In a former life I sang. A lot!
I remember, as a young student, singing my favorite of the 24 “Old Italian Art Songs,”
“Per la Gloria d’adoravi, voglio amarvi, o luci care.”
(For the glory of adoring you, I want to love you, O dear eyes)
with all of the romantic fervor that my 20-year-old voice and life experience could muster.
Suddenly, the booming voice of my teacher, Cantor Arthur Koret interrupted my dulcet tones to make a declaration that has stayed with me far beyond my days as a singer. He said, in his big, operatic speaking voice. “You know, I can’t teach you how to sing. That’s not my job! My job is to teach you how to remove all of the filters you’ve placed around your God given talent.”
These words of wisdom have guided me throughout, and in all areas of my life. The awareness that I hide me, that I am the one who builds the obstacles that get in the way of what I have to share with, say and sing to the world, is one of the greatest gifts I was ever given. As a result of this lesson and many other things he taught me, including how to sing, I count the Cantor as one of my great mentors in life.
There is a powerful scene in the 2010 film, “The King’s Speech,” that brings this same lesson to life for me. King George VI, who has struggled with a serious stammer since childhood, is preparing for his coronation with his long-time speech coach, Lionel Logue. Bertie, as the King is called by his familiars, is under pressure from political forces, and about to officially become the king; in a very public way. As a result, he “cracks,” lashing out at his teacher and friend. In this moment of crisis and assisted by some clever, if not cheeky mentoring by Logue, the king finds his voice.
This incident reminds me that whether a king, like Bertie, or a commoner, like Lionel, we all have a voice, and it is only the self-created obstacles, made of fear, that obscure the beauty of my voice and your voice from being heard.
It is the beginning of a new year. At least it is for the Christian and secular worlds. In the Jewish world the new year began last September with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Great Day of Atonement which comes ten days after Rosh Hashanah).
Services on the eve of Yom Kippur begin with the chanting of the “Kol Nidre” prayer. As I understand its meaning, this prayer, which ushers in a 24-hour period of fasting and atonement, declares to God that the individual and the congregation are free of all the burdens and mistakes they carry from the previous and coming year. It also expresses their individual and collective desire to start life again, fresh and clean. In this moment, the petitioners stand before God as they truly are, with no burdens or obstacles to obscure their authentic selves.
In an editorial that appeared in the Jerusalem Post on September 24, 2020, Ronen Neuwirth wrote the following that gives deeper understanding as to the significance of Kol Nidre, “ . . . the gift of Kol Nidre [is], the declaration of freedom. We express our willingness to stop pretending and performing, acts which remove us from our authentic selves, and which plant within us feelings of inferiority and unworthiness.”
The idea of beginning anew, free from these self-limiting burdens, reminds me of another lesson that I learned from Cantor Koret. Interrupting me one day, mid song (he liked to do that) he said, with a lot of compassion in his voice, “Alan, never lose your pianissimo*, it’s what makes your voice unique and beautiful.”
(*the ability to sing softly)
I often reflect upon that simple counsel. In that moment, I think he was cautioning me not to be seduced by being bigger or louder, just to get attention, trying to be something that I wasn’t. As I matured as a singer and a person, naturally growing in my volume and power, I have often been tempted to “shake the rafters” with the sound I can produce, and then I remember the Cantor’s words and consciously balance my impulse and output by connecting to the pure, natural and more authentic sound that God created and intends me to share.”
Let me quickly add that holding on to my pianissimos does not mean being small. No, pianissimos can be very bold and powerful in their own way. In many ways it takes as much courage and strength to sing pianissimo as it does to sing a high C. As the great Lucianno Pavorotti, who had an amazing pianissimo once said, “Many tenors have a high C, but only a few of us believe it.”
I have learned that often in life, the most powerful moments come when I am my most vulnerable, putting myself out there, with my pianissimo or high C (in my case B♭) fully exposed. As one of my other Jewish mentors taught me:
“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
Jesus Christ, Matt: 5:14-16
As I begin my new year, with the many good intentions that I have for the journey that will be 2021, the one to which I am the most committed is to leave my bushel by the wayside and to stand boldly, and humbly on top of the hill, letting my light and my voice shine. As the old spiritual suggests, it may be a little light, but it is my unique light, and “I’m gonna let it shine.” I invite you to join me on that hill, or to find one of your own choosing.