One more breath

Arpeggios to practice. March 2024.

I can't find my voice. Not my speaking voice, my singing voice. I run the triads, the scales to the dominant, the arpeggios, and I feel the weakness in my vocal cords, muscles gone lax after a long period of inactivity. While I've never been an operatic virtuosa, I know what a warm voice and steady breath feel like in my own body, and I know equally well when I'm falling short of what's possible.

I hate this feeling, to be honest. As much as I wanted to restart my singing lessons precisely to get back in shape, quitting feels easier right now. One less thing to do, one less thing to practice, one less thing to remind me of my own failures. I recognize this stage, of course; it also appears in the first month of a new exercise routine, the first year of a new job, and the first draft of a new piece of writing. It's the period of breakdown that precedes rebuilding. I know this stage is necessary, and experience has taught me I'm capable of working through it, but for now, good lord, I hate it.

This Lent, I had the opportunity to participate three times in the "Sung Stations of the Cross" at my parish. The contemplative event takes musicians and listeners alike through verses for each of the 14 stations, undergirded by the refrain "Step by step / one more breath / on the way / to conquer death."

My experience for those three evenings was the latest example of how, post-pandemic, singing makes me cry. For yes, at some point in the course of each evening I choked up, and never for the same reason. Sometimes the lyrics and context of a station's verse would land with me, such as when Mary holds her son after taking him down from the cross. Sometimes I'd spot a friend's loving face in the darkened church, mouthing along with the words, and I'd be overwhelmed with affection for them.

And sometimes I would simply be swept up in the shared breath and rhythm, the steady repetition in the refrain, the gentle improvised harmonies, the sheer gift that is the ability to flow alongside other humans. I cry now articulating this because I took it for granted for so long, and now that I have the opportunity to participate again, I want to give it my absolute best.

A few weeks ago, I listened to an "On Being" episode where Krista Tippett shared a wide-ranging conversation with the musician Nick Cave about loss, yearning, and transcendence. The whole interview was a beautiful and heart-rending meditation on religion, art, and life, but I was struck in particular by Cave's reflection on how the grief of losing two children made him more expansive:

"Also, acceptance, I find, is not an ideal term either, because that, to me, feels like a returning to the way things were before. And I don’t think you do. I think, in fact, we just grow in magnitude that’s predicated on those we lose. It’s an amazing thing. I say this with a huge amount of caution, obviously, because I’d love it to be the way it was, actually, and just have my children, obviously, right? [...] But having said that, one feels an enormous and new capacity to love, I think. One can feel that way."

An enormous and new capacity to love. When I heard this phrase, I pictured lungs expanding as far as they could go, filling with pure oxygen, abundant and life-giving, with no gulps or gasp to break the flowno fear that the air would not be there, just gratitude that it was. In my quest to more deeply embody my faith, I want to approach my singing this same way, with praise for the breath I do have rather than despondence for its lack.

In the "Sung Stations" setting that brought me so much joy and contemplation this year, the refrain actually switches after the 10th station to reflect Christ's final moments, the darkest moment before Resurrection: "Raised on high / one last breath / you alone / will conquer death." The moment will come in my vocal training when I turn the corner and find I can more comfortably hit a higher note or sustain a longer phrase. My muscles will be stronger, my confidence restored. The best part, though, will be the breath it gives my hope that they are always new songs to sing.

Prayer #398: Arpeggio, Ascending (Breath Prayer)

Inhale: Solo notes make chords in time.
Exhale: Glory in the building.