When I was a child, my father used to tell me stories. I liked the ones he made up that were about “Jack and Orey” (Daddy, tell me a story about Jack and Orey). He concocted some characters named Oompha-Oompha and Itchy-Scratchy who were always doing funny, silly or tricky things. I don’t remember the details but I remember his stories made me laugh. He made up a bird, too, called the “Pithacanthrope Directus” who flew backwards so he wouldn’t forget where he has been. Sometimes the three ended up in one place. That was fun.
When I started singing lessons, I was 15 years old. My teacher at the time was a local person. She taught me to open my mouth on high notes and tighten my belly, to keep my ribs up and still and to roll my tongue forward and out on an /i/ vowel. That’s about all she taught me. The rest was pretty much me, since I sang decently on my own. She was my teacher until I went to college where I seemed to have entered the world of Oompha Oompha.
I attended Manhattan School of Music when it was still in East Harlem on 103rd Street off Lexington Avenue. I had never set foot in Harlem except to audition there until the first day of school when I was left to deal with the subway and bus system and the streets of that funky New York neighborhood and my first day of college all at the same time. Next, I got to meet my voice teacher, a week into things. She was a German Wagnerian soprano, who taught me in her apartment on West 86th Street, off West End Avenue. She scared me to death. She had no use for my little bird voice and I was so frightened that whatever I had learned simply departed my poor quaking brain. She concluded, and was quick to tell me, that I had little talent, whatever I had learned was completely wrong, that I couldn’t breath and that I couldn’t count, either. Nevertheless, she said she would “see what she could do with me”. We spent the next three lessons with me on her couch pushing the phone book on my belly up and down with inhales and exhales. Oompha Oompha had never been in such a wild jungle as I and she had Itchy-Scratchy to help her around whatever exotic places they were in while I was absolutely alone. I was very very lost.
By the end of that year, I could barely sing. My throat seemed frozen or piled up with heavy bolders. I was decidedly unsuccessful in “placing the tone into my forehead” or “vibrating the bones in my face” (I still can’t do that). I was unable to “release my breastbone” and “keep my ribs wide” (I could barely find my ribs, let alone make them do something on purpose). I had been convinced (without much resistance) that I was an untalented wretch with a little insignicant voice. I was not thrilled with Spanish Harlem as a place to hang out after school, either, and the thing that put me over the top was spending the night in a tenement with a fellow student who had taken an apartment nearby the school. We could hear the rats in the walls, we slept with a big knife under the bed, for protection, and the entire tiny place smelled like stale cooking grease. I turned myself into a Pithacanthrope Directus, and flew myself backwards back to Connecticut to reconsider my future.
Once home, I recovered and decided to venture out again. This time I returned to the Big Apple which now felt to me as I had imagined Oompha’s home to be…..big, strange, wild and dangerous. The denizens of this turbulent noisy place seemed to want to trample me into the ground, eat me up and spit me out and laugh all the while. Still, I percevered and found another singing teacher. She was on 39th or so, off Park. Her apartment was quite fancy. I found that I didn’t need to bring Itchy-Scratchy with me, as she told me in every lesson how remarkable I was, how talented and expressive. It caused me to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to feel a little more like Itchy-Scratchy and a little bit less like Little Mary Sunshine. Surely, being told I was good was a definite step up from what I had been told previously, but being told I was always only terrific, when I was barely 19 years old, was just suspicious. TIme to be a Pithacanthrope again. Flying backwards to the land of safety and home.