Sometimes a singer, like an actor with a particular role, has to study and practice and mature before his abilities match the technical and emotional demands of a song. And sometimes synchronicity presents a gift of a performing opportunity when the singer is finally, if unknowingly, ready.
And so it came to be on May 3 that I soloed with “Bridge Over Trouble Water” at the Unity Church in Lafayette, N.J.
Performing a solo, let alone the Simon and Garfunkel classic, was not on my radar when I arrived at church on Sunday. After some karaoke singing Saturday at Rainbow Mountain in Marshalls Creek, Pa., followed by not nearly enough sleep, I literally had rolled out of bed, showered and dressed before leaving my apartment in Montague, N.J., and eating a light breakfast while driving to church.. Since I had missed church band rehearsal on Thursday night, I was counting on an early arrival at 9:30 a.m. to warm up my voice and go over whatever songs were planned for the 11 a.m. service.
Then I saw choir director/pianist Rick Karabetsos in the parking lot, and he asked me how well I knew “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He was set to solo with “Bridge” and one other song for that service, and he wanted to know if I wanted to solo with “Bridge” instead. I said I knew it well, it was my all-time favorite song and, yes, I’d love to do it as a solo.
What I didn’t tell the choir director, as we went inside the church in the little time we had to warm up and rehearse, was my intense identification with the song and the difficulties I had with it as a singer.
A 1970 hit
I don’t remember the first time I heard “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I do remember working in the basement of my childhood home in early 1970 and hearing the song played twice on the radio in the space of three hours, reflective of it skyrocketing up the chart amid the other songs on the tight WABC-AM playlist. From the strikingly melodic descent of the opening piano chords and the alternately soft and soaring vocal by Art Garfunkel to the final hopeful high note of the violins, it cut through the dreariness of that February Saturday with songwriter Paul Simon’s message of love and friendship and support unlike any Top 40 song I’d ever heard – and I wanted to hear it again and again.
I wasn’t the only one who thought that way. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” went on to hit No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart and was the top-selling single of the year (second-biggest seller of the decade) on the top-selling album of the same name. The single won Grammys for Record and Song of the Year, the LP Best Album. Indicative of its lasting power and the intensity such power can evoke in an adolescent, it has remained atop my personal list of favorite songs ever since.
Lessons in singing
So it seemed natural that once I started taking singing lessons in 1980 at age 24, weekly lessons that would continue through 1992, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” would be on my short list of songs I wanted to learn to perform. Yet desire was soon tempered by reality. The original key was too high, and even when my teacher, Elizabeth Styres, played it in a key more suitable to my voice, the sustained high notes came out a little too pinched for the inadequate way I was supporting my tones at the time.
Still, love of the song triumphed over good sense, and I performed “Bridge” in one of the small recitals my teacher gave once or twice yearly in her apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. The results were less than stellar; even my parents noted that I was hanging on to the bottom of my suit jacket in a futile tensing effort to hit the heights of the song. Relaxed I wasn’t.
So I mentally filed away the song as one I would always enjoy in its original recording but probably never would sing in performance again.. Then, after the retirement of my singing teacher (at age 90!; she lived to be 102), singing lessons gave way in my life to other pursuits, and, some church singing aside, I mostly limited my singing to my commute and other car trips as I kept my voice limber.
A noteworthy year
But then, starting last spring, singing came back into my life in a big way – first via karaoke at Rainbow Mountain; then in the summer with the chorus of Delaware Valley Opera; and, in the fall, with both the Pike County Choral Society in Milford, Pa., and the choir/band of Unity of Sussex County. It was DVO director Jim Blanton of Port Jervis who suggested that I take singing lessons with opera singer Marshall Cooper of Matamoras, Pa., and it was Marshall, through his good-natured but constant drilling during our weekly vocal workouts since May 2008, who drummed into me the importance of proper support and relaxation of the throat.
It was tough to break old habits, and I think it will continue to be a struggle not to squeeze out the words and the tones of a song, but my voice has more range in its upper and lower registers, and the tones are all the richer for the way I now support them.
A ‘Bridge’ to remember
Thus the stage was sychronistically set for my church performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It proved to be an ideal setup: a small, bright-window, high-ceilinged, acoustically warm and attractive sanctuary; an accompanist who chose just the right key for me and offered suggestions on when to lessen my full-out approach; and a short warmup and rehearsal time that showed I was ready while allowing little time to get nervous. Additionally, I had signed up a few weeks earlier to read the Daily Word, which was scheduled during the service to be immediately before my solo. So I went right from the podium and the reading to the microphone and the song. Rick launched the sonorous piano intro, and I began “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
The opening was soft, and so were the butterflies in my abdomen, but I concentrated on drawing my support from down there, and they immediately fluttered away. So when I glided into the first soaring phrases, “Like a bridge over troubled water/I will lay me down,” they sounded serene and strong. As the assured singing continued through the second verse, I focused on the wall in the back of the room, varied the rhythm of the phrasing, smiled at times and let the empathy of the words reflect in my face. I noted the inactivity of my arms and let that pass; using my arms and hands to perform a song would have to be lessons learned on other days.
Came the third and final verse, the sotto-voce “Sail on silver girl” that soon breaks out of the musical density like a sunbeam through the fog to the ecstatic, elongated, repeated final lines, “Like a bridge over troubled water/I will ease your mind.” How often in the past had I reached for those final words, screeching out the lyrics, running out of breath, not knowing how to support. This time, it was smooth, vibrant, full-out, vocal sailing; the tones were secure, the singer confident, and the extended “mind” sailed out over the congregation, through the back wall and into the ether. Standing silent as Rick finished his accompaniment, I nodded to the congregation, nodded my thanks to Rick and headed to my seat in the front row.
That’s when it hit me. The applause. The extended applause. The extended, standing-ovation applause. Rick standing and applauding. Bill Smith the guitarist hugging me. Pastor Janice exclaiming, “He sits quietly in the front row each week – who knew?” And all I could do was grin and turn beet-red and cover my face in embarrassment and happy shock and notice that I needed a drink of water and would have to wait because I had left my water bottle on the altar and Janice had already launched into the meditation part of the service.
Later, after the service had ended and some congregants came up to congratulate me, after I had hugged Rick and thanked him for the opportunity, after I had embraced Janice and exited the church and gone out to my car and began driving away, I started singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” again – to see if I still had it in me, to make sure that the church performance wasn’t a fluke. And when the words came out as big and sure as before, my eyes welled up – for the beauty of the song, for the beauty of my tones, for the long-nurtured musical ability to help others feel the way I feel when I hear my favorite song, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It was a desire 39 years in the making, one that was unexpected and incredible in the fulfillment.