Once More, With Feeling: Singing in Spanish

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Saturday night, I did the scariest thing that a person can do.  I sang in public.  Not only did I sing in public, I sang poorly, and in Spanish.  I’m now confident that I can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

I have been taking voice lessons on and off for the past two years.  Like most little girls, “famous singer” was on my list of “What I Want to be When I Grow Up,” along with “In Living Color fly girl” and “first female president of the United States”.  The other two dreams died in elementary school, when In Living Color was canceled and people started considering Hillary Clinton as a possible presidential candidate.  But the singing fantasy lived on, and I carried it with me all the way to Buenos Aires.

A few of the girls in my jazz dance class were professional singers and teachers, and one of them agreed to be my vocal coach.  Maybe I thought that I could someday finance my travels by working on a cruise ship.  But for the most part, I just wanted to be able to sing in the car without my voice cracking or my eardrums bleeding.  And the answer is yes, you can learn to sing, or at the very least, to sing better.

As a student with virtually no professional prospects or aspirations, the highlight of my singing career is the annual end of year recital.  This year, I was to sing two songs – “Out Tonight” from Rent and “Mi Último Blues” by Celeste Carballo.  Musical theater suits me, and not only did “Out Tonight” sound decent, but I could get into it. Mi Último Blues” on the other hand sounded terrible on me.  I’m not being humble, just honest.  The song is well above my vocal comfort range, and I’m not exactly the poster child of soul.  But I didn’t care.  I was committed to singing both songs.

I am an above-average perfectionist with way too much pride, and I don’t like to do things in public unless I can do them perfectly. For a long time, this included speaking Spanish.  Ironically, this time it was Spanish that permitted me to make a fool of myself.

Everything feels more distant in a different language.  After three years in Argentina, I react to and speak Castellano fluently.  Mastering a living language is impossible, and of course, there are words, phrases, and allusions that escape me.  But Spanish has become incorporated to the point where I think in Spanish, unconsciously mix Spanish words and phrases into English, and sometimes have trouble recalling the language of a particular conversation. But no matter how advanced my oral and written skills are, Spanish is not and never will be my native tongue.

Sometimes, I tire of Spanish, of avoiding certain topics or stories due to a lack of vocabulary, of strangers focusing on how I talk rather than what I have to say, of not feeling completely at ease in my own words, and most of all, of feeling like my speech is not an accurate reflection of who I am.   In fact, when I speak Spanish, there is a disassociation and I transform into a silent observer.  I watch for, notice, and correct my mistakes, even if they are fewer than ever and bother me less.  I listen for new phrases and words.  I consciously place my tongue or form my mouth just so.  I speak on behalf of myself, in a second language.

I love the sound of Spanish, especially the melody of Argentine Castellano.  But I respond to English.  Lately, when I read a particularly well-written phrase or sentence in English, I catch myself running my fingers over the page or pressing the book to my chest.  Spanish doesn’t inspire me in quite the same way.

Conceptually, I know which Spanish words or phrases are good or bad, appropriate or vulgar, informal or formal, but they don’t provoke a visceral response the way that English does.  Recently, I had a heated discussion with the bank about the status of my account.  After hanging up the phone, the first thing I thought was, “wow, I argue really well in Spanish.”  Words lose weight as they pass through the language barrier.  Which is helpful for deflecting insults and offenses, but not great for meaningful relationships or emotive vocal performances.

What moved me about “Mi Último Blues” was the music.  As far as the lyrics were concerned, she could have been singing about kiwis and melons and it would have made no difference.  Maybe I had trouble feeling the song, but the disconnect created a safe space in which to sing. How I sounded was irrelevant, because it was all part of the act.  I was simply playing the part of an American girl singing badly in Spanish.
And I did an excellent job interpreting that character.

Results oriented, I tend to focus more on the final product than on the process.  But Saturday night, I sang for the pure joy of singing (which is the only real reason for doing anything). Who knew that disgracing yourself in public could be so much fun?

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