Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Check Your Instruments at the Door

As part of a response to my last journal entry, metallumai wrote:

...there's something about a strong, clear voice that declares "Don't need no fuckin accompaniment" that just knocks people flat, and it's a glorious thing...

Unaccompanied singing -- mine and others -- is of great importance and pleasure to me. If I hear somebody (or several people) singing unaccompanied, I am drawn to them, much more so than to somebody strumming a guitar. But not everybody shares this aesthetic -- or, more significantly, even understands this. To most people, singing without accompaniment is considered less real, or simply a lesser thing, than singing with an instrument. This is one more way in which I feel as if I am living in a universe that is not optimized for me.

Years ago, when I was just out of college, I got an odd phone call that sticks with me because of what it reflects about this attitude. I had just finished a brief summer job as a counselor's aide at a day camp at the Jewish Community Center in Providence Rhode Island, where I used to lead the kids in song. I started singing for just my own group, and very soon the other counselors would ask me to come and sing with their kids. This was fun for everybody, and gave the counselors a daily break.

The odd phone call was from a woman who was putting together some sort of children's entertainment. She said many flattering things about what she'd heard from somebody she knew who had worked at the day camp, and she wanted to see if I could come with my guitar and give a show. I pointed out that I don't play guitar, and she insisted that she was told I did, that I was a singer with a guitar. This was obviously not true, but somehow in her head she had translated "is a good children's song-leader" into "plays guitar". Since I don't play guitar, she wasn't interested, which was just as well because I was pretty sure I had no interest in developing a side career as a children's entertainer. (I'll leave that to my quite gifted brother David, who does play guitar -- and fiddle.)

Over the course of my life I have several times found myself at singing parties where people with guitars will, unasked, start to play when somebody else starts to sing unaccompanied. Once, when I was a young teenager, I was at a singing that may well have been in my parents living room when somebody pulled this unasked-for stunt. A woman named Maddy de Leon, who was sitting on the floor, reached over and put her hand around the neck of the offending the guitar, silencing it. I was impressed.

The thing is, when I am singing a song unaccompanied, I am hearing chords in my head -- sometimes those chords result in the embellishing notes around the melody line. These chords, this sense of the song, is probably not the same as what the unasked for guitarist is hearing. So when somebody starts to accompany you, you have to modify what you are doing to fit into what's being played underneath. Needless to say, I do not like this in the slightest.

The last time this happened to me -- at a local 12th Night Party -- I watched in horror (while I was singing) as somebody started to figure out a guitar accompaniment. I waited until he felt he had gotten something down, at which point I raised my pitch about a quarter tone and watched him look baffled as his guitar suddenly seemed to go flat. I can be very sneaky. At other times I have slightly altered or irregularized the rhythm -- which always makes the obnoxious guitar player strum more insistently, to keep you steady, but I am perfectly capable of fighting that and eventually the player starts to look stupid and gives up. (I don't like stopping mid-song and asking somebody to stop partly because that comes across as obnoxious but mostly because it breaks the mood of the song.)

My point here is that to my ears there is nothing so glorious as an unaccompanied voice (I don't mean mine -- I mean in general) leading a song. This allows other singers to find their own harmony (as opposed to whatever harmony the guitarist wants). This allows for a precision of intonation in any key. This allows for all the fine eccentricities of the human voice to ring in the air. Of course this requires some skill and practice on the part of the singer, to make music from the empty air and the little voice box, but it is by no means a lesser or substitute skill for the "real" skill of a musical accompaniment.

So yeah, you spend years learning to sing strong and true, to find a key in the air and make it ring, to wrap your voice around a song, to sing with authority and drive. And sometimes, at the right time and place, it all comes together in a way that singing to an instrument just doesn't.
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