Henry Purcell and Voice Potato (New York, 1995)

By Michelle Railey

Her head was shaped like a potato.

Back up, you say. Who is “her?” And what kind of person points out that a woman’s head is shaped like a potato? Are you a monster?

I sure try not to be a monster. I tried like hell not to see a potato or Lon Chaney in the shape of her head, but I could neither vanquish nor control my eyes.

She was my New York voice teacher. And it was suspicion at first sight. On my part, mostly. I still couldn’t tell you what she thought of me, although the word “release” would figure in there.

Her head was shaped like a potato. I met her. I had no say in which voice teacher I would have. I would not have chosen her. Not on sight. Not after two months of lessons.

She was not for me.

The first thing one noticed about New York Spud was the shape of her head: distinctively potato shaped. Thin hair. Small eyes. And, while her head created an involuntary initial reaction recalling Judy Blume’s Blubber — my god, it’s a potato! —the issue wasn’t her appearance, which could, given adequate human relationships, have grown on me or on you, on anyone. Unfortunately, Voice Potato, well…

No adequate human relationships. In fact, weirdly, for a voice teacher, not even very much music.

Voice Potato and I met, twice weekly in a borrowed New York apartment with a piano. It was the Ansonia Building in New York. The lobbies were marble; Kelsey Grammer lived there (we were told). Single White Female filmed there (we were told). Kathie Lee Gifford had voice lessons there every week, too (we were told). None of these things were impressive. But the building was lovely. The walls were plaster. The lives lived behind the walls, innumerable. The mail drop: well, bronze, and like forty stories. From the edge of Central Park, you could see the Dakota, and past that, the Ansonia. It had a doorman. And a past. And, twice a week, it had Voice Potato. And me.

In a borrowed apartment. For voice lessons.

Voice Potato (I have wrangled and overcome my guilt about the head-like-a-potato thing because, as voice teachers go, I believe she was inadequate. She could have had a perfect head, a non-tuber head, and still her voice lessons would have lacked both voicing and lesson-ing. So, guilt be gone.)….

Voice Potato spent our hours per week requesting that I rub my feet every day (here’s a diagram of reflexology; pay attention to the base of your big toe…). She made me pick up pencils. For the entire lesson. (So many pencils on the floor. Pick them all up…don’t forget one. It’s excellent for the diaphragm.)

She taught me the Sarnoff squeeze to defeat anxiety: press your hands together in front of your stomach very hard. Yul Brynner did that before every performance of the King and I. Allegedly. According to potato.

Your head is shaped like a potato.

Voice Potato then requested, round about October through December, that I relive the trauma of “whatever it was” that must have damaged my jaws.

(Interlude: I know I’m from the Midwest and I must be a terrible rube, but I thought in those voice lessons, we might on occasion sing. And learn music. I thought, perhaps, you might train my voice to reach from three and a half octaves to four. I thought, maybe, you might help me enhance my volume. I thought, perhaps, we could build my repertoire and work on my theory. I thought, in fact, we might work on my voice. But look, there’s a pencil. And, my psyche is actually pretty good, thanks, although I do have TMJ. And you, Voice Potato, have a head, god help me, shaped like a potato.)

I picked up pencils. I did my best to control the automatic grimace and gag reflex involved in foot rubbing. I, with my weird stomach fetish, gamely tried to perform a Sarnoff squeeze without placing any hands against any mid-body-parts. I did not try to invent a big trauma to damage my jaws. But I never pointed out that we might actually want to use the piano and sing sometimes.

I tried, but failed, to not be horrified that my student loan dollars and my youth were being spent on…what is this, exactly? I was homesick. And young. And I always felt stupid. Perhaps I misunderstood, in my inexperience, what “voice lesson” meant?

Ooh, there’s a pencil. And, well, it looks like the base of one of those toes is my kidney? Or spleen? Where’s my larynx?

I don’t really like touching my own feet…

And, hey, I’m super grateful, Voice Potato, that you let me rehearse stupid Henry Purcell “let the snakes drop, drop, drop” for an entire two rehearsals before I had to perform it in front of a panel.

Do you suppose that they could tell that I couldn’t muster the strength to massage my own feet for three months straight prior? Do you suppose the panel could tell I picked up pencils for an hour at a time with gritted teeth? Do you suppose they knew that I knew your head was shaped like a potato? Maybe, just maybe they hated me for that the way I hated me for that.

But I really would rather have spent my young tender months doing voice lessons that involved vocalizing; the Purcell is optional (as only Henry Purcell can be).

The borrowed apartment was not like Midwestern homes: apartments in the Ansonia had strange rugs on the floor and hung on the walls like art. There were bookshelves in the entry, the kitchen. There were ficus trees and banana trees and indoor plants that looked distinctively outdoors. While I was picking up pencils, second to singing, I wanted to be investigating these strange apartments.

People live like this? Exciting, exotic, non-Midwestern.

Alas, there was no time for singing, not in the singing lessons, anyway.

There was no time for anthropology of Manhattan Ansonians and their bookshelves; their inexplicable tropical plants; their “how do you live like this” teensy kitchens and plaster walls (drywall, where are you?) and living rooms…

There were never family photos…even picking up pencils and watching Voice Potato rub her feet, I could see: there are no photographs here. Just a banana plant and Potato’s nylon-clad feet.

New York, 1995 will always be, to me, a waste of time: a longing to sing (unfulfilled). A lack of practice rooms. Banana leaves and reflexology charts. And an inability to look at potatoes without thinking about my voice teacher.

Purcell takes at least three weeks of prep, Voice Potato. Everyone knows that.

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