Grace in the Studio

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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There is hardwood here, and I would like to slam my forehead on it. I can’t tell if it’s real hardwood, or the fake plastic stuff. Or linoleum that is printed to look like hardwood. A week ago I was told the apartment I was looking at leasing had hardwood—all, new hardwood floors. “Right,” I told the landlord, and winked. “So how do you get rid of the bubbles?” I indicated the significant warp in the floor, standing on it. The finish shifted like a deflating air mattress. “You’re going to fix the air pockets under the linoleum, right?” The landlord feigned confusion. “Linoleum? That’s all hardwood.” “Of course.” I winked again, a confidence gesture. “We’ll be in touch,” a statement about as solid as the floor beneath me. But, now, in the basement of an enormous Bellingham college house, miles from rentals in central Seattle, I am certain the floor is at least the plastic composite counterpart to real hardwood. But I’m no expert, a fact I am learning through repetition, about a hundred times a day, often enough to incite minor forms of self-abuse.

No Bono

Before me stands the greatest anxiety-inducing device concocted, next to the President’s Fitness Test: a microphone. The Pearlman vocal mic is for my voice, because I am a singer. Mostly I am a piano player; singing keeps me company. I started writing songs because that seemed like the thing for a writer and musician to do. It seemed obvious, like peanut butter and jelly in the same jar, or blankets with sleeves, or Heelys, or Alien vs. Predator. What I failed to account for was the last time I sang in front of people I was accompanied by other eleven-year-olds, as we all sang about the fifty states, in alphabetical order. When you’re a preadolescent in school choir, you’re thinking less about carrying a melody and more about how totally lame it is to broadcast the extent of your understanding of Manifest Destiny to the tune of “Oh! Susanna” for eighty parents who don’t want to be there either, and for the camcorder. Raised on music theory like I was raised on bastardized folk songs, the mechanics of songwriting came all but naturally. Voice, however, comes less naturally. Trained to understand music based on the keyboard format, mid-tones and the physical nature of music are entirely foreign concepts, and therefore make me easy prey. My deviations always exist in the paradox space between possible notes I can touch, with my fingers to black and white levers. The larynx is a tricky business; my diaphragm, its negligent master. Like faith and leasing, singing is a soft science. The voice is so much more psychological, so much more versatile in its arrangement. It’s about breathing properly, and visualizing the note, and pushing down with your abdomen, to the point that I sometimes wonder whether I’m dilating my larynx or a cervix.

Even This Is Joy

In the studio, my producer makes me sing every line 118 times, standard. With every take, I try to feel each note, with confidence. The process is that I will sing, sing until we have enough material that my producer can piecemeal the best takes—each syllable, if he has to—into a coherent, pitch-perfect song. Fact: a one-take wonder, I am not. And, it’s here, as I struggle to rein in my vocal folds, my diaphragm, and every other part of my respiratory system that thinks it can get by with whatever noise it can muster, that I find grace. While my body is attempting to perform at its peak, the music itself is elusive. Perfection is unattainable. Recording vocals is a long process, a process requiring patience due to irritating, off-key moments. I persevere, though, often on the encouragement of friends alone; often pushing onward, like a character in C. S. Lewis’s earnest afterlife novella, The Great Divorce, where, faced with a harsh, unyielding landscape, each must choose to contend with reality that tears through previous conceptions, or else forfeit back to an insubstantial existence. Melody is beautiful, if polished; otherwise, it is painful. It seems one must endure the pain to fully know the pleasure. The discomfort and embarrassment in deviating from the true notes give way to relief and delight when I can recognize and achieve the song’s melody. In Lewis’s heaven, the pleasure returns a thousand fold, stretching back to cover the multitude of deviations.

Chain of Grace – Big Finish

Watching my producer stitch together samples of my voice helps me relinquish a bit of my pride. The gaffs and cracks, with the rare fabric of true melody, are drawn like strings on a purse, to produce my singular best, retroactively. Though I am embarrassed, I am reminded of the inconsequential nature of my flaws, their frequency and their severity. Only the good will remain in the end. The human condition is a mess, yet God, in his unfathomable grace, manages to overlook that. Even the bleakest recesses of Lewis’s depiction—presumably plagued with hardwood-print linoleum—can be redeemed. So can my singing. Grace is a matter of synthesis, it seems. God takes the many moments of our lives and cinches them together to prove that we are better than we remember ourselves being. Photo by Kelly Langner Sauer. Used with permission. Post written by David K. Wheeler.