Louie CK does a bit about cookies at a party- he keeps sneaking back to take another, pretending to “rediscover” them every time. “Oh, look! Cookies! I should probably have one…” Bear said it reminds him of himself. Brenda said it reminds her of herself. It reminds me of myself, too, so I don’t know who all of the other people at that party are. The ones who aren’t taking the cookies. But I wanted to share a story about a time when this happened to me.
It starts during the time when I still didn’t know what I was going to be when I grew up.
When I went to grad school, my plan was to grab the Master’s degree on my way to the PhD, and head straight through to the end, where I’d be a professor in a foggily half-imagined future full of diplomas and a sense of quiet security. But then, a few months into grad school, I realized that no, I’d gotten the whole thing wrong, I wasn’t going to become a professor, ever. I wasn’t cut out for it. I didn’t have that drive that the other students had—that urge to burrow into a text, that finely honed focus. I wanted to talk in broad swaths, and I couldn’t ever make up my mind. I wanted to study big, wide-open topics, and I didn’t care if I never read in the original text. And worst of all, I was bad at theory.
So, with only half a year of my Master’s left, I had to scramble to figure out the rest of my life. Or at least a viable beginning for it.
My thesis advisor said, “Maybe you should try to write,” but before I listened to her, I decided to go to cantorial school.
I had been a lay cantor at my synagogue in NJ since I was a teenager, so I knew I liked it, and actually, I’d once been so sure I’d become a fulltime cantor that I picked my college for its music school and proximity to my synagogue, so I could work all the way through. I started college as a vocalist in the music education program, because I’d heard that a music ed degree was desirable in cantorial school. And then I was miserable. And I sat in a practice room after music theory class crying and writing a poem about the grand piano with its comforting bulk and its sharp, punishing teeth, or something. At juries, the voice faculty told me that my voice was not “bel canto” enough. I googled it. It meant “beautiful singing.” It was beautiful singing enough for the congregants, damn it! I thought bitterly. Then I went on a bitter walk in the rain.
“The cantorial influence is too strong,” said my voice instructor, an enormous, barrel-chested man with a red beard who sang with the New York City Opera and told tales of his own grandeur. “You have to give up singing at your temple if you want to be a true classical singer.”
I didn’t want to be a true classical singer. I wanted to sing haunting, ancient Jewish melodies. That was the whole point.
(singing Jewish music makes me feel mysterious and sexy, like this. source)
So an academic year after I arrived, I stood up and walked out of a piano test.
“I’m done,” I said to the panel of judges. “I quit.”