. Let’s look into the stars in their eyes and remember that once upon a time, it only took a moment for us to realize a lifetime love of singing.