Artist of My Soul, Song by Sandi Patty
Sweat pooled in the hollow of my throat and dripped down my back as I waited for the bus. I was on an adventure. If I thought too much about it I would change directions and head home. My mom believed the library to be my destination when I ran out the door twenty minutes ago. The sticky hot August weather was signature Midwest for that 1968 St. Louis summer. If my mother had looked closely the extra care I’d taken with my appearance might have cued her that something was up, but as always, she didn’t notice anything about me. It was all for my big sister.
My sister, the oldest of four, was the most talented, the prettiest, and the unique one in our family. Even I, the youngest, had to grudgingly admit that she was special. She was a child piano prodigy and had been playing professionally since the age of seven when she could barely reach the piano keys. I used to listen to her play the Flight of the Bumblebee and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue while she was still in high school.
I took piano lessons too. After my sister showed her gift, we remaining siblings played the piano in the hope that lightning would strike the same family twice. It didn’t, but I knew I had a talent, if not as great as hers, every bit as special. I could sing.
Not like the choirs I’d hear singing in the Black gospel AME churches, where many of my friends attended that I would pass on my way to our church, the Catholic one. Not the deep, pulsing and loud sound, but one clearer, higher, sort of bell like and crystal in sound.
I saw the bus coming. It was now or never if I was going to continue my journey. I hadn’t told anyone about where I was going. I could still go to the library. I checked the newspaper in my hand one more time for my destination as the diesel fumes surrounded me. When the driver opened the door, I took a deep breath, made my decision and climbed aboard.
My single parent family didn’t own a car but after years of practice we were all quite adept at finding the bus routes that would get us where we wanted to go. I had never been in this part of town before but I knew I was near Saint Louis University. When I got off the bus, I walked a block and stood before the largest brick building, I had ever seen. The sign “Community Music School” was hung over the large front door. Again, I checked the address on the smeared newspaper. I had made it. I was at the right place.
I walked through the door and stopped. Now, white people don’t usually make me shy. My family was made up of Black cradle Catholics, not that common even today. I had gone to parochial school since Kindergarten and I’m used to being one of the few raisins in the oatmeal. This hustle and bustle of white men, women and young people however had me taking a step back.
A lobby that was bigger than my whole house had as its centerpiece the most beautiful curved staircase I had ever seen. The entrance buzzed with noise and activity. A long line of kids and grownups had shown up to audition for one of the coveted scholarships offered today. And not just singers either, I could hear violins, flutes, brass instruments and the sound of other different instruments as others warmed up.
I looked again at the newspaper article I had carefully circled. The notice was for all musicians. It didn’t say experienced. It didn’t say Not you, little girl, but I didn’t see anybody else my age.
I was giving serious thought to backing out when a sweet-faced lady looked up over her spectacles and beckoned me forward. I approached the large desk clasping my sweaty hands behind me.
“Are you here to audition?”
I nodded having lost my speaking voice and hoping my singing voice wouldn’t disappear as well.
“Do you have your music? She asked, “We have an accompanist.”
Of course, these people would have music. Of course, they would be prepared. I felt my face redden as I shook my head and prepared to back away.
“Oh?” Her smile drew me in. “Singing a Capella? Quite impressive, young lady. Well, you had better fill this out. They’re about to begin.”
I took the clip board from her and turned to find a place to sit and fill out the paperwork. I made a complete circle and faced her smile as she held out a pen somehow knowing I would not have one on me. Carefully as my shaking hands would allow, I wrote my name, address and phone number. I read the questions on the form:
How many years have you been studying voice?
hmm, Well none.
High, I think.
To sing. Obvious, right?
What selections will you be singing?
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already planned this but I was used to just singing. To the radio, to my mom, to anyone who would listen, when my mom was at work and when I was home alone.
But what song to sing?
I sang to all the long play albums of my family and anything I heard on the radio or TV. Listening to my sister rehearse I learned lots of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. Oklahoma! Carousel, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song and many others, but on this day, I could not remember the lyrics to a single song. I carefully wrote If I Had a Hammer which I had heard on the “Sing Along with Mitch Miller” program and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. I rushed to turn in my form before I could make myself crazy trying to pick other songs. Then I sat down to wait.
There was an auditorium and I heard snatches of others singers as people went in and out. I sank lower and lower in my seat. It never occurred to me I could just leave, they had my name, address and phone number after all and I was sure to get in trouble for signing up and then just walking out. So, I waited and was almost prone in my seat by the time they called my name.
I walked into the auditorium, down the aisle and stood in front of a table where sat five older people. I remember there were three men and two women. The women smiled at me, the men did not. Something took hold of me that day. I don’t remember what they said to me or my replies but I do remember straightening my spine, closing my eyes, holding back my head and opening my mouth to let the sound burst free. This I knew. This I could do and I was pretty sure I was good at it. The only question was, was I good enough.
There was silence when I finished singing. I opened my eyes. The room was the same, the people the same, their expressions the same. I thought disappointingly, nothing had changed. How could that be when I had felt the earth move under my feet. They thanked me for coming and I turned and left.
I took the bus home feeling dejected. I tried to raise my spirits by saying I had tried and would try again but it was no use. I had gotten the message. Unlike my sister’s piano playing, my singing wasn’t special, it wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t good enough. I walked a block, got on the Grand Avenue bus and I went home.
Days and weeks passed as I continued taking the hated piano lessons and singing when nobody could hear. I was glad now that I had never told my mom about the audition. Time passed and I had forgotten about “The Community Music School,” sure that they had forgotten about me. Then on a Friday after school the phone rang, I picked up the phone and an unfamiliar voice asked to speak to my mom. Mom spoke for a few minutes. I wasn’t listening and was surprised when mom turned and handed me the phone.
A strong voice introduced itself as Mrs. Mable Henderson a vocal coach from “The Community Music School”. She was interested in helping me but I was at least two years younger than students she normally took. Mrs. Henderson had been classically trained and over the next months she showed me a world totally new to me. She introduced me to other Black voices that sounded like mine. Matilda Sissieretta Joyner, Leontyne Price and Jessye Mae Norman to name a few. I learned why I didn’t hear voices like mine at the AME church. I had a voice made to sing Opera.
And so began a relationship that would last my two years of middle school and all through high school. Mrs. Henderson was so much more than my vocal coach. She was my first life coach showing me a world beyond inner city St. Louis. My family believed in education; Mrs. Henderson believed in learning. She believed in using all your talents and senses to become the best “you” possible. Music was my solace, my balm when things were hard, and my one constant no matter where life took me.
I remember a class when I brought in a piece of music I loved and couldn’t wait to sing. I knew getting her to let me sing it would be an uphill battle. It was a “pop” piece and I knew she had no great fondness for the style.
Looking at the music Mrs. Henderson said, “This piece is all wrong for your voice.”
I begged, I pleaded.
“I know I can sing it. I’ll sound just like the artist who recorded it. I know I can do it.”
She finally agreed to let me try if I followed her lead. Anxious to sing the song I agreed. She worked with me and in the end, I sounded nothing like the artist. She explained her job was not to make me into another Dionne Warwick; after all, the world already had one. Her job was to help me bring my own unique style to the song. Stamp it with my own technique, my own sound and claim it as mine. She helped me develop and fall in love with my voice. She showed me the vocal range I could achieve. How to “play” with the sounds I could create. How to wring the emotion from my heart and put it in my song so others could travel to where ever I was taking them through the music.
One summer, home from college in Leavenworth, she shared with me, for the first time what happened on that muggy August day after a nervous thirteen-year-old auditioned at The Community Music School. She told me she knew then it could change my life. When I left the room, she said the judges looked at each other and agreed on two things: first, there were others who were more talented than I was, but second, they had never seen or heard someone who wanted it so much.
To this day, thanks to the decision I made those many years ago, I still have a song in my heart. I have Mrs. Mable Henderson and The Community Music School to thank for helping me give it voice.