Refinding my voice

The Villager, 2017

It was the Friday after the terrorist attack on the Hudson River bike path and I was shaken up. When I got back from work, I felt exhausted and debated whether to attend the “Sing Time Sessions,” a weekly vocal workshop I’d recently joined at Westbeth. It’s a lot of fun, so I pushed myself to go downstairs to the community room.

We’re working with a fantastic voice teacher, Eve Zanni — a neighbor in my artists’ complex — and a great piano player named Isaac Raz.

After singing and doing vocal exercises for an hour, I felt rejuvenated. That Friday, Eve suggested we stand for the closing number, dedicated to the eight victims of the Oct. 31 attack. We all rose and burst into “We Shall Overcome.” I got choked up.

I had forgotten how much I like singing and how good it makes me feel. No wonder Eve calls the group the Bliss Singers. In December we’ll be performing holiday tunes at events in the community room, including a Hanukkah song in Spanish.

My earliest memories of singing are harmonizing with my family in my father’s ’51 Chevy as we rode to the Jersey Shore. My mother led the vocals while my father drove. We even did rounds like “Row, row, row your boat.”

My father was an English teacher who played sax in a swing band, but his main instrument was piano. He gave me lessons in our living room on the upright piano from his childhood.

We always gathered around the piano to croon Christmas carols as Dad played by ear.

Whenever we’d visit my aunt’s house she’d knock out a manic version of “Our Lady of Fatima” on her spinet and we tried to keep up the pace. Music was a big part of my life growing up.

During high school in the ’60s I sang in the glee club, run by this crazy nun who insisted we do “The Ballad of the Green Berets” in our spring concert. (Never mind that most of us opposed the war.) I also was an alto in the school-church choir. I loved Midnight Mass. We belted out “The First Noel” walking up the aisles with candles in the dark in church. I also sang in a smaller church choir with my sister.

After I stopped piano lessons, I taught myself guitar and wrote protest ballads and performed in the high school talent show — the highlight of my senior year. I wanted to be a female Dylan.

In the ’70s when I lived in a hippie house in New Jersey, we formed a group called the Rock

Hill People’s Liberation Band. We practiced at night after dinner and played at parties with guests sitting in. We had guitars, bass, drums, piano, even a sax. We did a lot of Grateful Dead.

Around that time, I became a rock reviewer for several publications and this continued for decades. I pushed the music writing after I moved to New York City in 1975 and my performing fell aside. I was more focused on writing about music than actually making it.

I still have the guitar from the band in my loft in the Village. I also have an electric keyboard. I don’t play either very often. Now I’d like to get a ukulele. I dabble on the keyboard, trying to learn hymns we sing at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village. Different than what I sang in the Catholic Church.

The bulletin has the sheet music and I’m grateful I can read music so I can follow an unfamiliar hymn. I was pleased when I finally got “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Negro national anthem. I love its sweeping range and quirky beat.

But other than at church, I hadn’t raised my voice in song until I joined the Bliss Singers at Westbeth. I’m thrilled to be back in touch with singing. And hope to get back to playing.

I had a horrible year in 2017. My mother died unexpectedly, and I got stuck with an awful schedule at my teaching job. Trump is still president and crazier than ever. Music has healing powers and this workshop was my reward for getting through another grueling week.

We’re learning standards like “Blue Skies” by Berlin and Gershwin and pop classics like Carole King’s “Up on the Roof.” About 15 to 20 people show up every Friday to get our bliss on and start the weekend on a high note. When I leave the room, I feel elevated and recharged and ready to resist.