For me, working with a person on his or her “last say” is fascinating—particularly when I have known that person for many years.
Such was the case with Anne, a good friend for more than two decades. As always, the process began with a series of exploratory questions. To the question, “What has been the hardest thing in my life?” Anne’s responses included “giving up cigarettes—trying, failing, trying—dealing with shame.” To the question, “When has my body and mind felt in perfect harmony?” she cited singing in choir. And to the question, “Which experiences have really pulled me out of my comfort zone?” one of her answers included, “Singing in public, in front of people who expect you to be good.”
After going back and forth for a while on the issue of the topic, Anne decided to write about singing, but from a slightly different angle—all about learning to breathe, how and when to do it, and the power it gives you. This led to a reflection on the breathing problems she had been dealing with in recent years. The quality of life affirmation that is really who Anne is emerged as a value that she chose to convey to friends and family in her “last say.”
I shape my lips into a round, “aw”-shaped smile and inhale deeply. All around me I hear the sound of circular breathing, feeling its warm and sustaining force. Justina, our director, nods, and we exhale the first chord of Cristobal de Morales’ “Alleluia.” It’s true, in synch, in tune. We’re really together this afternoon.
It’s deep winter, and the audience that fills this small drafty New England church is swathed in sweaters and scarves. We nine singers are also wearing close-fitting hats in solidarity with Laurel, our soprano soloist, a recent cancer survivor. We’re all in various stages of middle age, busy with our lives, but not even a blizzard could keep us away from this recital.
Suddenly I can feel my chest tightening. It’s almost time for the last song. I’ll be starting the solo, and there won’t be a music folder or a microphone to grab onto for support. “No props, just you,” as Justina likes to say.
This squeezing out of air has happened before. The first time I stood in front of this group to sing about eight bars of a folk song, I felt suddenly stunned, like a cow in the slaughter line. I couldn’t remember how to breathe. The first note came out as a croak, and the phrase wavered along from there. The next phrase was a little better, but there was no strength or conviction behind it. My cheeks were burning as I stepped back into the group.
That was five years ago, and the shortness of breath was mostly due to anxiety. Now emphysema has been added to the challenge, and sometimes if feels as though I’m inhaling through mesh. It’s my own fault, of course. If I allow myself to think about it, my thirty-five years of smoking point accusing fingers at me; then my throat goes dry, which makes it even harder to sing. I actually stayed away from singing for many years, as much as I loved it, because I was afraid to try and fail. An extremely wise musical friend finally steered me to Justina, who convinced me I could do it and that it would actually feel good.
As the cycles of my breath have gotten shorter, I’ve spoken to Justina about my concern that I’ll become a liability to the group. Should I give it up? But Justina has said no. If I keep working on my breathing, singing will be the best thing for me; and even if I’m not consciously aware of it, she and the others will be helping.
I step in front of the group with Laurel, my friend and duet partner. The piano gives us our notes and the chorus begins humming, four chords up, four chords down, then one more time. In spite of Laurel’s reassuring presence and the warmth I can feel behind me, my chest starts tightening up. This time I know what to do.
My feet feel for the solid floor, my shoulders relax. I don’t know how many more recitals I have ahead of me, but right now that doesn’t matter. Four beats before my first note the inhale begins, through “aw”-shaped mouth, expanding abdomen and chest, flowing down the legs, connecting with the live earth. Then the breath wants to come back out, towards the tip of the nose, over the heads in front of me, towards the high stained glass window on the back wall. My voice wants to come with it, and does.
Lean on me, when you’re not strong,
It’s all about the breath. I can feel all nine of us taking a common inhale. Laurel and I smile at each other, and everyone sings the chorus:
and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.
Then Laurel begins the next verse an octave above, so clear and full of feeling. It’s working, for both of us, for today at least. We’re breathing, and singing.