March 17th, 2019

A few weeks ago, I was sick as a dog. Not a big, friendly dog, mind you, but one of those tiny little yappy dogs that have a Napolean complex and insist on using your ankle for teething practice. And it’s still with me. This is the cold that will not die, the cough that will not end, the Virus That Came To Dinner. It’s the house guest who scatters his towels on the bathroom floor and never puts the milk away and argues loudly with his girlfriend in Armenian.

You get the idea.

And yet, a few weeks ago, having not opened my mouth or picked up a guitar in any substantial way for about two weeks, I did a twenty-five minute set for the furniture in my living room, and, judging by the applause in my head, I killed. And I owe it all to my singing teacher.

I’ve probably written about Ruth Harcovitz before. She approached me at the Java Jo’s open mike in Milton when I first started performing solo, trolling for students. I liked her sales pitch, and I asked around and some folks I really trusted spoke highly of her, and, since I couldn’t sing my way out of a paper bag at the time, I signed up. And now, more than 20 years later, I can sing, pretty much whenever I want to.

Now, you might be saying, that sounds a little bit like Woody Allen’s psychiatrist, there. If she’s so good, what took you so long? What took me so long is that I can’t stand practicing. And when I say “can’t stand”, I mean “avoid at all costs, to the point of being counterproductive”. My brother Josh, jazz bassist extraordinaire (I really need to get around to giving him a nickname someday), got all the sitzfleisch in the family, which explains why he’s a professional musician and I’m, well, me.

I learned to sing in short bursts, basically. I worked hard for a bit, got the point where I sounded credible, and then muddled around for a decade while Ruth tried to keep me honest. Eventually, things started to stick, and when I recorded my last album in 2016, I was pretty happy with the outcome, and then my wife, She Who Must Be Taunted (yes, the nickname bar is high) and I spent two months driving around the country, and six months later my father got sick, and, well, I kind of lost the vocal plot for a while again.

But recently, something has really clicked. As usual, it was a suggestion that Ruth made that I absolutely hated – but she was right, as usual, and it’s made a considerable difference. Make an ugly sound, she said, Really ugly. No, even uglier than that. Not ugly enough yet. Uglier, please. Why in the world would this work? (Seriously, I do know why it should work, but I hated it anyway. This is why we can’t have nice things.)

In any case, I’m here to tell you that it does work, at least for me. Ruth and I have churned through an astonishing variety of techniques over the years, and I’ve borrowed bits from one and bits from another, and whittled my approach to singing down to some fairly simple things, which, amazingly, can make me sound fantastic even if I haven’t really warmed up – as long as I remember to do them, and remember that they work. And this ugly sound thing feels like a final piece.

So, ten minutes after a major coughing fit, I opened my mouth, set my ribs, made my ugly sound, and ended up sounding fantastic.

Says the sofa.

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