Monday, January 23, 2012

Finding My Voice

When I was a junior in high school we were putting on the Wizard of Oz at my school. My friends kept pushing me to audition. Meanwhile I wasn’t a singer. Sure I sang onstage at our local community theatre but only when it was needed. I wasn’t a vocal superstar like many of the young women that would be auditioning. I wasn’t a favorite of the drama teacher either so I had opted out of doing any and all fall plays. However, I had a TV Show on Public Access and wrote for the local paper. People knew me as creative and artsy but singer I was not.

“You would be perfect!” My then best friend Michele Zalak said.

“No.” I put my foot down and continued walking to class.

Upon coming home my mother had heard at the supermarket check out from the mother of some girl we both hated that they were staging the Wizard of Oz at the high school. My mother, desperate to put this woman in her place while trying to make me fit in asked, “Why don’t you be in the musical? Be a shrub even. Make your mother proud.”

I told my mother my schedule which included weekend acting classes and stints as a supermarket bagger did not allot time to impersonate shrubbery. However, she was not backing down. Finally I agreed to talk to the choir teacher Mr. Kuczawa about the musical. We agreed if it was a good experience I would audition and be a shrub at the very least although my goal was the Wicked Witch. If not I would make other plans.

The next morning I made my way down to the chorus room. Along the corridors it seemed like an alien forest. My brother had played football, the known enemies of the band. While my dad had a melodious singing voice that sang solos in his choir, a group that made a record, the gene seemed to skip a generation. My brother tried sax and animals almost attacked. While my sister was a ringer with the Middle School Bells she wasn’t lead ringer. I could carry a tune and did my best work in the shower. It was all the fault of my tone deaf mother, the lead alto hummer in her Catholic Grade School’s spring cantata.

“Hi, You don’t know me.” I said seeing Mr. Kuczawa. He was a man in this thirties with strawberry blonde hair, a semi-square build and a huge smile.

“That’s quite alright.” He said laughing which actually put me at ease.

I introduced myself, said I was interested in the role of the Wicked Witch, and told him although the Witch didn’t have to be a singer/singer she still sang and I wasn’t as good vocally as the others. I have no idea why I gave him that info, I am afflicted with the too much information bug. Mr. Kuczawa put me at ease telling me not to be so hard on myself, his students sang everyday therefore they had practice. Immediately I was put at ease. The can’t was taken out of my vocabulary, something that exists all too often in the mind of a young person. Mr. Kuczawa invited me to audition and told me he was looking forward to seeing me and what I could do.

I was pleasantly surprised by the encounter. I went home, told my mom I liked Mr. Kuczawa and would be auditioning. I knew no matter what happened it was going to be a good experience and I was going to be treated fairly.

Two days later I auditioned. Apparently it went well because I got a callback. It was an awesome feeling but I still didn’t have the role yet. My competition could all sing rather well which scared the crap out of me. I readied to learn the song enlisting the help of my sometimes eighty something year old voice teacher Jean Beiswenger. An old operetta diva, Jean had the eyesight of Ray Charles but had his musical year. At the end of two sessions I was ready to go. Still, these other girls had voices that had the depth and range of the Pacific Ocean.

The day of the callbacks the auditorium was tense. Each candidate running their lines and their routines through their head. While it wasn’t Broadway you could have sworn it was. Each candidate was vying for Fame, each for a spot on The Chorus Line. I didn’t care either way. To me it was a surprise I had gotten that far.

It was my turn to sing. Stepping up to the piano I started to sing “Jitterbug” complete with the broom I was given. The auditorium laughed. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and returned to my seat. Suddenly my heart was beating and the game was on. I looked at all these favorites who were so sure the roles were theirs, and for all I knew at the time maybe they were. But I was going to go down fighting for what I was rightfully good for. I knew I could act. I knew I was funny. Maybe I couldn’t sing like they could but I could sure as hell sell the role better than any ten of them. If the world were fair I would get it. Then again was this particular world fair full of favorites and divas? I told myself no but I would leave slugging.

Afterwards, a now ex friend of mine turned to me and said, “April, you were crazy, whacky and made them all laugh but lets be honest. You didn’t get it. It’s probably going to Sandra or Erica.” She explained. This was because they did the double casting in my district. At the time I wasn’t aware this so-called good friend, jealous that I had done well, was trying to sabotage me.

Another friend turned to me and said, “It’s in the bag April. It’s yours. You were so good.” I didn’t know who to believe as I stepped up again and did the acting portion. I took a breath, asked God for guidance, and knocked it out of the park. The auditions continued and then I went home.

I told my folks I thought I did good. Whether or not I got it had yet to be seen. In the two days as they were deciding who got what I sweated. I went from just doing it for the heck of it to now wanting it more than anything in the world. Then the other part of me knew the game. Sure I might get it, sure I might not. Either way it had all been a good experience. I had fun. Yes I dreamed of coming to the city, the Great White Way, winning awards for my talents. But they were just dreams and stars out my bedroom window, stars and dreams that might never be realized. Many tried but many failed.

An acting teacher I had at the time was realistic. Most of the time when one auditioned for colleges of their choice, top acting schools, most kids didnt get in. They took a hand full. It was about pure talent, looks and luck. Then again that was this whole career, this whole dream, I might as wel get used to it capital NOW.

The next day everything changed. I was in the Post Office with my mother when we saw Mrs. Reid, one of the teachers who helped with the musical.  She taught our whole family thus far as the eighth grade music teacher. While my brother and I were reluctant students doomed to make Beethovan die once again my sister was an able part of her bell ringers. I wished her a Merry Christmas to which she replied, “You will have a Merry Christmas. Just check the website.” She said referring to the place callbacks were posted.

"Did I get it?" I asked out loud. At seventeen I could be quite bold. Still it was a fair question, did I?

"Oh you will have a good holiday. Just check the website." She winked and off she went. A round lady built like a lemon drop she had a knowing smile and twinkle in her eyes as if she knew something I didnt. Little did I know my life was about to change forever.

“Do you think I got it?” I asked my mom getting in the car. My mom shrugged and home we went. That night I checked the website and sure as night I got the Wicked Witch of the West! My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it. This had been totally fair. This had not been about favorites at all. They had picked me because I had done the best audition! They saw past the politics and such. Not once had my mother sewed costumes and I had never sold a single band hoagie. My mother instructed me to call my dad and to do the happy dance we did.
The next day at school one of the girls who didn’t get the witch complained to her friend in chemistry, “I am a better singer than April Brucker! I don’t get it.” While I did want to tell her to choke on it the other part of me wanted to tell her she was correct. This woman and many others were better singers. For some reason I was chosen. That led me to another conundrum, the song needed improvement. Oh gosh this was going to be crazy. Then it hit me, I was actually going to have to sing!

Rehearsals started and immediately it was as if I was an interloper to a subculture unknown to me, The Band Kids. The first week it was as if they had their inside jokes and nicknames for each other. I didnt have a nickname. If anything my friends had been the ones who cut band class as they listened to dark and brooding music. Treating me with an air of suspicion as well as unknowing they skipped me on the list as they sent someone with a car to do the Starbucks runs. Part of me didn't want to know any of them. I was going to do a good job and this was going to be it.

 However, the ice was soon melted when walking across campus I saw Mr. Kuczawa who joined me in a between class jaunt on our open campus. Being the chorus master, he began to tell me how to take care of my voice as long as I was going to be using it for musical. Part of me was stunned that he was taking this time with me, while the other part of me was seeping up this knowledge. As long as I was going to be singing I might as well get to know this. Mr. Kuczawa didn't care that I hadn't been in the music fold my whole life. I was in his production now therefore I was a part of the family. As someone who had felt like an outcast and misfit her entire high school career for once I felt a sense of belonging. At the time Mr. Kuczawa saw something in me and was willing to give me a chance to show it. He didn't care about the complaining from the rest of the folks about who deserved what. He was fair. At that moment I decided that he was alright in my book.

The rest of the musical cast was still not as sold on me though. For the first two weeks they barely spoke to me unless they had to. It seemed it bothered them that I was friendly with the football team, in part because my brother played and I knew their parents. Not to mention again, there was no nickname or inside joke. Actually, they hated my guts because instead of one of their friends in their clique it was me. Here and there I tried to melt the ice but eventually I sort of gave up. Througout high school I had always been an outsider and that was okay with me. Change was scary.

Then the first musical rehearsal came. I had gotten used to playing by ear. Musical notes on the page looked like an unknown code. I was not familiar with the tune and had a semi-breakdown band in tow. Mr. Buetzow, the band leader, smiled and patiently told me to try it again. Dedicated, the man often was seen in the school parking lot on a ladder with a megaphone so he knew his music. I didn't. After a disasterous try all were relieved we still had months until opening.

Sitting in a corner I was close to tears. Whatever was I going to do?  After a the disaster one of my cast mates pulled me aside and asked, “Do you know how to read music?”

I shook my head no. I had no clue. Smiling, he patted on me the hand and helped me understand which each and every note meant. At that moment he was joined by another one of the leads in the cast as they broke everything down. This new gesture of friendship changed everything. At that moment it occured to me that I was making myself an outsider and I didnt have to be one if I didnt want to. Plus I needed to learn all I could about music and pronto. These kids had been All State Chorus, All State Band, All State Orchestra. If there was one thing they knew it was this. I was foolish not to friend up because just as much as they needed me to be a good bad witch I needed them to help me understand all this.

That’s when things began to shift. As I started to ask my cast mates questions about music, something they were all passionate about, things changed. When they saw how hard I was working not just on the Wicked Witch character but to learn the music I earned their respect. I went from being apart from to a part of. Soon I had a new group of friends. I got a nickname, Bruckie. I was included in the inside jokes, the Starbucks runs, the plans of the after parties after opening nights. It was like this wall had been knocked down. When I walked in the hall both Mr. Kuczawa and Mr. Buetzow always said hello to me like I was one of their students. I was comfortable with my new identity.

As a bonus the kids in the orchestra pit bonded with me as well. I went from being afraid of my musical number to being comfortable and eventually knocking it out of the park. After each try I got high fives from the orchestra pit and a thumbs up from Mr. Buetzow. In the back of my mind, although I was still dreaming of my name in lights, I began to know I could do this with myself for real. People began to talk about how I was doing good work and putting in a lot of effort. Many of my cast mates told me while they had been singing their entire lives they wish they were half as ballsy as I was. I told them if they gave me their vocal range for Christmas I would be a happy woman.

At the time we also had elementary school kids who played Munchkins. I bonded quickly with them and they always told me they had a hard time being scared of me because they liked me so much. In between scenes we would play cards, talk and they would tell me about what was going on with them. They would also tell me what a good job I was doing. Although it wasn't my teachers it was still reassuring seeing that opening night was oh so close.
My parents also saw the change in me. They remarked that for once I seemed happy and I belonged. In addition they saw that I was excited. In turn my parents were especially excited as well. My mom made buttons of me as The Wicked Witch of the West for our friends and family members to wear on opening night. My father told his family members that during half time, his term for intermission as a throw back to my brother’s football days, that they could take photos. Of course my Aunt Peggy was especially stoked seeing that The Wizard of Oz was her favorite musical of all time.

When opening night came, my night, it was a smash. My parents were proud of me and so were my cast mates. By that time we had grown so close as a group that it was electric. We were more than characters in a play, actors in a costume, singers with a song, we were a family. And as a family we performed, we went onstage and at the end of the show we took a bow knowing we all had a role in a rip roaring performance. When the show ended we were sad it was over because we had bonded so much as a cast. Whenever we walked across campus we would do bits and pieces of the show and still do to this day when we see each other. I also knew that if I needed to talk there were three teachers with doors that were wide open. Sometimes, when you are seventeen that makes all the difference in the world.

The big victory was that I wasn’t afraid to sing anymore. I proved to my family members I could do this with my life and my dad, the hardest sell, told me if I wanted to do this for real I would have to go to NYC. While it was a dream suddenly I had the confidence to follow that impulse, that passion. When the fall came the following year Mr. Kuczawa wrote me a letter of recommendation that perhaps was the best in my admission packet for NYU. Sure I nailed my audition, I got in. However his letter probably swayed members of the admissions committee to not only know that I was a good performer but a ready and willing learner. When Mrs. Reid found out she gave me a huge hug and told me how proud of me she was. Mr. Buetzow told me when I graduated that spring he knew they would hear great things from me in years to come.

Almost ten years later here I am. Although I do not sing as well as some of my former cast mates who have gone on to perform opera, I am confident in my stride as a vocalist. And to my cast mates who are opera singers in training, I have nothing but respect for their abilities and know how much talent they truly have and how much work they truly do to care for their voices. The irony of my status as a nonsinger is that I deliver singing telegrams, a job that requires me to sing always and often. In addition I have sang live with bands and orchestras. I also have gone on to record music, make music videos and recieve radio air play. To me music is that kid who has a school boy crush on me, it might never work but when we meet he always brings out something in me and makes me feel better about myself.

Even though many of the kids who passed through band, chorus and orchestra don’t go on to become musicians they are better people for having done it. Some become music teachers because they were so inspired. Others take part in community theatre or church chior. They know a good song, how to read music, and have an enriched mind. At the very least they know they can do anything they put their mind to and know how music doesn't just change the world but brings people together.

That is why when people want to cut funding from music education it makes me absolutely ill. As I can brag about singing for the Saudi Royal Family and get ready for my taping for CBS sports I think of all the fan mail I get from young people telling me how I inspire them to follow their dreams. Everytime I go on facebook it is a message from a new young person telling me how they dream of coming to New York like I did and how they look up to me. At that moment I am left to question, who inspires me? Who spotted something in me when I didn't see it in myself? Who gave me the courage and the power to turn my dreams into reality?

It started with the rumor of a role I was good for, a trip to the chorus room, and the beginning of a journey. A journey that not only shaped me as an artist but as a person, one that helped me find my voice. I still remember the three wonderful teachers that helped me on my way.  They all are penned in my acceptance speech for my big award someday. I will never forget their names.  They are Mr. Kuczawa, Mrs. Reid, and Mr. Buetzow.
Love April

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