Inside every amateur singer is a Callas or Pavarotti struggling to emerge. I had been singing in choruses most of my life, and whenever I forgot myself and ceased to blend, I was rebuked in no uncertain terms. ``There's a laser beam in the bass section,'' our director would say. ``If you can hear yourself, you're too loud.''
One day I decided enough was enough. I would escape from the tyranny of the chorus and study to become a soloist.
``All right, begin,'' said Samuel Samoff, who had toured the country at one time with a small opera company. I worked my way up the scale: ``do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.''
He grimaced, doing his best to hide it. ``You must breathe from the diaphragm, not the chest. Relax. Now try again. And smile!''
Singing, apparently, was a form of exercise and had a lot to do with posture. You stood straight, held your head high, neck back, made a fish mouth, and directed your stomach muscles to fire. If aimed correctly, your voice bounced off the roof of your mouth to glissade in twin paths down the concave slopes of your cheeks, emerging in a single liquid cascade of sound.
``Beautiful!'' Samuel said. ``Really very good.''
It was amazing. Why had no one taught me these little tricks before? Letting your stomach swell while shooting your breath out was a process that challenged nature, but it was effective - like turning on a hose. If the hose pinched a bit on ``re'' and ``mi,'' it opened up again on ``fa-so-la.'' ``Ti'' was spray, however, and ``do'' no more than a dribble. Still, it was a start, perhaps even the beginning of a new career. What surprised me was how loud my voice was.
At dinner that night I entertained our guests with song. Starting ambitiously high, I had to take the low road when the high section of ``O Sol e Mio'' began, but the point was made. There was voice here, a force to be reckoned with.
The human voice was like an iceberg. I had been satisfied with the surface. Now I would explore the vast untapped regions. But I must be careful. You don't use a fireman's hose to fill a fish tank, or a turkey baster to empty out a swimming pool.
``Control,'' Samuel said, reinforcing my newly formed views. ``Singing is control.'' Air supply? Of course. Larynx at ease? Indeed. But control? That was the key. The uncontrolled voice, I discovered, behaves much the way a balloon does when you release it: It flies all over the place and ends up behind the bookcase.
After two months of lessons, I felt both more secure and more apprehensive. I had discovered that my repertoire would be limited. My range was barely two octaves. Bidu Sayao, the Brazilian soprano, had a remarkable four. Most people who sing professionally have 2- 1/2 to 3. I growled on the low notes and cracked on the high. What would I sing?
`YOU can extend your range,'' said the mellifluous Samuel Samoff, ``by two, three, even four notes. But you must put in the time.''
Put in the time, for what? I thought. Was I planning to quit my job?
``Why don't you try out for the summer concert?'' my wife said. It was to be a lighter-than-usual affair, consisting of sentimental and comic songs of 19th- century Americana. There were choral works but also some solos. All right, I thought. That would be a start.
``The Horticultural Wife'' was the name of the piece - the only one not already spoken for. Written by ``A Celebrated English Gardener After Disappointment in Love,'' it was a silly song but easy enough - four middle-register notes, up and down the scale.
``About half that loud,'' the director said. ``And pay more attention to the phrasing!'' At least I was in the show.
As the concert approached, I became more and more nervous. Finally, I went to Samuel Samoff. ``Yes, yes,'' he kept saying when I finished the song. ``Support is there. Breathing. Posture. Yet there's a flatness of tone.'' He looked at me intently. ``You must learn to sing from your toes.''
``From my toes?'' I queried.
``You have seen the great Pavarotti? You have noticed how he stands, tipped slightly forward? Do what he does. Hold up the handkerchief. Concentrate. Open your mouth and take a deep breath -
from the diaphragm, not the chest. Close your eyes and smile. You will feel it. You will become a vessel, an organ pipe, a conduit of smooth tubes. The master himself said it, `Singing is from the toes.' ''
It was the evening of the concert. ``The Horticultural Wife'' came late in the program, and by then I was a wreck. It's one thing to sing in a chorus, but quite another to be out there by yourself - at the mercy of the crowd. What if my voice cracked? What if....?
Suddenly, I was on. The conductor raised his baton. Smiling, I shut my eyes, leaned slightly forward holding up my handkerchief, and concentrated on my toes:
``She's my myrtle, my geranium,/ My sunflow'r, my sweet marjoram...''
Laughter. Quite a bit of it. Although the words were tricky, I felt myself begin to relax. After all, it was supposed to be amusing, wasn't it? And the voice. As Samuel Samoff had predicted, I had become a vessel, an organ pipe, a conduit of smooth tubes.
As I sang - stretching higher, higher - the laughter increased.
``Like a wat'ring pot, I'll weep,
Like a pavion, I'll sigh,
Like a mushroom, I'll wither,
Like a cucumber, I'll die!''
The place was falling apart. I glanced at the conductor. He was smiling. Apparently, I could do no wrong.
As I came to the end, I had to give my all just to make myself heard.
``I've a great mind to make myself a felodese,/ And finish all my woes on the branch of a tree,/ But I won't, for I know that kicking she'd roar,/ And honor my death with a double encore!''
The applause was thunderous. Swelled unto bursting, I bowed in acknowledgment of success ... and stepped back into the chorus.