Silent swan song

Off the Beat

I was a singer without a voice.

I’d been coughing for weeks. It was just days before my final performance with the Orange Coast College Chorale, and my stubborn cold wouldn’t go away.

Previously, I’d spent many years as a secret singer. I would rarely even sing in the shower — the echoey ambiance made we worry that someone would hear me. Finally joining a choir at age 21 felt both liberating and terrifying. I wanted to sing but feared how people might react to my voice. I knew when other people were out of tune, but could I hear myself? What if I was awful? It was a relief to receive positive feedback from peers and teachers during rehearsal. And my first public vocal performances were with the OCC Chorale — no matter how sick I was, I couldn’t miss my grand finale before I transferred to UC Berkeley.

I was too sick to sing in this last concert, but I still wanted to participate. The show had to go on, and I would be in it. I decided that I would lip-sync à la Ashlee Simpson on “Saturday Night Live,” but hopefully in this case no one would realize what I was doing.

A few days before the show, I announced to one of my English classes in a ragged gasp ravaged by coughing fits, “I have a choir show this Saturday. It’s going to be great.”

I hacked again, feeling feverish and achy.

“I can’t sing, but you should come. Lots of good songs.”

They wouldn’t have been able to hear me, anyway. I didn’t have any solos. And when you’re part of a vocal ensemble, you’re meant to blend with those around you rather than stand out. So I continued to hype up the show. Six family members agreed to attend.

I also knew that without having to focus on the notes that I wouldn’t be singing, I would be free to express myself however I chose. I’d always admired the singers at my school who could perform with serene, soulful expressions on their faces. They’d mastered the art of smizing — smiling with your eyes — while singing. I worried that I looked blank and unemotional when I sang, in contrast to how I felt internally.

I resolved to augment my lip-syncing by smizing the shit out of my final OCC Chorale concert. We were performing a program that spanned several moods, eras and genres. It was to be a glorious, silent swan song, one that would call upon every ounce of soundless expression in my face and body — silent-era Greta Garbo as a community college choir singer.

I think I overdid it.

When we sang an old-timey, barbershop-style medley of two goofy tunes — “Coney Island Baby” and “We All Fall” — I knew I had to commit. The only thing worse than a whole-assed barbershop performance is a half-assed barbershop performance.

I hated both songs but hammed it up nonetheless. And in addition to ham, the song demanded cheese. I served it right up, gesticulating, posturing, showing every emotion in the lyrics on my face, lack of theater experience be damned. Metaphorical ham, metaphorical cheese, my whole ass and an epic smize — quite a show. And I was still struggling not to cough.

When we sang the mournful but ultimately triumphant “Psalm 23,” a musical setting of a passage from the Bible, I communicated the emotions of the piece on my face. I tried to channel as much spiritual energy as possible, despite my lack of religion.

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy “Psalm 23.” It flutters. It soars. It’s full of hope and beauty. It’s a love song.

I wanted the audience to join me on that musical journey. My prominent eyebrows certainly helped. You’ve seen that raised-eyebrow expression for sad, sincere singing — Justin Bieber has mastered the art. Strong brows plus smizing? Lip-syncing gold.

Later we performed Rollo Dilworth’s arrangement of “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” a Black spiritual that predates the Civil War. And I. Felt. The. Damn. Spirit (of music).

I mouthed the words (yeah, I still wasn’t singing because I physically couldn’t) even more enthusiastically than in the previous songs. My face flushed with genuine joy — not the theatrical joy from the barbershop medley. And I swayed and boogied toward the end, when the whole chorus danced and clapped along to the beat.

The show ended. I exited the theater, basking in the afterglow of the concert.

Soon I convened with my family and gave them a whispery explanation of what they’d witnessed. They complimented my energy, my tuxedo, the passion that I’d radiated across my face. They didn’t seem to care that I hadn’t sung a note.

As I stood with my family, soaking in their praise of my Oscar-worthy (or Grammy-worthy?) lip-syncing, an elderly woman ambled in front of me. Very old. Very short. It took time for her to shuffle past.

At some point during her journey from my left side to my right, the woman looked up at me. She stopped and said one quick sentence, punctuating her remark by pointing at me for emphasis and then continuing her slow walk through the post-show rabble.

“You were in it.”

Yes, I certainly was.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.