On September 9, 1998, I got on a plane in Portland, Oregon headed to New York City, New York. I had a purse, a carry-on, and two large suitcases. I had a temporary place to stay in a women’s dorm on 34th Street. I had the possibility of two jobs. And a voice teacher.
I moved to New York City to study with a voice teacher. But not just any voice teacher, THE voice teacher: Cornelius L. Reid, whom I had met that March at the University of Washington.
I remember all of this like it was last week rather than twenty years ago. TWENTY! 2 0.
I was 25 years old and terrified. (I think perhaps I had seen one too many Law and Order reruns.)
But I knew it was what I had to do. I never really thought of it as a choice. I knew deep in my soul it was my destiny. That may sound overly dramatic, but truly that is how it felt. I could have stayed in Seattle, studied with my wonderful teacher, Julian Patrick, finished my doctoral dissertation and continued my life where I had family and friends. But once Cornelius offered me the opportunity to study with him, well, that was that. I knew I had to go. So off I went.
A friend picked me up from JFK and drove me to the “women’s residence” on 34th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, just before the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. My very small and narrow room (more like a cell for a prisoner, or more apropos, a nun…) faced 34th Street where apparently people honk their horns 24 hours a day (right in front of the “NO HONKING” sign, I might add. I always wanted to personally collect the $300 fine that was threatened). It had a bed, a sink, a desk and an ancient fan bolted to the corner above the bed- no air conditioning.
Since this was pre-cell phones, I went down to the lobby to call my mom from the vintage wood paneled sit-down phone booths with a little folding door. My phone card wasn’t working and I had to call collect. I burst into tears when I heard my mother’s voice. I had never been so far away from everything and everyone I had ever known for an indefinite amount of time.
But the next day I had my very first voice lesson uptown on 86th Street. So out I went into the crazy big city that I would now call home. The first thing I saw was a Starbucks, which made me feel so much better since it reminded me of Seattle. (Of course, when I ordered, I made the East Coast faux pas of asking for nonfat milk instead of skim, which the barista was quick to call me out on.) Cornelius was so smart to insist I have a lesson on my very first day. It made me get out of bed, forced me to leave the building, and immediately reminded me why I had uprooted my life.
I’ve written about this before, but it is worth repeating:
Cornelius saved my voice and by extension, saved me.
No teacher had ever been able to solve my serious vocal problems and, with the exception of Julian (Cornelius’ student), they always managed to blame me for my lack of improvement, rather than their technique or inability to teach me. But in all fairness, no matter what or how they had taught, no matter if they had been kind or not, my voice was never going to respond to their methods.
Cornelius opened a door to vocal freedom, to a new understanding of THE voice, not just my voice. That first formal lesson was so wonderful, so exhilarating. I knew I had made the right decision.
Before September was over I had gotten both jobs: a hostess at an Italian restaurant on 53rd and 7th and the position as a voice teacher at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I learned to ride the subway and how to hail a cab. I wore out a brand new pair of shoes in two weeks on the slate floors at the restaurant. I had moved out of the dorm and into my first apartment on the Upper West Side- my walk-in closet, as my mother so appropriately called it: one room with twelve foot ceilings, two windows and a shared bathroom (but hey, it was better than the dorm and only 4 blocks from Cornelius!). And I had a voice lesson five days a week. That voice lesson was my raison d’être, my touchstone amidst the exhaustion, the stress, the craziness of my new life.
I worked seven days a week that first year in New York. I went home that Christmas but did not go home again for another year. (I stopped looking at the map when they showed the entire country’s weather because there were just too many miles between me and my loved ones.)
Oh, but did I learn and grow as both a human being and as a singer. I started to truly understand my voice and THE voice and how it functioned and how it should and should not function. I learned to teach. I learned to be truly independent. I learned to love New York City. I learned to hate it too. (But that’s another post for another time…) I made dear friends. I made enemies. I met the love of my life.
Twenty years later, I do not regret my decision to get on that plane and change my life and follow my destiny. I never have and I never will.