I’ve been rereading Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent essay collection, The Language of the Night, most particularly “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” which examines the importance of language and style in writing fantasy. Le Guin’s main thesis is that fantasy isn’t defined so much by wizards and dragons. What makes it fantasy is the style: “The style, of course, is the book…If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.” (Le Guin, The Language of the Night, p. 94).
She hastens to add, “I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer…Style is how you as a writer see and speak” (ibid).
Which is certainly true. Style can be learned, imitated, affected—but we all have a style that is uniquely us, as personal as our fingerprints or speaking voice.
But I was thinking—I have a story coming out in Lackington’s at the end of this month that’s a very different style than my other fiction. It’s contemporary and snappish (the editor called it “almost hardboiled,” which delighted me to no end). And yet—it’s still me.
As usual, I turn to music to help me understand my own writing process.
First, some technical things: vocal registers.
Vocal pedagogy is its own delight, but for our purposes, let’s talk about chest voice, head voice, and the break. Super simply (I apologize), chest voice is the low part of the vocal range, head voice is the upper part, and the break is that frustrating bit in the middle.
There’s a difference singing across registers. Physically, of course, but also in terms of intention.
And yet, it’s still the same voice—used differently, resonating in different places, useful for different types of music (I would die trying to sing descants in my chest voice).
For me, this is a useful way to think about writing. Some stories sit in my chest voice. Some sit in my head voice. Same voice, same style, just applied differently.
(As a sidebar that really deserves its own blog post, I think that the same logic applies to fairy tales. Tolkien famously described a “fairy-story” as “…one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be…” (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 16). Much like how fantasy isn’t defined by wizards and dragons, fairy tales aren’t defined by wee sprites. I think defining “fairy tale” comes down to register, rather than plot motifs or tropes—a “Faerie voice,” if you will. But I digress.)
But wait, there’s more!
Even within the same register, vowels change the sound dramatically! Consciously adapting vowels is an important skill for choristers; just like adapting vocabulary, syntax, and vernacular is important for writers.
Good singers can sing across all genres of music. Sure, it may sound different, but it’s always them, always their style. Good writers do the same—and that’s what I’m aiming for.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Christmas has started at the dayjob, so bring on the Christmas/Advent music! It’s going to be a fun six weeks. Here’s a macaronic piece already getting considerable play on my rotation:
It’s 2007. I’m sixteen. And I’m terrified. I’m sitting on a hard church pew, music in hand. The notes don’t make sense. They make sense for piano, but I can’t just pluck a G out of the air and sing it. Besides, I’m supposed to be singing the harmony, not the melody, but I can’t hear it under all the other voice parts. Tenors, basses, and piano completely bury it, but the sopranos are worst because they actually have the melody and they’re loud and even though I’m singing barely above a whisper, people keep shooting me sideways glances because I keep screwing up and I just want to sing so badly but I can’t do it.
And that’s my first year of choir in a nutshell.
A combination of writing my first real “book” (Phantom of the Opera fanfic) and Toronto getting its first real opera house had given me an insatiable appetite for opera. My younger sister had spent the last year in the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, and I watched the Youth Chorus rehearsals agog.
I wanted to sing like that. So, so badly.
There was, of course, one slight snag.
I couldn’t sing.
Somehow, I got in. I’m still not sure why. Maybe Ann—the music director, a wonderful Texan force of nature—saw how badly I wanted it. Maybe it’s hard enough to find teens willing to sing classical music, and she worried about crushing my interest.
I don’t know. In any case, I was in so far over my head, I couldn’t even see the surface.
Most of the kids in the Youth Chorus had graduated from the CCOC’s younger divisions. Which meant they’d been singing for years. Not only that, they’d been singing together for years. And then there was me: new, and shy, and totally unable to keep up with the music.
I couldn’t even read it. Oh, I mean, I could look at a piece of music and tell you, “Yes, that note is a B, and that’s a sharp, and we’re supposed to get louder over here.” But when it came to matching “note on page” with “note in voice,” I had nothing.
As for technique—I had less than nothing. The voice is an instrument. Like all instruments, you have to learn how to use it. My joining the Youth Chorus was like grabbing a trumpet and expecting to join an orchestra.
All that to say, I was pretty effing terrible. In a choir of burgeoning pros, I was the weakest link. And I wasn’t used to that. My whole life, I’ve been an overachiever and a quick study. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was used to just…picking things up.
Algebra. French. Soccer. Piano. Never much of a learning curve. Never much angst. Just trying something, and very quickly becoming good at it.
This was the first time that hadn’t happened. Those rehearsals fighting back tears were the first time I wasn’t near the top of the class.
People worried, of course. Ann worried. My parents worried. Every Monday afternoon, dread sat in my throat like a mouthful of cold worms, and every Monday night, I came home sobbing at my own incompetence. But I. Kept. Going. Back. It was stubbornness, sheer and simple—this was the first time something had beaten me, and I couldn’t let that stand.
So I did what anyone does in those situations:
I learned to survive.
Since I couldn’t read the music, I memorized it instead, tracking down recordings of every piece we did. I went to weekly lessons wherein I worked my bum off learning technique (without the mentoring I got from Ann’s daughter Erin, I might well have crashed out). Finally, I decided that if I couldn’t be the best singer, I would be the best chorister—always on time, always prepared, always listening and well-behaved.
“Come on, you guys! Get ready!”
“You don’t count. You’re always ready.”
When I aged out at eighteen, I still wasn’t a strong singer, but I’d passed the initial hurdle. Music had woven itself into my life—to feel grounded and whole, I needed a choir.
By this point, I knew enough about my own voice to realize that opera was not a great match. To the surprise of no one, my voice is very high, very light, and very straight-toned. I don’t have the vocal weight for opera, and I never will. In terms of voice, I’m not built that way.
I am built for church singing.
So I went hunting church choirs. One rainy night in September, I climbed a million stairs to one church’s choir room. I said, “I’m a first soprano,” and the director pointed me to a seat.
Whilst my voice is better suited for church singing, there was an entirely new learning curve to contend with. Hymns that the church ladies knew by heart, but which I’d never seen. The shape and structure and music of the liturgy itself. Psalms.
But the CCOC had given me enough foundation that I could stick things out. Of course, the community helped. The ladies very quickly became like a legion of extra aunts; the men, like older brothers.
Here’s the thing about singing church services, though. There isn’t actually a ton of rehearsal. Anthems get a few weeks of practice, but the hymns and psalms change every time. It was too much music for me to memorize.
So I finally learned to read.
There was no shaft of light and angelic “Alleluia!” as the notes resolved themselves. It happened bit by bit, water wearing away at a stone, until I realized I’d actually been reading the music for a while.
I learned to support. I learned to breathe. I learned to make my voice do what I wanted as we tackled a huge range of music—from Palestrina and Byrd to spirituals. Sure, there is something of an “Anglican hoot” about it, but I’m pleased with the way it’s developed.
And I learned all the ecclesiastical side: the psalms, the hymns, the pulse and pattern of the liturgical year.
But the best thing?
I’m proud that I stuck it out. I’m proud of how much I’ve learned. But in a funny way, I’m even more proud of the battle I fought with myself. It took a long, long time, but I learned to stay with something because I love it, and no other reason.
You see, I’m still not the top of the class. Not even close. I am a competent vocalist. Not great—competent. And in this arena, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with it because for me, it’s all out of love: love for the music, love for my friends, and love for the sheer breathless rush of having a high G hit the church’s vaulted ceiling.
I am a chorister, well and truly. As the hymn goes, “How can I keep from singing?”
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re returning to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. I never thought I’d do this, but here’s…um, well, here’s me. Anglican hoot and all.