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Elder Wisdom

Never Stop Singing

Composer Irving Berlin (1888 Ð 1989) with singer Barry Wood (1909 - 1970) and orchestra leader Ray Bloch (1902 - 1982) recording a song in the 1940's. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Mr. Larsen hated Rs. He had a lot of different catchphrases for our middle school choir class, but the big one was “Larsen hates Rs.” Most singers do. Most singers always have. Listen to most any classic song and you’ll find that the Rs are largely absent. If you throw down a hard R in the middle of a song, suddenly people start square dancing. Mr. Larsen wanted to teach us how to sing properly.

That’s not an easy task when you’re presiding over a bunch of teenagers who are taking choir more out of obligation than actual interest. At my school, as at many others, you had to pick between choir and band. As much as I worshipped rock bands at the time, I also knew that playing an instrument was really fucking hard. I didn’t wanna do that shit. Singing was easier. Plus, singers got all the girls. Maybe if I learn to sing, I can pull some serious tail.

I succeeded at the former, but not the latter. Mr. Larsen’s class was in the choir room, which had a terraced floor to replicate the dynamic of singing on risers during a formal recital. I stood in the back row, because I was tall. I got put with the bass voices: the right field of any jayvee choir. Every chance I got, I made fun of the sheet music Mr. Larsen handed us (one time we had to perform “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen), and I would roll eyes at all of the deranged vocal warmup exercises that he made us do.

If you’ve ever taken a choir class, you know that there’s a distinct breed of choir teacher that takes their vocation EXTREMELY seriously. Mr. Larsen was no different, and he had the resume to back up his zeal. So he tolerated our horseshit for a few minutes at the beginning of every class before cracking the whip and getting us singing in unison. He taught us how to read sheet music (I forgot it all but instantly). He taught us to sing from our diaphragms. Every time he said the word “diaphragm,” much snickering ensued. We all knew that a diaphragm was a sex thing, even if the boys didn’t exactly know what KIND of sex thing it was.

Mr. Larsen didn’t give a shit about that. He powered through the chuckles. When you sing, he insisted, you gotta sing from your diaphragm: the muscular trampoline sitting underneath your lungs that controls inhalation and exhalation. Bad singers sing from the mouth. The good ones, Mr. Larsen insisted, sing from their lungs, summoning notes deep from the well and giving each one body. To that end, he made us do scales. Many scales. Many different octaves. We’d start with the low do mi re fa mi sol fa la sol ti la do ti re do, and then move up an octave. Lotta voices cracking. Lotta puberty on display.

I played all this instruction off like I didn’t give a crap. But when it was the bass section’s turn to sing, I gave it all I could. The only thing more embarrassing than singing is singing poorly. And there’s a cool moment that happens in choir class when the kids begin singing in unison. Each voice both protects and amplifies the other. Melody appears where there was once nothing but awkward stammering. Every friend you hear really trying to sing encourages you to do likewise. The jokes fade away and the art begins to take form. 

When we held formal concerts in the assembly hall—the boys decked out in khakis and blazers, the girls in skirts and dark tights—I sang as loud and proud as I could, hoping my own voice might carry over the rest. In my dreams, I was a burgeoning rock star. One day it would be just me singing on a stage, and I would get to sing actual songs instead of fucking “Somewhere Out There.”

But first, I still had to learn.

I moved onto high school and got a new choir teacher in Mr. Olsen, who was just as fervent as Mr. Larsen was. But Mr. Olsen also took our group into weird-ass places with avant-garde arrangements where we sang the opening of the Book of Genesis to Philip Glass-ish musical backing. One of those arrangements called on all of us to hiss. HISS. Every time we did the hissing song, we all looked at each other like, “Well this is fucked up.” If I wanted to sing music I actually liked, I’d have to join the school’s a cappella group. So I did. We all wore matching green bowties. Clip-ons. We sang at assemblies, parties, and even in the school lobby on occasion. We also got our own yearbook spread. The group leader—a senior named Tony—got to pick and even arrange the songs himself. Songs like this one:

That song remains stuck in my head to this day. We were an autonomous intramural singing group, but I still carried all of Mr. Larsen’s instruction with me, even if I didn’t realize it. I sang with my diaphragm. No R passed through my larynx without being instinctively softened into oblivion. My freshman year, our group even got to record an album (on our own dime, of course). In a studio and everything! I remember the walls were covered in egg crate foam for better acoustics. We titled the album CHARGE IT, as in to your parents’ credit card. When Tony had the cassettes minted and I held one in my hands, I felt like I was legit. Maybe someone at Arista Records would hear our album (it was definitely an album and not a demo) and say, “Hey, who’s that extremely virile boy singing in the background?” then sign me to a 10-record deal.

Clive Davis never called. But I never stopped singing. When Christmastime came, I gladly did caroling around the neighborhood with a bunch of families. I serenaded a girl I loved ON THE PHONE with a song. I assume she went and made a sandwich while I was doing it. At rock concerts, I sang so loud I hoped that Poison would fire their own frontman on the spot to hire me. When my friend busted out his guitar at summer camp, he let me sing “Patience.” I was always grateful when friends let me sing for them. I didn’t have the force of personality, or the ambition, to insist on anything more than that.

When I got to prep school in 10th grade, I wasn’t required to take choir or band, so I didn’t. Instead, I took guitar lessons. Could I play guitar? No. But my teacher Bob, who’s still there, was in charge of producing the school’s twice-annual rock assembly. I wanted in. I told Bob I wanted to play “Free Ride” by the Edgar Winter Group at the assembly (I liked it because I had just heard it in the movie Air America, which absolutely sucked), so he taught me the chords on my garbage Stratocaster. When I failed to master the tablature front to back, I grew a pair of onions and made a suggestion:

“Bob, man, I’m not really sure I can play this in front of everyone. But I can sing it.”

“OK. I’ll play it and you sing it.”

And I did. I sweat clean through my shirt before taking the stage. I gripped the mic like it was the only thing keeping me from falling off a cliff. I didn’t dare open my eyes while I was singing the song. But I sang it all the same. As hard and as loud as I could. When you sing with the ol’ diaphragm, you can get REAL fucking loud if you’re willing. I was willing. It feels good to be loud. It feels free. After assembly, one of my friends told me I did a great job, and I took that as approval from EVERY student on campus and not just him.

I sang at the next rock assembly. “No Excuses” by Alice in Chains. I sang “Creep” by Radiohead at a party in a dorm basement. I sang “Cryin’” by Aerosmith at a school-arranged coffeehouse (man was THAT a ’90s thing), with my friend Dan on the acoustic and me barely hitting the high notes while sitting on top of a cafeteria table. I never joined a band, because I was too shy to ask anyone. But if someone had asked me, I would have. I wrote songs in my head, none which will ever be put on tape. I had a name for my imaginary band (F-Bombs), and album titles to go with it. I drew our band logo in the margins of my notebook during class. That band would never come to pass.

But I kept on singing.

By the time I got to college, I had a car. On the five-hour drive from my folks’ house to school, I sang the whole way. I sang so hard my tongue nearly fell out of my head. When traffic came to a standstill, I would quiet down a little so that other motorists wouldn’t stare. Then, when the road opened back up, I sang so hard that I was hoarse by the time I arrived at the school parking lot. That’s the beauty of the solitude of the open road. You can be whoever you wanna be when it’s just you. You can let your whole soul out when you sing, or you dance, or you express yourself in any other form, without self-consciousness holding you back.

I never joined the college choir, either. But one night, there was a band playing at a sanctioned dorm kegger and they let me take the mic for a few songs. I was absolutely drunk out of my mind for this, but I was still on key. No one on the football team was there to make fun of me. One girl lingered to listen. It was about as good a reception as I could hope for. I think I threw up in a trash can afterward.

But I kept on singing! When I kissed a girl for the first time (different girl), I sang my ass off on the drive home. When I moved to New York, I relished any moment when a friend would cry out FUCK IT LET’S DO KARAOKE and we’d hit Iggy’s or any other joint that let sloppy patrons subject one another to “Wanted Dead Or Alive” at 2 a.m. One time I did “Welcome to the Jungle” at a bar and dropped the goddamn mic after the IT’S GONNA BRING YOU DOWN! HUH! part. The dude running the machine admonished me to never do that again. I figured out a repertoire of songs that were in my range. Whenever I tested a new song and failed, I would laugh out loud to protect myself from the crowd’s reaction. I sang in the shower. I blasted music in my apartment and sang along to it while playing Mario Kart. One of the neighbors once banged on my door to make me stop. I did.

The night I met my wife at a bar on the Upper East Side, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” came on over the speakers. When Michael got to the “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa” part, the whole goddamn bar erupted and sang it together in unison, like a poorly disciplined chorus. When my wife and I had kids, I sang to them in the crib. Very soft, gentle tunes. Dad unplugged.

I still sing, although my range has gotten shaggy with age, along with the deafness I suffered as a result of a catastrophic accident three years ago. I used to sing to my kids, but they’re old enough now to tell me to stop. I live in a congested area, so I’m not as quick to belt out tunes on the road as I once was. But when I spy a chance to sing, I take it. When no one else is in the house and I’m in the shower, I go as hard as I can, from way deep down. And then, if I botch a note, I get shy around myself and drop down an octave so I don’t fuck up again. I sing on podcasts, much to David Roth’s consternation. I sing to the dog. I sang the anthem at a Hawks game because they let me. And the second karaoke bars open once more, I’ll be back, although I’ll have to watch my head the next time around.

Wherever there is quiet, I do my best to fill it with sound. Part of that is me keeping myself company. Part of that is me being an insufferable ham. But another part of that is me keeping the dream alive, merely for dreaming’s sake. I’ll never be a rock star. Or a movie star. Or an NFL star. But sometimes the dream is the point. Dreams allow you to live beyond yourself for a moment.

Mr. Larsen died 22 years ago. The same year I met my wife, in fact. He’s not around anymore to tell me to lose the Rs, or to harness the mighty power of my diaphragm. I’ve had to take all those lessons with me. And I have. I still reach deep down for my voice. And when it comes out, that’s when I get to dream.