First, a disclaimer.
I don’t sing. By that I mean I don’t sing well. I mean I’d like to believe I’m not alone in enthusiastically belting “Let It Go” or even “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” only for the song to end earlier than I anticipated leaving me with the realization that I am, in fact, off key. I’ve more or less made peace with the fact that I’ll never grace the stage at Glastonbury or Times Square. So when I agreed to a group vocal lesson at Ponte Vedra’s brand new Lisa Kelly Voice Academy -- helmed by none other than former Celtic Woman Lisa Kelly herself -- I’d already accepted that no lessons could help me and at the very least my voice would be lost among others.
I was also prepared for my idea of what a Singing Institution would look like; dark halls, towering brick walls and windowless classrooms with sound insulated padding effectively eliminating any sense of space. So my expectations were shattered from the jump -- the Lisa Kelly Voice Academy is a charming storefront with one long studio room, for starters. I’m greeted by beautiful blooms placed just so, an adorable crystal chandelier and a motivational woodblock print. The walls are dotted with Lisa’s own platinum and gold record certifications from her time as a Celtic Woman and a Riverdance poster signed by the dance troupe I later find out she was once part of. So other than being in the presence of an obviously Very Talented Person, I feel like I can finally exhale for the first time all morning. I can manage this.
If the studio itself is unintimidating, Lisa can only be described as effervescent. She’s absolutely bubbly, voice tinged with joy, and hilarious to boot -- between her insistence on taking deep enough breaths so as not to pass out mid-verse and a cheeky warning to clench our hindquarters while singing, Lisa’s the most approachable instructor anyone could ask for. And she’s got style for days.
Thankfully, others trickle in -- though a few are understandably hesitant to sing and insist on “observing.” With the same infectiousness that disarmed me, though, Lisa is soon ushering them into the studio, too. She starts the lesson with a confession of her own; “Even though I’ve been trained classically, I’ve got to be honest. I love Madonna.” And whatever tension is left in the room automatically fizzes out.
We start with simple lessons in scales, reciting “AEIOU’s” and “AH’s” and even humming along with each key of the piano Lisa plays, voices steadily climbing higher and higher. I have to say, it makes all the difference to strain with others. We share knowing looks as we finally reach a note I can’t name, laughing and applauding one another’s efforts.
This is where I start to see the genius behind group lessons. By their very nature they eliminate the one thing people are most fearful of when performing.
“People are normally too afraid to sing in front of other people,” Lisa explains. “Singing is really all about confidence! I figure if you can learn to sing in front of other people, you’ll start to feel as if you can do anything.”
And weirdly enough, I do. So when Lisa passes around lyric sheets for “Oh Danny Boy” and we run through the first stanza as a group, after the warm up I feel ready to tackle real, multi-syllable words. With her assistance (with a voice not unlike that of a songbird), we master four lines with me nearly managing to hold a steady note. It’s actually pretty thrilling to put the breathing and annunciation exercises I’ve just learned to use. And after spending the better part of the morning singing with strangers, I feel slightly more confident.
So confident, in fact, that I don’t immediately hyperventilate when Lisa announces that we’ll each be singing two lines on our own. Like, completely alone. By ourselves. Solo. And as each student gives it their go, working down our short line, I feel a familiar shake in my hands. My heart is sounding the ominous beat of a warning drum. I half wonder if I’ll even be able to hear my voice crack over the blood rushing to my ears by the time I’m next.
In the past, being brought to this moment would’ve triggered a flight or faint response in me. I’ve burst into tears performing publicly before. It takes great effort for me to speak in front of a roomful of family, much less people I’ve just met. But today? Despite that fear, I feel an inclination to sing. Lisa’s encouragement was a sure factor, but an obligation to my peers, many of whom were facing that same fear, really set me over the edge. Being next to people who’d kindly reserved judgment no matter the level of skill. An unspoken agreement to try in earnest as long as everyone else gave it a chance -- and should a voice crack or a note sour, to never let that information leave the room.
And so, trying my hardest to remember Lisa’s tips -- breathing through the mouth, inhaling when necessary, shoulders back -- I sang. By myself. In front of people. Two whole lines (for what felt like two hours). And I felt good about it.
I can only walk away with the idea that maybe that’s the whole point; not to be the next Mariah Carey or Idina Menzel, but to work up the nerve to try. To want to get better and to be more confident.
And if that’s the case, I have to say: mission accomplished.
For more about the Lisa Kelly Voice Academy in Ponte Vedra Beach, visit www.thelisakellyvoiceacademy.com.