The Official Blog for Elaine A. Small
Monthly Archives: January 2011
Singing with the Jimmy King Trio in Winnipeg: Lenny Breau on guitar.
After years of braces to correct my “toothy grin,” as a young woman with an expensive smile and a love for the stage, it was finally time to pursue my singing dream: But how? Where? I was determined to find a way.
I decided to start with a change of scenery. I quit my boyfriend, my job and the hot city and headed for the hills: the Rocky Mountains and The Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada. This decision was based on information from my first singing teacher, Madame Carmichael—a jolly robust woman of Italian descent with a penchant for purple: monochromic layers that included the wallpaper, the sofa and a series of floral dresses in various shades of purple ranging from violet to puce. Her carefully coiffed hair-do was dyed a mauve-beige, replete with a purple bow to match her beloved miniature poodle, Mimi—who chronically occupied Madame’s ample lap and all of her attention, leaving little time for me and my first fragile attempts at singing.
“Ah, but I cannot hear you, my darling,” she would say, “You must sing out; you must open the throat; you must push out the lungs; you must take the deep breath—but first, you must find the note!”
“Okay, okay, I know I can do this, but can we practice it in B flat above middle C? It’s the only note I’m sure to find today. Here we go: mah … moh … mooh … mayh … meeh. There; is that better? Did I get it? Maybe now I can sing a song right through?”
“No, no, my darling, you cannot,” Madame said, distracted as usual, and shifting her monocle to her other mauve-shaded eyelid while searching for Mimi, who was now parked near the front door, panting to get out. “We know there are many more notes in the scale; we must find them all. Now, take the deep breath,” she commanded and the piano would loudly sound the chord.
But after searching for three weeks and “finding” only three notes, I knew I had to leave. I don’t have time for this, I thought. Twenty-one is probably too late anyway, but I must keep trying or my dream will die in the agony of one tremulous note. And so, with time and Mimi yipping at my heels, I found enough courage to march out of Madame Carmichael’s door into a musical future fraught with anticipation, high ambitions and deep resolve. With a positive mantra pounding in my ears (in B flat), a bullish determination was born. Now is the time, I thought. My singing dream must be fully pursued or fully dropped. I’ll have to find the right teacher!
The opening page of my memoir, Priests in the Attic, states: “There were seventeen priests at my father’s funeral.” Yes, that is where my story begins and in some ways that is where it ends—three hundred pages later. But all is not doom and gloom: in between the laughter and tears, highs and lows, there is a rollicking story that jostles its way through showbiz dreams, hard-won successes and devastating losses. Short-term hopelessness combined with short-term homelessness are all caught up in a restless, pseudo-yearning to be “normal at any cost,” to somehow stop “wanting it all” and settle for the status quo. But underneath all of the struggles, unrecognized for years, there beats the heart of a pilgrim, a spiritual being who is longing to be free of burning ambition and worldly desires—and therein lies the emotional reality and truth of my memoir.
In the early 1960’s, after four years of studying voice at the Toronto Royal Conservatory, I had a short-lived but successful five-year career as a supper club chanteuse, singing under my married name of Elaine Steele at the best hotels in both the US and Canada, including the Royal York and King Edward-Sheraton hotels in Toronto and the Ritz Carlton Café in Montreal. Those were heady, exciting days that eventually came to a screeching halt. Read on…
Learning to Sing
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
–Jalal ud Din Rumi
My Singing Blues
While working at my first job as an x-ray technician in Edmonton, Alberta, I initiated a childhood dream. The city was hot—too darn hot. There was little air-conditioning in those days and my nurse’s uniform soon clung like an airtight nylon sheath; freshly washed and ready-to-wear each morning, it stopped breathing by noon and by night it had to be peeled off like a wet condom. I was twenty-one years old, homesick and bored. I liked my job well enough, but I didn’t like my current boyfriend much. Most of my friends were getting married. In the late fifties, twenty-one was the expected age for girls to settle down—but not me. I wasn’t ready. I still had things to do. Emotionally and financially free, the time felt right; I was finally in a position to get serious about my long-held fantasy.