Course: Ten Week Band Workshop
Institution: Blue Bear School of Music
Instructor: Sean Leahy
I used to sing while vacuuming. My voice and legs would shake if I thought anyone could hear me but underneath the dull hum of the vacuum I sang with ease and confidence. A feeling I lacked most of the time.
So when this summer of self-actualization I asked myself what I wanted to tackle next, I realized I wanted to give voice to my voice.
I signed up for the Blue Bear Music School’s Band workshop. It’s a ten week course that let’s folks sign up for the genre of music they’re interested in and the school then works to make sure each class section has the members it needs to form a band. One of the instruments in the band is played by the workshop teacher and the students do the rest. The class culminates in a live band performance at Café DuNord, a bar in San Francisco.
I chose the Country workshop and was told to meet my band mates at the Lennon Studios. The Studios are surrounded by gates in a more urban section of town. When I arrived, the gates were guarded by a man wearing a Harley vest, aviator glasses and at least a three week old stench. He smiled revealing missing teeth and black gums. Other derelict-looking guys in black were strewn about the parking lot. The whole scene was grungy in the way bars are sticky the next morning, but it didn’t intimidate me. I felt strangely at home. I smiled and walked to the end of a very dark skinny hallway to find our practice room. Room 9.
Inside was a male ginger (a minger?) wearing a page boy cap. He looked like he had washed his face at some point that day so I pegged him for the teacher, Sean. Also present was a tall lanky kid named Nate who I would learn hailed from Wisconsin and a Bay area native with glasses and a pompadour named Michael. I, true to form, looked like a soccer mom in my jeans, running shoes and an orange t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Free to Roam.” The room was the size of a small storage unit and as we introduced ourselves the sound of serious drumming and guttural screaming could be heard from the adjacent rooms.
Sean asked us if we had brought song selections on our iPods. I was hesitantly offering up mine when Adam, a tall thin dude of mysterious ethnic origins, AKA our drummer, waltzed in carrying a 24 pack. He threw it down in the center of the room and said, “I’m Adam, want a beer?”
Well, this is going to be different, I thought and took a beer.
Sean asked the others for their song selections and Nate, a guitarist, turned to me and said, “Well, I expect the lead vocalist to come with choices.”
I gulped and hemmed and hawed about not being sure if my selections made sense for a band, I’ve never sang with a band…the guys turned to tune their instruments and fiddle while Sean rolled his eyes and grabbed my iPod. We started with my selection Top of the World, a ballad by Patty Griffin.
Sean hissed at the guys to turn down the plucking at their instruments and gave it a quick listen. "Okay," he said, “Here’s what it looks like” and then proceeded to chart out the whole song – after one listen. I’d never seen anything like it. I’d later learn he is a Berklee grad, but I knew instantly we had the real deal for a teacher.
So we jumped in and started practicing the song. Eventually it was my turn to turn on my instrument – my voice. I was scared to death. What if they thought I sucked? I plunged in, sang and promptly broke into a sweat. But I didn’t stop singing. It took me weeks though to stop expecting them to greet me at the next practice with the news that I’d been replaced by another vocalist.
Unfortunately, my inner critic was on full display in many practice sessions. Much to my dismay, I noticed myself saying out loud how I have to work on this piece or that piece. The guys chimed in, “your voice sounds great.” Every time. I was annoyed with myself for spitting out these insecurities, like a dog that wants to be patted on the head or given a treat, but I also learned just how supportive a group really focused on the same goal can be.
At first, we all were definitely more worried about our own selves – our own performances instead of looking to and listening to each other. But eventually, we started to turn towards each other and that’s when we began to carry each other, propel each other and let each other shine.
My little light, however, took some time. More than halfway through our practice sessions the band added a new song; a Spanish one. It was probably my bonehead idea. I wasn’t prepared for the mental challenge it would present. The song was picked by Adam. He liked Thalia’s A Quien Le Importa? Loosely translated to Who Cares? or as I was feeling about it one night, Who Gives A Shit!
I was struggling with my entrance on the song. I was supposed to come in on the end of the 2nd beat of the 9th measure. It was funking me all up and I started to get pissed. Which is a good thing because the mood of the song called for it, but a bad thing because it meant I was starting to beat myself up. Why? Because it wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t perfect. And once again, I thought I had to be.
I made faces. I cringed. I mouthed “mother f---er.” I rolled my shoulders and balled my fists. I couldn’t get it. Our teacher, Sean, tried talking me down, “C’mon Alicia.”
Every urge inside me wanted to throw the mike down and storm out of the rehearsal room. I was so frustrated. Who knew that learning, which usually comes so easily to me, would be so hard when learning is hard? This doesn’t happen a lot and so I was forced to grow in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
After rehearsal I thanked Sean for talking me off the edge. He said, ”Don’t get down on yourself. It won’t help.”
While I was still a bit nervous about the Thalia song, before I knew it, our allotted hour at Café DuNord was upon us. Before we went on stage, the band circled in the dressing room. Another band, passed around a bottle of Bushmills. Though I understand now why some artists choose to drink, I declined, leaned against a wall, closed my eyes and tried to breathe.
When I got on the stage the lights were so bright I couldn’t see anyone in the audience. I turned to Adam, positioned behind me on stage and gave him an anxious look. He said, “Alicia, it’s going to go by fast.” And it did.
When I finished on stage, I walked out onto the floor and saw my friends standing in a half circle of support. The song they thought I had done the best on? A Quien Le Importa?
The funny thing is it wasn’t until after the show that I finally reflected on some of the lyrics to A Quien Le Importa?:
Mi destino es el que yo decido El que yo eligo para mi
A quien le importa lo que yo haga? A quien le importa lo que yo diga? Yo soy asi, y asi seguiré Nunca cambiaré
English Translation: My destiny is what I decide; What I elect for myself
To whom does it matter what I do? To whom does it matter what I say? I am like this, and like this I will continue I will never change
Since the performance friends have asked, What’s next? What does come next when you conquer a fear like that? I realized, like trying to return a baby to a mother’s womb, there was no putting my essential self back in the box I've been hiding it all this time. I have a voice and that will never change. What I thought was an end point, turns out is actually a beginning.