Sing from your vagina: An Ode to Mary Catherine Dykhouse

When I entered college as a freshman a few (Ha) years ago, I was afraid to sing.  Something about hearing my voice made me want to drag nails through my heart.  Then I met Dr. Shirley Barasch.  She taught, “Singing for actors” a mandatory class for all acting majors at my conservatory.  The woman was HILARIOUS…unintentionally, but still, hilarious nonetheless.  When I opened my mouth in front of the class, I’m pretty sure I made a mental note to launder my recently soiled unmentionables.  But, she followed my performance with kind words, a pat on the back and her token phrase, “Sing from your vagina!”  When the class finished, she encouraged me to pursue private voice lessons.

I took her advice and pursued a voice coach. Things went terribly wrong.  My first voice teacher assigned me songs from an era that I couldn’t relate to and a vocal range that made me cringe. After all, I still kinda hated my voice.  So, I told Dr. Barasch I wanted to stop and she got me an in with a well sought after voice teacher, Mary Catherine Dykhouse.

MCD, as I so affectionately called her, was a godsend…granted if she heard me say that she probably roll her eyes and make a smart comment.  But she was.  I spent the next three years in a small room with her and the occasional accompanist on the 6th floor next to the call board.  I often hesitated to sing “from my vagina” because her room was so close to the musical theatre majors and directors and the thought of them hearing me renewed skidmarks in my freshly pressed draws.

She helped me find my voice.  I’ll never forget the day I belted a high E flat with ease.  She looked at me, smiled and said, “Come over here.”  I walked to the piano and she showed me what I’d done and I let a Whoopi Goldberg a la The Color Purple size grin paint my face and she hugged me. Then, she probably said something to the effect of, “Okay you did good, now get over it.” I learned that singing was fun. I learned to discard the desire to run and hide at the sound of my own voice.  I learned to appreciate musicals, but that’s not what MCD encouraged me to sing.  She helped me whittle my torch and belt a song. I bought a book of old torch songs that became my bible.

I haven’t opened that book since she died.

She was to me what all-meaningful teachers are, honest, kind, and somewhat parental.  Listening to my money woes, she asked me to babysit her kids.  After college, we talked about my entrepreneurial hopes and she told me about grants and other organizations I should look up.  She counseled me on the Peace Corps. Two years ago, after a bad break-up I found myself driving through Pittsburgh and gave her a call to see if we could get together.  We played phone tag.  I had to leave town soon so we decided to catch up some other time.

I’d known she had been diagnosed with cancer, but it didn’t seem that bad.  I was still getting emails and Facebook messages consistently. Nothing seemed wrong.  When I found out she died I couldn’t help but feel failure.  “If only I’d made a better effort to see her.”  “Why did I wait so long to go back to Pittsburgh?”  I think about her often. Every time I sing along with my iPod I try and remember to, “…sing like there’s a beach ball in my throat…”

I miss her.  When I sing I want to cry.  I haven’t found that place where guilt is separate from her memory.  But I have to.  I’d like to sing again.  It’s a new goal.  Aside from finishing my Masters degree, launching a nonprofit, and maintaining my slippery grip on my sanity, I’d like to sing.  When the time comes –and it will come– I will remember that high E flat, picture that beach ball, sing from my vagina, and laugh in honor of my memory of Mary Catherine Dykhouse.

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