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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I had never wanted to sing. So, when my friend, many years ago, put the proposition of lessons to me, I immediately said no thanks. I don’t even sing in the shower, I told him. “No worries,” he replied, “you’ll be great.” He signed me up.

Our instructor was an opera singer. In our first lesson, she began by saying everyone could sing and no one sings off-key. She didn’t know me. She certainly didn’t know my dogs, who would wholeheartedly disagree with her.

We began with a warm-up. It was a yoga routine, which I later learned was called the Sun Salutation.

I felt an opening in my body that was exhilarating. Could this be the beginning of my voice not croaking? Was there hope? Was this the secret to singing no one talked about?

She gently explained that we would sing as a group and we would solo, but if we did not want to, we didn’t have to.

She explained where the voice comes from. She showed us how to project it with proper breathing. And she touched her forehead and ours to give us the target for pitch.

“No one purposely sings out of tune,” she said, “they just don’t know where their target is.”

The forehead was our goal but, like shooting at a barn door for the first time, the target – although huge – turned out to be elusive.

When I proffered a few notes, they sounded off in my head. They sounded worse in my ears. But then we all sounded off that first night.

When it came for solo singing, I took a pass. Until my voice was hitting my forehead front and centre I was not going public.

The others around me were game.

My friend with his blond hair and encouraging eyes grasped his tiny recorder and smiled. This was his group. His group of friends. His wife. A friend going through a rough divorce. Another couple. And me.

I marvelled at being a part of this group. A group that voluntarily was putting their collective spirits into relaxing their bodies, aiming their voices, and with some trepidation, stepping into the centre and being heard in the most intimate way I could imagine.

I was going to quit after the first lesson. On the morning of the second lesson, my friend called to confirm I was attending. I said I felt a cold coming on and thought for the group’s well-being I should stay home.

He and his wife picked me up at seven.

As we drove to the lesson, he said that I have a terrific speaking voice so I shouldn’t fear singing. His theory being a good speaking voice is a good singing voice. I was not sure there was a correlation between the two.

On the second night, my new favourite yoga routine passed quickly and much to my chagrin the singing started. In my head, I remember thinking we were like penguins on the ice. In a circle. Speaking in strange, melodic sounds that were slightly off.

The man who was losing his wife, not to another but to a relationship ennui that he did not understand, got into the middle that night. I remember his eyes were closed and, even though we were told to relax and let our lungs fill, his face turned red. And he gulped for air. But he gave it his best shot. It was courage that I have rarely seen. My friend slapped him on the back afterward and said, “Fantastic!” It wasn’t. But it was. You had to be there.

And so it went. Week after week. We would open our bodies and sing in a group and then move into the centre to try it on our own.

In each lesson, when it came time to solo, I invoked the right not to sing as laid out in paragraph whatever, sub paragraph something, point right there. And each time when the instructor would touch my shoulder and nod and encourage, I would shake my head and someone else would step into the circle.

On the final night, we sang Amazing Grace. We practised it as a group. Some got into the centre. Amazing Grace is a great shower song. The range is narrow. It can be sung high or low and everyone has heard it some time in their lives, in a church, at a concert, a protest or at a funeral. The instructor put her hand on my shoulder and I shook my head. I was invoking the never-in-your-life clause right to the end. And then I felt my friend’s hand against my back urging me in.

And so I went.

I have no idea what I sounded like, but I remember the smile on my friend’s face. It couldn’t have been any different from the smile he had when he watched his son take his first steps or walk across the stage to receive his diploma.

As I sang, I could see the recorder in his hand. And his twinkle. And it was okay if there was to be a permanent record of my voice. Everything was okay.

Two weeks ago, my friend took his life. We don’t know why. We don’t know if it was the detritus of the pandemic or something deeper that none of us had seen.

I am angry at him and incredibly sad. So much loss over the past two years. He shouldn’t be gone, too. Didn’t he realize that he was the anchor and not the boat?

In between trying to figure this out, this puzzle of missing pieces, I go back to those singing lessons so many years ago. I go back to the group of misfit penguins that he put together. Singing in a circle on the metaphorical ice; thick for some, thin for others. He didn’t collect us to make us into some group able to perform on a stage; he didn’t want to make us into anything really. He gathered us together because he thought it would be fun and, maybe, he saw in each of us a need for a dash of courage.

The incongruity of then compared to now is not lost on me. I see it and have felt it every day since. His gift all those years ago is now a piece of his puzzle. And while I might never find where it fits, I will never stop trying.

David Bannister lives in Calgary.

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