A Little Singing on the Side

Young Alicia Pyle practicing piano

            Earlier this month, Alicia came to my grandma’s 92nd birthday party at Saint Anne’s and performed some music for a captive but enthusiastically grateful audience. She was her usual charming and irresistibly adorable self, calling out for requests and, with only a couple exceptions, readily starting in on whatever title was shouted out.

            Ten minutes into the show, one of my uncles walked over to talk to me. He lives out of town, and this was his first time meeting Alicia, and his first time hearing her play. After saying how impressed he was with her in general (picture me, the proud boyfriend), he said, “Yeah, she can really sing.”

            I just smiled. For a second, I thought about telling him how Alicia brushes off compliments about her vocals. “Trinell Armour can sing,” she’d say. “Shannon Persinger can sing”—of course, Shannon has singer right in her name. “Sunny Taylor can sing.” Alicia on the other hand can play the piano; she just does a little singing on the side.

            But I really just wanted to listen to her playing, so I left it alone.

            As long as I’ve been going to APQ’s shows, my friends and family members—along with more than a few people I was meeting for the first time—have responded to hearing the performances by saying how good of a singer Alicia is. Each time, I’ve thought, well, her singing does sound really good, but the way her hands dance across the keys and the enchanting sounds they produce seem even more impressive to me.

            Maybe it’s because I can sing three or four songs myself (as long as I’m alone in the car or shower). Maybe it’s that I’ve heard her talk so often about the years of locking herself in a tiny room at IPFW for hours on end practicing the piano, while she almost never talks about learning to sing. Or maybe it’s that I’ve carried that damn 300-pound piano to and from her car so many times. But, to me, it seems like pure magic when someone calls out the name of a song and her fingers instantly start pouring forth the music.

            She obviously cherishes the opportunity to make all those nursing home residents happy too. The way she lights up the room while chatting everybody up is another type of magic all its own. It turns out some of her earliest public performances as a girl were at nursing homes in Fort Wayne and group homes in Huntington, where her mom—a magical woman in her own right—encouraged her to play. (One of the moments I began to suspect I was going to be in love with Alicia for the rest of my life was the first time she came to Saint Anne’s and decided to put on an impromptu concert.)

            Everyone who knows Alicia can tell right away she’s both humble and grateful to be doing what she loves. Far be it from her to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be enjoying in her music. But I understand her frustration, mild and unvoiced though it usually is, at people responding to the subset of her skills that was the easiest to pick up, while seldom mentioning the part she devoted so much of her life, so many grueling hours locked away in a cell, to mastering.   

            She’s explained to me she learned to sing mostly by imitating Diana Krall and Ella Fitzgerald. Her technique is what she dismissively calls “jazz crooning.” However unimpressed she is with it herself, though, she seems to be tapping into something. People love it.

            Or maybe it’s that people like the music in general and the singing is the only part they feel qualified to offer an opinion on. Most of us never get past “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano. (At five, Alicia spontaneously reproduced the Notre Dame fight song on a tiny keyboard without instruction.) But most of us have made it all the way through the lyrics of a handful of songs at some point in our lives. We all have voices; most of us can sound somewhat decent singing—as long as our favorite songs are on the stereo drowning us out to one degree or another. Singing is just the more accessible element of the music.

Aliica Pyle learning piano

            I think of this whenever she and I have one of our conversations about the balancing act of making a living through art. As you learn your craft, you simultaneously become more of a connoisseur, and your tastes naturally undergo refinement. But you have to keep in mind most of the people who’ll be consuming the fruits of your training aren’t anywhere near as sophisticated as you can no longer help being. Not many people these days turn the dial from a Taylor Swift song to listen to Miles Davis. Fewer still would likely be able to tell Bach from Beethoven.

            The solution Alicia and I tend to agree on consists of giving the audience what they want for our day jobs, and saving the more challenging stuff for our off hours. I write marketing content and magazine articles for a living, while I work on my novel on my own time. Alicia sings jazz standards and pop songs for many of her gigs, but some nights—when I’m really lucky—she comes home with me a little drunk from Cebollas and plays Rachmaninoff. We enjoy working at both ends of the spectrum, and we’re grateful to make a living doing what we love, at whatever level of sophistication. But it’s definitely nice to indulge in what we like most once in a while, instead of always playing to the crowd.

            I’d say this balance is much easier for Alicia though. Her mom was wise to get her playing for such a grateful audience at an early age. For Alicia, music is all about community. That’s one of the things I admire most about her. As a writer, I’m afraid I’m sometimes impatient with my readers, thinking they’d do well to read more Philip Roth and Hilary Mantel instead of getting stuck on the likes of James Patterson or Nicolas Sparks. Alicia on the other hand is energized by almost any type of music, as long as it’s putting a smile on someone’s face.

            If that someone is celebrating her 92nd birthday, all the better.    

            Now I have to admit I love Alicia’s singing too. We’ve discussed putting together an album of jazz standards, with just her playing the piano and, yes, singing. People would love it, I’m sure. She may even sell enough copies to fund a later album, one where she plays Bach and Rachmaninoff, which knowing her she’d probably fuse with some Duke Ellington or something. It could all turn out to be pretty amazing.

            Stay tuned.

Dennis JunkComment