Singing Lessons

So that was the year that I finally bit the bullet and won a great battle against the fears of my past. I started singing lessons. I pushed past all the irrational thoughts, all the worries still lying in the background about what would happen if I learned something from someone else in a traditional and structured way. The old fear from my school years still lurked in the background – that if I were to commit to lessons something inside me would die, that I would lose my identity everything that went with it.

But I wanted to learn how to sing better. I really wanted it, so badly that it beat all the phantoms in the background. And so I went out and did it.

How did I decide where to go? As usual I was very scientific and rational about it. I figured I should go only to places I could reach in a single bus ride. After searching for a few possibilities (and going to a few music studios) I finally settled at Replugged Music, an independent and very professional outfit. (they’re still there by the way!) Plus, it was at Bugis Junction, right next to the arcades! It sounded perfect.

I never ended up going to the arcades even a single time.

I arrived at the door and was received by a very nice lady by the name of Jasmine Siew. She asked me what kind of musical experience I had, what were my favorite songs etc. And that was where I received the clearest sign of the Divine that I have ever gotten in my whole life. After asking me what music I liked to sing, and me hemming and hawing a bit and giving the standard answer of “well actually I like to sing anime songs”, she smiled and said “ah, then you must like Evangelion.”

Fuck me with a spoon. It couldn’t have been any clearer had the heavens lit up and a flaming sign marked TAKE SINGING LESSONS HERE appeared. So I started lessons with Jasmine, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

She was a great teacher but it was no cakewalk. She was the harshest of taskmasters (or should I say taskmistresses?) There was little to no praise. I had to mark out when and where to breathe for every song. If there were any mistakes we had to go back to the beginning – either that or work on the mistake again and again until it was corrected.

It was tough – beyond tough, really. I ended more than a few lessons with needing to eat IMMEDIATELY afterwards, then going back and sleeping IMMEDIATELY after that as well. But we didn’t know what we were up against. There were issues (there were always issues) far beyond just phonation and proper posture. I was not just learning to sing – firstly, it was not as if I did not already know how to do that! My issues were not so much technical as they were emotional and spiritual. Learning to sing better was sometimes like fighting the Devil himself.

It wasn’t Jasmine’s fault. She was a singing instructor, after all, not a therapist or a priest. I don’t think she ever knew (though I suspect she had at least some clue) as to what lurked beneath. She did the best she could and that was considerable! She drilled me in the technical aspects of singing very well indeed, and gave me a foundation that remains to this day. She was dedicated and motivated (if somewhat harsh at times) and it showed.

Plus, Jasmine being Chinese-educated herself (and some of her methods being very like the teachers of my childhood and youth) was another stumbling block. Despite having done her university degree in Australia (like at least half of Singapore) she often slipped back into Chinese when she wanted to express something or she got excited (which was often) It wasn’t easy to deal with. I experienced the reflex tightening of my limbs and muscles whenever I heard it and that was NOT easy to deal with. She could also be really quite demanding and critical and sometimes I wondered whether I should stop lessons and find someone else.

Why did I keep going? I think it was because I trusted her. She had such passion for her art (whenever she would even talk about singing this light would come into her eyes) and it was obvious she cared a great deal about my own progress. She even told me that when it wasn’t lesson time she would still be thinking of Kain and how his singing was and what he could to improve it. I figured that I could do worse than someone like that.

The greatest problem that neither of us could have seen then was the sheer amount of unreleased physical tension I still had inside my body. As any singer will tell you, when it comes to singing, your body IS the instrument. I had literally decades of stored grief and anger and pain in there, never let loose. Singing-wise, that was a recipe for disaster.

It was actually this that drew me to singing despite early flirtations with drums and a serious interest in the guitar. When your body is the instrument, you cannot lie to it. All your insecurities and difficulties will be revealed to you even if you don’t want them to be.

There was something else at the heart of it as well – something amazing and eternal. It was a siren song that pierced through the darkness and not knowing what it was I used to simply say “I really love singing!” and it was true. I think all singers know what I am talking about. There is a resonance that goes through you, deep and profound and powerful. It cannot be put into words but it most surely can be put into song.

The lessons continued. I learned about singing from the diaphragm (which I already had some training in from the choir singers in the KHK) I was taught about the soft palette, opening the throat, standing properly, posture, proper phonation and more.

Singing became for a time the centerpiece of my life. I talked about it (and by extension Jasmine) so much that my sister thought I was romantically interested in her. I wasn’t. Now as I think back on it I think it was more that she represented something to me, that she was connected to my singing and what is meant to myself. And it’s pretty common for students and teachers to forge a close bond.

Two and half years passed – not all of which were pleasant. I retook exams. There were times I was so worried and ill that I couldn’t sing at all. The turning point came when I had failed my second set of exams for the second time. The dam broke and she really gave it to me.

She scolded me pretty harshly and told me what I was doing was wasting my time and hers. I practiced but didn’t improve? Was I even practicing properly? Applying myself? What was I doing? I still remember her face, pointed and almost fierce, saying “I only tell this to people who can really sing.” I had prepared my reply while she was talking, all politeness and deference and clearly worded answers.

Except that that didn’t happen. I opened my mouth to speak. I began to explain, but then, I began to cry. And cry. And cry. This wasn’t your usual “boo-hoo, I’m so sorry.” This was therapy level, bawling your head off, full throttle waterworks, snot and coughing. I worked through two boxes of tissues or so. She was quite taken aback, to be honest (I don’t blame her!) and she started off by saying “don’t cry, don’t cry” which later somewhere along the line changed to “cry, cry if you have to.”

Singing is a very emotional experience. You don’t get to the good part – in fact you don’t get to ANY part – unless you let yourself feel. And in those ten minutes I felt a lot – perhaps more than I have ever felt outside of games, anime, family and therapy. It was a huge breakthrough for me, and I am eternally grateful to her for being a part of it.

It explained so much about my singing as well. For years I was only able to sing happy songs (funky anime songs, old ragtime, that kind of stuff) and action-packed, “heroic music” well. (mecha anime theme songs, battle music etc) As someone (I think it was my mum?) once remarked “if it’s not the champions of justice versus the forces of darkness, you’re not going to listen to it” to which I replied “exactly.” Not to mention I was still struggling with that complex of JP SONGS ONRI and how I only sang Anime and Game songs and Nothing Else.
No sad songs. I would try to sing them but only manage a muffled and strained rendition at best. No love songs either, though I did marginally better on those.

You don’t need any psychology to understand that. The sadness and other things had been buried underneath. I was comfortable only with the light, and not the dark (though I could channel that somewhat in other ways, but most definitely not in singing.) You can’t sing what you can’t feel.

So I told her about my family (to some degree) and my depression as well. She listened and nodded and smiled sympathetically, and then told me a bit about her own life.

I will never forget that moment when she told me about having a concert the next day and sitting in her room in at twelve in the morning, being completely unable to sing a note, and how she said “can you imagine that? can you imagine what I must have felt?” She looked up to a ceiling in a way that I thought only I ever did and said “maybe you can.”

Like I said, it was a huge breakthrough for me. Others must have gone through what I had gone through, but in different ways (and perhaps to not such extremes) I felt such sympathy and compassion for this woman who had like me gone through so much for her craft and her art. Sure, I was in pain but that didn’t mean she hadn’t been at some time either.

After our talk I was both embarrassed and exhilarated. She began then to tell me about God and her conversion experiences, which actually I was still a bit leery off, given my past negative experiences with Christianity. I think she felt that and backed off. We had a last short chat and she refunded me the rest of my term fees (which was very decent of her) and I left.

So I stopped singing lessons. In a life filled with guesswork and uncertainty, that stood out as another clear decision point. There was no way I could have continued on in that condition.

But I had learnt a lot. And grown a lot. In trusting Jasmine, I had in fact regained some of my trust in the world itself. I had healed the wounds of receiving instructions (and it being good) and Chinese (and Chinese people) not being horrible and terrible. Other people felt like me, fought like me. The same light that blazed within myself shone in others. Like most really important things, a lot of that I did not realize that until much, much later.

Luckily this story at least ends on a happy note, and I do not need to talk about how all this happened but I never got a chance to say thank you…because I did. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, (yes I use that phrase a lot) I looked her up about a while ago and said at least some of what I’ve written here. She was in China because of a recording contract and happily married.

I think that had I never gone back to singing, never took those lessons, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. I always saw myself as more of a writer than a singer but now I question if that’s really true. Singing is physical in a way that writing is not. It opens the body – it opens you to your own body. Writing is always more of an intellectual activity – most writers don’t run around writing, they sit down.

When I think of music in general and singing in particular, I’m always reminded of Lucia in Eternal Blue as she tries and fails to soothe a newborn to sleep. As the steward of the Blue Star, she possessed untold magical might, and she is still awed by how a simple lullaby from the baby’s mother can do what she cannot. “A song? What mysterious power…” she whispers, and she’s right. Music is something more than just sound, tones and scales – it can be a vessel for our very soul.

I think Kaoru Nagisa might have put it best in the first words he ever spoke onscreen. “A song is good. A song brings us joy. A song is the highest culture that the Lilim have created.” Hey, if you can’t trust the Eighteenth Angel, who can you trust?

Try singing if you haven’t. Right now, really. Go ahead, hum a few bars – it can be anything you want. Don’t worry about how you sound, no one’s listening…and even if they are, you don’t need to care about what they think. Go on. No time like the present!

Feel the rush of air from your throat, the gentle sensation of your breath, how your tongue automatically comes down to make way for the sounds you’re making. Sing loud, and then sing softly – sing high, and then sing low. Don’t just sing either…listen.

Hear that? That’s the sound of your voice – a sound that you and you alone can produce. Because when you phonate (that’s the fancy technical term singers use to describe singing) sound is produced from your lungs and rises up to your larynx, travelling across muscles and tendons, bouncing off and around all your bones and cartilage. Each person’s body is different – therefore each person’s voice too, is different. What you just heard is completely and utterly unique to you. Enjoy it.

For me, when I sing anime songs – Super Robot songs in particular – it’s like my heart explodes with the fury of the sun. My muscles tremble, I shake with excitement, and I feel strength pour into my limbs from places unknown. I see images – anime openings from times long gone, dragons wheeling in the sky, searing flames that scorch encroaching shadow, flowers blooming in fields of lights…and more besides. Much more. I feel light and energized, powerful. Mighty, even.

And yes, I’ll admit it – sometimes I get WAY too into things and I have to calm down. But that’s just another lesson to learn…balance. There’s a reason why Domon Kasshu needs to learn Meikyoushisui before he can master the Super Mode of G Gundam. And as Rom Stol would say “Yami aru tokoro hikari ari, aku aru tokoro seigi ari.” (Where there is darkness, there is light, and where there is evil, there is justice.) Sometimes my voice cracks, sometimes I run out of breath, sometimes I miss a note, and yes, I’m not too good with remembering lyrics. But I remind myself that I’m human…and I keep on singing.

What would life be without music? Without song? Deadly boring, that’s what. Over the years I went to less and less karaokes and resolved to practice what Jasmine had taught me. It wasn’t easy. All that tension and criticism was still there. She once told me that she could hear the self-condemnation in my voice when I sang and boy was she right.

But I pressed on. I had been given a precious gift – more than one! – and I would not waste it. Slowly but surely I began to improve. It was definitely a matter of two steps back and one step forwards but it was happening.

The last breakthrough (which was only a couple of years ago) was when I told myself that anything I sang was only successful if I had fun singing it without any tension. It didn’t matter about the technique. It didn’t matter about the quality. Only the fun mattered. If I sang it properly and didn’t enjoy I had Failed. That helped immensely.

From the late nights during the worst years of my life where I sang one anime and game song after another, to the all karaokes with my friends and of course the KHK, I think I’ll probably sing till the day I die. And I’ll always owe Jasmine a debt of gratitude for opening my voice to me.

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