Singing on the Brain

When I was a child, my parents would take me to their friends' house for kid-friendly dinner parties. Invariably, in attendance were doctors, pharmacists, and radiologists, all immigrants from Vietnam, and all with children my age and older. Almost as invariably, after the meal was eaten my parents would spirit us away just as the hosts were breaking out the karaoke machine; But not before my sisters and I could get in a good laugh and point with the other children at their parents making utter fools of themselves, hitting high notes that weren't high enough. It boggled my mind; these people worked so hard to come to this country, and struggled to become health care professionals in a language they barely knew when they escaped their own war-torn homeland...and yet, they could not carry a note to save their lives.

My parents, having the good sense to understand their limitations, spared us children from such humiliation and never participated in such activities. For that I was grateful. Always my mother surrounded my sisters and me with music, buying opera and classical music cd's, taking us to see the symphony and the ballet, and paying for piano lessons. But never did she or my father mistake us to be the Von Trapps.

And that sums up the early roots of singing in my life. As I grew up, time and time again, I observed the strange fixation the Vietnamese-American community--in fact, many Asian communities--have with karaoke. And this proved true again when I lived in Vietnam for a year while in my early twenties. It was my Vietnamese language teacher, also fluent in Japanese language and culture, who said it best: "Westerners love to express themselves through dancing; Asians love to sing."

Eventually, I too succumbed to my genetic predisposition and after a few shots of hard alcohol, I frequently found myself in random Asian-themed karaoke haunts while living in New York City. I knew I was bad, but with some liquid courage, on these occasions I was shameless, and had the security of knowing that everyone listening (and not listening) to my warbling were just as if not more intoxicated than myself.

Not long after leaving New York City, I moved to Alaska where I took up my second instrument; the fiddle. Eventually I had become able enough to start my own band and play a few bar and dance gigs, and I sang as little as possible in Alaska, except of course, when I encountered that old friend of mine--the karaoke bar. But other than those lapses of judgment, I rarely allowed my weakness for song interfere with my fiddling, though I envied those who could mingle the two. It was during my days as a public fiddler when I promised myself that if I ever got to choose who I could be reincarnated as, it would be a jazz vocalist like Billie Holiday, hands down. And, since that day had not yet come, I seldom opened my mouth to sing.

My aversion to singing in public while sober was noticeable. I recall on one occasion I had the opportunity to play music with some of my favorite living old-time musicians, the Foghorn Stringband. After a few hours of jamming, one of the players observed aloud that I would not sing, despite the crooning nature of oldtime music...But he was white; how could he possibly understand the ghosts of my Asian-American past? The karaoke indignities that my people and I have imposed on ourselves throughout my life?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not ashamed of being Asian-American. In fact I believe that, generally speaking, we are capable of contributing to the world in many ways like many other immigrant communities. I also believe that singing (and driving) are just not one of those ways. Though my position on this subject has softened somewhat upon my discovery of talented Asian opera singers, I still am convinced that I am genetically predisposed to NOT sing.

But then I went to the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. The Spotted Cat is known for its almost exclusively traditional style jazz, from swing to Dixieland, and other brass-related genres from a era far past. One night in particular, I caught Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, a swing band with a comely female vocalist, clad in 1940's apparel, hair swept in an orderly chignon, with tattooed vines arching above her eyebrows. The musicians were proficient and her vocals were pretty, but more strikingly, she looked like she was having fun, smiling as her eyes fell on the dancers in the crowd.

She reminded me of the promise I once made to myself, of becoming Billie Holiday upon reincarnation. And that's when it struck me; I don't HAVE to die and be reborn as a woman who became a prostitute at the age of 12 and live a life of pain and suffering in order to sing (though it probably helps).

I mean, I guess I could just take singing lessons. Not for the purposes of ever singing in public, mind you. Just to be able to carry a note in the shower.

In a town like New Orleans, throw a brick and you'll hit a singing teacher. During an impulsive and somewhat feverish craigslist research session, I listened to a multitude of mp3's from various local voice instructors. I eventually came upon my future teacher, Maria, singing The Very Thought of You, and I liked it. Two days later, I am parking my bike in front of her quaint shotgun apartment in the Lower Garden District.

I like her almost immediately. Maria had been a jazz vocalist for twenty-some years, raised children, and at some point after moved to New Orleans by herself. In her late forties, there was a charming element of rebirth about her...lots of art on the walls, her own florals on canvas, and some Asian-inspired pieces from a different era. When I arrived she had just come out of the shower; petite in stature, her hair was wet and messy, but her white men's shirt was neatly fitted, and she wore heels, giving her a slightly disheveled but ladylike appearance. She tells me that she has only recently moved to New Orleans (4 years ago) which inspired her to sing again after years of dormancy. She sat at the piano and we began some voice exercises. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.

In those 45 minutes, to my surprise we learn that I have a range of almost three octaves, and that my pitch is good. We also learn that I have no power or tone and that I tremor out of fear--to put it bluntly I have a wimpy singing voice. She also tells me that my speaking voice is notably below my natural range. I am not surprised; as a result of hearing enough ear-piercing Americans blabber on the other side of some cafe or hostel while traveling overseas in my early twenties, I actively began lowering both the pitch and the volume of my voice. Though I eventually would learn to speak more loudly in public settings, this effort at bringing my voice down a note (or three to be exact) only intensified when I began to practice law and spoke in courtrooms for hours at a time on a daily basis, side-by-side with mostly male colleagues, in front of mostly male judges, representing mostly male indigent clients.

With this revelation thanks to Maria, combined with the scars of my karaoke past, I realize that I am carrying life-long voice baggage. Maria tells me I need to quit it. Partly for shock value, she shares the story of Walter Cronkite, who like myself, also spoke artificially lower than his natural range, and eventually developed nodes in his throat.

A few days later, after some amount of peer pressure, I accompany my good friend Suzy to Buddha Belly, one of the many local karaoke-laundromat-bars in town. Suzy is smart, professional, and dedicated to her work, and at the same time, the picture of an attractive and charming white Southern girl. But she suffers from an addiction to karaoke I've seen primarily in Asians. I watch her wobble on stage as she shouts out a damn hearty version of Megadeth's Master of Puppets, stomping her high heel boots under the colored lights, as someone walks past her with a basket of clean laundry.

And, in her wake, after a few shots of something strong and liquid purchased for me, I sing two of my favorites; Lola by the Kinks and Heart of Glass by Blondie. I laugh hilariously during and after each song, partly because of the alcohol and the good company, and partly because it is apparent that my voice training has not yet come to fruition. My voice teacher Maria has her work cut out for her.

On my bike ride home, I realize what a travail it is for me to try to sing, even if just for my own enjoyment. Despite having played instruments for over the span of about twenty-five years, never did have I truly and wholly attempted to hear my own voice, until now, when I have relocated to New Orleans.

In the past I have learned to do the things I am surrounded by; having lived under the roof of two book-reading professionals for eighteen years, becoming a professional was second nature. Later I surrounded myself with Alaska and all of its rugged beauty, and I learned to split wood, ski, and ice climb. And now, I have chosen to surround myself with music--live music, of the kind I used to only catch on cd's and special public radio programs. While I have no delusions that this immersion will make a professional singer out of me, I do dream that one day I will be able to belt out Stormy Weather, The Way You Look Tonight, and other classics, hitting all the right notes with the presence of only my dog and cats, with shampoo in my hair and water running down my back.

And until that magical moment happens, I suppose I can always catch a good jazz singer at the Spotted Cat.


  1. Kim, I really enjoyed reading this. Bev Cutler

  2. Personally I love your version of Lola :)


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