Life lessons in song, courtesy “American Idol” and Peter Cetera

04-curtis-finch-jr-500x375"American Idol" is back on again, and it really is oh, so easy to look at those people and say: "Shit, I could do that."

And though there's less meanness and crappy singers on than in the Simon Cowell years, it's even easier to say, "Those people are morons. Can't they hear themselves?"

Answers: No, you probably couldn't, and yes, they probably can't.

While I'm not innocent of the poking of the contestants, I've generally reserved my irritation for their family and friends. One of the big problems truly famous or powerful people have is that no one will tell them "no." That's apparently an issue for people in the arts, and particularly in the vocal arts: No one will honestly tell them, "Look, man, I love you, but this is not your thing. You can get some lessons, but this is not singing."

Instead, you see the family and friends and contestants on the show routinely wearing shocked, disappointed faces (though there's always someone in the back with a poker face because they're the ones who knew it was crap and didn't speak up). If I went on and made a fool of myself on television like that I'd naturally be angry with myself — but I'd also be mad at the ones who say they love me. Love is about protection from your own stupidity, sometimes, too.

I've spent the last couple of weeks trying something new. For about three years now I've sung with the Chelsea Church's annual Candlelight Christmas Choir (they don't mind I'm not of the faith), which initially I imagined would be a highfalutin' version of people singing familiar Christmas carols. There's some of that, but there's also a fair amount of obscure hymns (obscure to me anyway) and big grand gestures like "O Magnum Mysterium." It's been a fun challenge and as (often) the only female tenor I've found it expanded my knowledge and talents.

But that's only a few weeks of the (later) year and I wanted to find something I could do earlier in the year, too. The New York City Community Chorus was fun last year — we did a whole lot of Woody Guthrie, and the theme changes each season — but afterward I thought I was ready for something bigger, and possibly with an audition.

So, on to the new thing. Several of M's friends are in something called the "Sweet Adelines," all-female choruses that compete while singing old tunes and show tunes and sometimes an occasional recent-ish song. A Manhattan chapter was only about a year old, I was told, so head on over there. So I did, for the first meeting of the new year.

Wow. It was like deep end diving: These were serious, committed singers who knew shit. I mean, really knew about singing: The first hour of the two-and-a-half to three hour rehearsal was devoted to getting warmed up and vocal exercises — you weren't even hitting the sheet music until nearly halfway through rehearsal. They knew all kinds of fun tricks to get you warmed up, and threw in all kinds of lingo I simply wasn't familiar with — everything from tonics to half-steps to a fancy word for when your sound changes as you're singing.

The leader was perfect: This petite blonde with boundless energy and just at the level of enough-but-not-too-much perkiness, who really knew what she was doing (when she let us know she'd once been a character at a Disney Park, it all made sense). With 15-20 of us singing, she could point out when the bass section was off by a half-tone. I was stunned; this was the real deal, and it seemed as though everyone around me had been trained in music theory or singing in the past.

My last official chorus prior to Chelsea and NYC Community had been honors chorus in 9th grade.

Did I mention that this was barbershop? No, I did not. So here's part of the rub: It's barbershop. That's a specific way of singing; the ladies worked with a "Pythagorean" octave scale (another complexity I couldn't grasp) and it wasn't just about learning notes, or lyrics — there was a performance aspect, endless changing of arrangements (and sometimes lyrics), and then you were expected not to just sing words but to "caboose" them together, so that something like "love grapes" would be "looooooo vegr aaaaaapes."

There were all kinds of different ways to sing but sing differently, and anyone who sits in their room and belts out a top 40 hit into their hairbrush has no idea how all of this works. I don't know if this is solely confined to barbershop, but I was informed that barbershop is a very specific way of singing, and required a lot of technique.

Right, so everyone was cheery and welcoming and just delighted to give you any help you wanted. But there was one thing: The audition. I had thought, well, I'll pick a song in my range and sing it and then they'll know I can carry a tune. No way. Not only do they give you a tune, you have to sing it in your own register, surrounded by the other four that would make up a proper quartet — who are singing in their own registers. You are the only one in your group of that register. And hey, if you can throw in some dynamics at all the right times, so much the better. They were generous about it: You got three shots to ace the audition before you were allowed in.

It was a deceptively difficult tune; only a minute and a half long, one page on sheet music, but I still thought I could master it. I worked out the tune after listening to a few MP3s of not just the full quartet but also just of my own line, and it wormed its way into my head enough that with a little practice every day, I figured I could nail it. I sang it aloud, it sounded right. But put it in with the other four lines and … well, it was easy to get lost. I started listening to the others singing around me and went off, then I tried punching the note to get higher up, and then that threw off going lower.

So much for the easy way of getting it out on the second go-around. For number two, I applied myself more diligently, recorded myself and listened back, played with the digital piano we have, and — really thought I'd improved significantly. Not enough: Second audition didn't pass either. They marked a few places I should work on, and said to give it one more try.

Now, this is not really a complaint even if it sounds like one: Any group has the right to impose whatever rules it wants. If they want 100 percent, and can get it from enough people, then darn it, they should get 100 percent. Some places might just want someone who could improve markedly week to week. I also found I struggled at the audition because it would be held after our 2.5 hours or so of practice; by then it would be fairly late in the evening and not only was I wiped, but so was my voice. Sucking candies and water aside, it was hard to get all revved up one more time. Again: Others passed just fine with these same hurdles, and I'm not offering excuses — but it did seem rather unfair to have anyone audition after that long of a workout. Then again, you could make the argument that if you audition someone when they're tired and ragged and they still hit the mark, you've got a real talent.

This talent was not me. After number two I had two weeks until the third audition, and was seriously wavering, arguing with my own brain, which wanted to cut and run before full failure was achieved. If you never take the test, you'll never know whether you'd have failed or not. And this didn't feel like the right thing to do, even if I wanted to. I was also reconsidering whether barbershop was really the kind of chorus I was looking for, and the second-guessing that because again, the brain is a deceptive monster and can talk you out of doing anything. If you get punched in the head twice, why would anyone stick their head out once more in case things were different?

But I resolved not to quit. I got someone in to give me voice lessons two times, we worked on the song, she gave me thumbs up that I'd nailed even the tougher bits, she sang along with me on the other parts so I'd have the contrast and I thought, okay, I can do this. There was a moment when I just felt loose and casual, I was trusting my voice to hit the right places, and I could get into the song — not just sing it. We had a few really good rehearsals, and I thought, okay, I can do this. Still, at the same time, I was also thinking that even if I did pass, I'd have to really think about whether I really even wanted this. These women were so passionate about every inch of this thing — they had a world of energy and feeling for it that I lacked, and I wondered if I'd ever have. I like singing. They LOVE it. The way I LOVE writing. When they're not singing, they WANT to be singing. When I'm not writing, I WANT to be writing. There are hobbyists, and there are amateurs, and then there are pros. As a singer, I'm a hobbyist, and they're somewhere between amateur and pro. More like pros who just don't get paid. They know how to do this shit instinctively, and I do not.

Last night was the third audition, and it was possibly the worst one I'd done. I was tired. From moment one I just wasn't hitting it, and when the two judges went away for a discussion, I knew they were figuring out a way to let me down the right way. I wondered if I was the first they'd had in this new group to actually bottom out after three auditions, and this was a talk they hadn't had to have before. Either way, I steeled myself and got ready to go, so when they called me in to let me down — easy, kindly, which is their way — I was okay with it. I told them I'd had a great time and wished them well, and that they were really just several pay grades above me in terms of knowledge and talent. They did say if I practiced and improved that I could always come back and try again. So all in all, it went well.

The nice thing is that while I didn't pass, I don't feel like I failed. And maybe that's the lesson to take from this: While it sounds a bit Hallmark card-y, the truth is that if you really do your best, and give your all, and still fall short … that's better than backing off at the first sign of challenge. You still learn something, even if the only thing you learn is what you don't want. In any endeavor, it's the challenge that matters.

Coming home in a cab, a guy next to us, driving a white company pickup truck, was belting out Chicago's "You're the Inspiration." He was really, really into it and while it was easy to giggle a bit at his enthusiasm, after what I'd just gone through, it was also a pleasure to hear such joy. We all love to sing. Some of us do well, and some of us just do it adequately. That doesn't mean we shouldn't stop singing. We are all Peter Cetera in our own heads.