When I was twelve, and my class was preparing for my elementary school’s annual musical performance, our teacher, Mrs. Janssen, pulled me aside. She wanted me to sing a couple solos, and even inserted a threat or two to get me to do it. “You have a wonderful voice,” she said. “And if you don’t do this I will fail you.”
An effective proposition for a twelve-year-old, I took the solos. I had range, then—could have hit both the low and high notes of any song we performed—but I could feel the low ones getting easier. My voice was changing, though unfortunately not rapidly enough for me to opt out of these performances. Eventually our class recorded a CD, where “Kiss Him Goodbye” can be heard in a charming soprano and “Good Lovin’” a flat and boring tenor.
This is the memory that arrives when I read Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat. I read about her morphing voice box, her sickness, her eventual obsession with the voice as a thing, and I’m taken back to memories of my own voice changing.
“My body had decided that once it stopped screaming, it had nothing,” she writes. But she is wrong about this. Though her theatrical performances may have kept her, for a while, from singing, she has clung to her voice. As a writer, she has given us a microscopic look at the Rebel Yell, the birdsong, the terrifying scream of a woman about to be stabbed in the shower. A scream she certainly knows how to discuss:
Like breaking a box of emergency glass to pull an alarm, when we make our voices scream, the beeline of serious air not only buzzes the famous cords that create speech and song, it also crashes into a second pair of flaps at the top of the larynx: the false vocal cords. This creates the grate that we hear in a screamer’s tone, a grate that articulates the rarity of its use. It says that a scream is physical work we should only force on ourselves at moments of ultimatum. That’s why we know to come running when we hear a scream.
March 1st, 2013 / 12:00 pm