That time I made that Dreaded high note my B*tch

I’m coming off my bask-in-the-glow-victory-lap after closing a successful production of Little Women at a local community theater. This whole show (and the months leading up to it) were rife with stresses, but the entire production ended up being a testament to hard work paying off, in a variety of ways.

Allow me to tell my tale.

It begins in May of 2019, when I finally decided to do some research into Little Women because it was coming up in a few months at the community theater I frequent. I really only had mild interest in it, as interest in a classic novel adaptation felt more or less mandated for me as an English major. It was still very far away, too, with the show scheduled to open in November. As my friends were discussing the shows they wanted to go out for through the rest of the season, I decided it was time to do my final rounds of show research and make my picks, too.

At this point I listened to the soundtrack a bit and enjoyed it. Deciding I’d at least try out, I made the OBC recording my go-to driving soundtrack for a while and made a start on getting through the novel.

Really, the role I enjoyed the most upon my first few listens to the OBC was Marmee. (Fun fact: I was always typecast as the mother/comedic old woman role when I was in high school, so these roles tend to jump out at me first.) However, I’m obviously many years shy of being able to play that role, especially alongside other actors in their teens and 20s. I didn’t really know who I’d be auditioning for at this point.

Flash forward to the summer, where I’m told in passing by another actor, “you should totally audition for Jo!”

I’m a huge Sutton Foster fan and I was a high school theatre kid at the peak of “Astonishing as an overused audition song” popularity, so frankly I considered Jo entirely out of my grasp altogether. Hearing that passing comment suddenly made the possibility of being Jo click in my mind. The more I listened to the soundtrack the more I wanted the part, and then I watched an OBC bootleg and I was sure. From then on, I had a mission.

At this point, it was still July. I had at least 3-ish months before auditions would be held, most likely in September or October. Assuming auditions went well, there would be another several weeks before the show. I had about 5 months to prepare myself to take on what had quickly become a dream role.

I was a very annoying person to have in our theatre group chat for the next few months, talking constantly about preparation. I warmed up my voice daily. I read the entire 600 page novel. I watched the OBC bootleg video multiple times and watched some other recordings from community theaters and schools. I found the entire script and vocal score on Scribd.com, and went through both in their entirety.

An important note about this vocal score: I noticed, from my first perusals, three things. Though Jo’s range is listed on many sites as extending to a C5, this note is actually predominantly for special comedic effect during the song “Could You”, not some hidden juggernaut high note lying in wait to jump me during a harmony. This placement in the show means the note doesn’t really have to be pretty. It can be the grossest head-voice squawking you can muster, which was a relief for me, a lifelong alto who has always struggled with anything above D4. A second relief was that all of Jo’s harmonies were very low, and easily within my grasp. The third and most profound relief came when I realized that the high notes in “Astonishing”, which I had never been able to hit back in high school, were actually just D4s, which were now easily in my range. In fact, I was coming off another performance where my highest note was a D4. I was fully prepared for this! I’d just have to flex my upper range and head voice skills to manage that C5 and I’d be golden.

You might already see the chink in my armor now. If you can’t spot it yet, just wait, we’ll get there.

So, I prepare, prepare, prepare up until the day of auditions finally arrives. I prepare more all morning. I’d chosen “The Fire Within Me” strategically as my audition song (songs from the show were permitted) because I assumed “Astonishing” would be the callback song, because, duh, and “Fire” would allow me to show off all the acting and researched personality choices I’d created for my take on Jo. Now, I’m not sure how well these came across in practice, but it worked well enough, and I got myself a callback.

Cue panicked preparation for callbacks. I already knew “Astonishing” well. Included in the callback materials was the song “Could You” as well and some scenes to read.

At this point I believe the aforementioned theatre group chat considered muting me altogether.

On the day of callbacks I woke up at 8 or 9 AM, went for a jog (if you know me at all you’ll know what a trip that is– I don’t do that), and then promptly got to warming up… before noon… for a callback at 6 or 7 PM.

I had a last-minute brush-up lesson with my voice teacher around 3 or 4, wherein she ran both songs once with me and then told me to “shut up” and stop rehearsing or else I’d blow my voice out and have nothing left for the callback. So I shut up. For a while. Sorta. (Not in the group chat, though.)

I tell you all this so you can get exactly how much I desperately wanted this role. It was my biggest aspiration for months, at a time where some things in my personal life were kinda falling apart. I don’t want to say anything as bleak as “it was all I had left” but it was THE thing I was throwing my energy into for months and if it had ended and I had wound up with nothing that day, I’d probably have been pretty badly effected by it.

But spoiler alert: I got the part.

Callbacks went as well as they possibly could have. I mean, I’d been preparing for 5 months. There was literally nothing more I could have done to prep. I did as much as a person could do. I was calm. If I didn’t get it, then it simply was just not meant to be at this point. And there were some other really gifted performers there for the same role, so I couldn’t be too upset either way. That non-self-celebratory confidence, funny enough, is rather Jo March, and worked very well in my favor, I think. A story I’d pass on to my middle school students after the fact is that the director almost forgot to have the women there for Jo sing at all, which I have chosen to take as a testament to how I acted the part during the earlier reading portions of the callback and at auditions days before. (Or maybe she just legitimately forgot. I don’t know, but I do know which one makes me feel better about myself!)

I basked in that glow for some time. I told my therapist that I actually felt like the entire rehearsal process was, at this point, sort of a victory lap– almost like the hardest part was done and like the rest was just going to be enjoyable.

And I mean, that was sort of true in the respect that I generally enjoyed rehearsals overall, but man is Jo a beast of a role. 315 lines (I counted) and singing in something like 13 of 20 songs. Luckily I was pretty well rehearsed on the songs by day one due to listening to the soundtrack so much during my prep period, but the lines took me up until tech week to nail down. Even then, I missed a bunch during the show and no one told me until after closing. Whoops.

Despite nailing “Astonishing” at my callback, it would, as I’d come to realize, become one of my biggest hurdles.

You see, while the score I found online was correct for every other song, “Astonishing” was a half step lower than the actual MTI-licensed libretto. Sutton Foster sings it in the correct key on the OBC recording, but it’s not uncommon for these changes to occur between OBC and licensing versions, so I during my prep had assumed that recording was just incorrect. And, funnily enough, the version of the sheet music provided to us at callbacks was in that same lower key. I had no reason to think I wasn’t 100% prepared for this role vocally, beyond the fact that it was simply a lot of singing to stay on top of and maintain vocal health.

In fact, I didn’t notice the difference at all until the week before tech week. Every other time we ran the song, I sang it off-book, because I pretty much knew it from years prior. I never even looked in the libretto to see the key and the fact that the notes were in fact Ebs and not Ds– when I missed those notes in rehearsal I wrote it off as a bad day vocally or the fact that I wasn’t warmed up properly, and went on my way. Without realizing it, I made it the whole way to the week before tech before I wondered, “hey, why can’t I ever hit that note?” and checked my libretto. And when I saw the note was an Eb4, as I had celebrated that it wasn’t, I almost lost my mind.

As I said, I’m a lifelong alto. I have struggled to expand my range for years, somewhat unsuccessfully. Never in my life had I managed to full-voice belt an Eb and not crack. I tried. I’d loved “Astonishing” since high school– I tried to sing it in lessons then and ended up totally giving up on it because I just could not hit the high notes. (That same highest note is hit two times, both towards the very end of the song.) Making it to a D4 smoothly and consistently in my previous show was a big victory for me.

And now I had slightly over a week to figure out how to sing a note I’d never successfully  sang in my life. Twice. Four nights in a row.

Because of the sheer time crunch I passed through hopelessness and absolute despair and jumped straight to well, something’s going to happen, who knows exactly what in less than 24 hours. I had no particular strategy, but an Eb is only a half step higher than a D, so I told myself surely if I could sing one, then I could sing the other. I declared, out of nothing but grit and absolute desperation, “I’m going to make this Eb my bitch.”

And then I didn’t.

The first day after this declaration, I missed the note both times. I returned to the group chat and said, “well, I didn’t do it today. But tomorrow: I’m going to make this Eb my bitch.”

I failed the second time. I failed the third time. Then I failed a fourth time, just for good measure. All the while I’m repeating the same manta, with gradually increasing mental volume to match the internal screaming just generally occurring through the whole week.

At this point I’m desperately seeking some sort of strategy. I’ve got mild to moderate singing know-how, I figured surely I could divine some way to make this work. I’m practicing hitting the note every which way during warmups. I try more air, I try less air, I try more volume, I try less volume. I sing “astonish-aaaang” and “astonish-eeeeeng” and “astonish-iiiiiihhhhng.” I try modifying the words before, the pitches before. I’m throwing darts over and over and missing the bullseye every time.

In reality, these two high notes are a blip in the entirety of this show. If I miss them, nothing bad will happen, really. It’s not a show-ruiner if I happen to mess them up. However, “Astonishing” (-ang/-eng/-ing) is the act one finale. That last high note basically ends the act. So if I biff it, I literally leave the audience on a bad note until act two. So it had to be hit, and it had, had to be belted.

After days of failures, I manage to hit the note the first time it happens in the song.

Then I miss it the second time.

Honestly, I could’ve jumped for joy. I may have. I DID IT ONCE. THAT MEANS IT CAN BE DONE. JUST DO IT AGAIN. What made this occasion extra lucky was the fact that my friend and fellow castmate selected that day to record a video of me singing as she watched from the audience. Therefore, I could see and hear exactly what I did differently on those two notes, and figure out why the first one worked and the second didn’t.

Clear to see in the video is this: when I sing the note the first time, correctly, my mouth is wide open, my jaw is relaxed. When I sing it the second time and whiff it, my mouth is almost half open, and my jaw is tense.

So there! I need to open my mouth and get rid of tension. First part should be pretty easy, second part is easier said than done.

Even still, having potential solution strategies and actually remembering and doing those strategies in the moment during a run are two different things. The next day, I miss the first note, but hit the second one.

The next day is Wednesday, the night before opening night.

I sing both notes. Successfully.

I do not believe I’ve done it. It must have been flat and I didn’t know. I turn to the people waiting in the wings.

“Did I just sing those notes?” I ask them.

They tell me I did and hug me.

For the next four nights, I hit both notes perfectly.

The strategy, by the way, ended up being a mixture of mouth shape and just backing off the second high note so it was less inclined to crack. It was far from head voice, but it moved more in that direction– a very solid mixed voice. Once I had managed to hit both notes, it was like every piece of my body went, “oh my god that yes do that yes yes yes” and somehow that muscle memory just clung to my system. And boy am I thankful, because if I’d needed to actively remember and replicate how I’d hit that note every night, I wouldn’t have. It ended up being somehow relatively automatic. The switch was flipped, the fog was cleared, and all of the sudden it worked.

I was convinced I’d lose my voice somewhere during the run but managed to avoid that entirely save for the final scene on Wednesday night, where I think my voice just lost itself in sheer joy and pride and decided to take a hike just as “Small Umbrella” was starting. Nothing a few hours’ vocal rest and lots of water (and a very regrettable apple cider vinegar shot) couldn’t fix.

At this point, if I’d biffed every single note every night of the shows, I barely would’ve cared. I did it. I made the Eb my bitch, predominantly by sheer force of will and some desperate, half-informed strategizing. It WORKED.

This was the crossed “t” and dotted “i” on a show that by and large was, for me, all about hard work coming together. I spent 3 months prepping for that audition, and I got it. I spent 5 months prepping for the role, and I was immensely proud of my work and heard nothing but good things. I spent two weeks ramming myself headfirst into the brick wall that was the Eb, and I conquered it, for the first time in my entire performing life.

The lesson was clear: By sheer determination and some educated guessing, you can literally accomplish anything.

My friends, I will drink to that.

 

 

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