The Singing Lesson
The front room is the music room, with a Celtic harp, an electronic keyboard, a 12-string guitar and a ukulele. Maddy, now 11, is nervous, and has gone rather quiet. Monika, the singing teacher we’re seeing for the first time, sends me into the next room, an open door between us.
“Let’s start with some warm-ups,” Monika says. She hits a note on the keyboard and suggests a scale up a fifth and back down, sung “Ewee ewee ewee ewee ewee ewee ewee ewee ewe.”
Maddy hooks her hands behind her back and sings along. Her ear, for both pitch and rhythm, is prodigious, but her projection is a little muted. This is always the question with her, as it is with many kids at this threshold age: not whether she can do something, but whether it will possess her to the point where it breaks out almost despite her, and blazes out, right there for everyone to see and be amazed.
In an effort to stop paying attention to every note and syllable she sings, I check out Monika’s bookcase, which is full of LPs–record albums, vinyl. Grace Jones, Patti Labelle, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, B.B. King. Well! I was afraid I’d find nothing but opera, or worse: Broadway. But no. Half of these are the records my friends and I had in college–in fact, I had some of these very records: Fairport Convention. Steeleye Span.
In the music room, Monika lies on her back on the floor to show her diaphragm going up and down as she breathes. She has Maddy lie on the couch and do the same. Then Monika picks up her guitar and says they’ll try singing a song together. Has Maddy heard of “The Rose”?
Maddy shakes her head. Maddy really wants to be a pop-rock star like Michelle Branch, Anna Nalik, Kelly Clarkson. But she is game, and as Monika picks through “The Rose,” Maddy starts to project a little more, to send her notes out into the world like birds, instead of merely singing them.
I find myself looking at all the albums by the great women singers–Linda Ronstadt, Lauro Nyro, Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, and Maddy Prior, after whom Maddy is named–and it seems to me that in some far-off but nearby way they’re all listening, remembering how their own talents and careers began by singing along with some older woman, perhaps singing not a song they knew and liked but something a little old-fashioned that afterwards they couldn’t get out of their heads, and still remembered years later.
Sunlight slides in through the slatted blinds, falling across the potted plants. In the next room, Maddy now has her hands on her hips, and the two of them, the woman and the girl, are singing in unison.
“I say love it is a flower
And you its only seed.”
I am about 65% sure this aired on North Country Public Radio.