The Voice – A Tribute to Big Mitch

Big Mitch            “I’m going to do it, Carol! I’m going to audition for “The Voice!” The scream through the phone was exuberant, but deafening. I screamed back. Carol shouted loudly again. I laughed. She snorted. This was another typical phone call between Carol and me when I make a life decision that she agrees with – or has instigated. That’s not entirely fair; the term should be “inspired,” for when Carol suggests something to me, it usually is very wise and something that I would not have thought of myself.

            “You must get a voice coach right away. Everyone who is on “The Voice” has a coach.” Carol’s words rang in my ears. I thought back to the time when I had taken some voice lessons while living in Manhattan more than thirty years ago. I had no confidence in myself or my abilities whatsoever then, and did absolutely nothing with the results of the few voice lessons that I had taken.

Years went by filled with poor relationship choices, raising three children as a single mom, living in several states, and working multiple jobs to survive. I sang in the living room or bathroom when no one was home.

Now I was a new empty nester. My youngest child had graduated high school in May, and had moved out to attend college in Colorado. Today was the first day of June. I recalled the time when I sang for Carol several months earlier to a recording of the background music from Phantom of the Opera. Carol’s response was, “You should audition for America’s Got Talent.” I had responded with, “There is no way that I will audition for a reality show. They just want to humiliate you.” Carol then told me about “The Voice.” “This show is different,” she stated. “You are judged on your voice, not by your appearance or age.”  This was food for thought, but I did not digest taking action on it.

After several months of working in a job that I disliked, I pondered the notion again. I thought to myself, “Why not?” I called Carol for affirmation, which I received wholeheartedly. I knew that she was right about obtaining a voice coach. Carol said, “I heard that Big Mitch is a great vocal coach. You should call him.” I had heard of Big Mitch, too.

Twenty years earlier, while attending an event for children in downtown Anchorage, I had seen a large man sitting on a stage with lots of young children and teenagers. They sang throughout the day. The singing sounded pretty to my untrained ears, and I had never given the large man and children any more thought. I knew that large man was Big Mitch.

Now, twenty years later, I looked up a number for Big Mitch online. He answered, and said that he had to be in the hospital the next month for dialysis and other health issues, and that he would be available in August.

I waited patiently for our first lesson. The day finally arrived. Big Mitch was very nice, and went through an extensive dissertation about the vocal apparatus, care of the voice, how he became a vocal coach after 40 years of singing professionally, and some stories about his own vocal coach, Judy Davis. She had been a vocal coach to Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and many other celebrities.

I was supposed to have a half hour lesson, but because I drove in for these lessons from Palmer, an hour away from Anchorage, Big Mitch graciously let me have an hour lesson for the half hour price. I told him that I wanted to audition for “The Voice.” He showed me pictures of several of his students that had made American Idol. Pictures and articles about Big Mitch and his students decorated the walls of his studio.

Big Mitch was encouraging and kind, and made me feel special from the first lesson. We’d also talk about life, and every now and then I would burst out with an emotional, “I wish I had started lessons with you twenty years ago!” Big Mitch would kindly reply, “You can’t go back. We have today. There are reasons for everything.” We’d then proceed to work on the vocal exercises, and a song or two.

Big Mitch would joke with me that I was no spring chicken, and that I should hope to place in the top ten of The Voice, but that it was a longshot. We agreed that “The Voice” instead of “America’s Got Talent” would be the best reality show to audition for. The judges on “The Voice” couldn’t see how old you were when you sang during the “Blind Auditions.”  I told him of my dream to be the next Susan Boyle and that if she could make it, why couldn’t I? He told me that “she could sing, but made it because everyone likes the underdog, and that she looked like a homeless person during her audition.” He remarked that I didn’t look like Susan Boyle.  I would joke that gravity was not my friend, and I was not getting younger or better looking every day.

We worked hard. I often felt that we were actors in an inspirational movie. Big Mitch’s health was failing; he had diabetes, neuropathy, and emphysema, among other health issues. He went to dialysis three days a week. He had smoked for many years, though he had a wonderful singing voice when he sang professionally years ago. He was losing the use of his arms and hands. Oftentimes he would ask me to button a portion of his shirt and to pick up his pants that were falling. He would turn his back to me and I would tug his pants upward, when he would exclaim, “you’re giving me a wedgie like my wife does!”

I dreamed that I would win “The Voice” and in my final award show state that I owed all of my success to my wonderful vocal coach, Big Mitch. He would be watching this from his hospital room and would smile broadly. I would be his last great success; an American Susan Boyle.

We both knew that time was precious. Big Mitch’s health was failing. He would have medical procedures scheduled; a toe removed, a stint in his arm put in for his dialysis, and other inconveniences. He commented that he didn’t want to live like this.

Meanwhile I had registered for my audition spot. The actual audition time was several months away. My job was terribly stressful, and I yearned for a new life.  Big Mitch had a former student of his, Megan, sit in on some of our lessons. She was being groomed, along with two other women, to be vocal teachers using his method. Megan was quiet during the several lessons that she sat in on, and was very gracious. She told me that she had studied with Big Mitch for ten years. She had won many contests locally, and sang professionally in her band “Nothing but Trouble.” I went to see her perform when she sang with her band one night in Wasilla. I thought that she did an excellent job.

The lessons were getting intense. Big Mitch seemed to nitpick at me, but I felt that I needed to hear everything he had to say. I knew that I was forty years behind extraordinarily talented eighteen year olds that were regular competitors on these reality talent shows. I had started to watch portions of them after work, especially “The Voice.”  At first I became quite intimidated. During one panic attack, I called a friend and whined, “What am I doing?” I was told that I was a winner for trying. Many people dream of accomplishing goals. I put them into action. I was encouraged. Big Mitch stated that I should make the audition a vacation, and not to concentrate all the time in Nashville on the audition, but to have a good time. Go on some tours.

With his advice in mind, I chose to audition in Nashville on Feb. 2nd.  Multiple cities and audition dates are listed on these reality show websites. It was cheaper to fly one way to Nashville, then one way to Florida to visit my 91 year old father, and then head back to Alaska, instead of purchasing a roundtrip ticket from Anchorage to Tennessee.

The atmosphere of our voice lessons became tense at times. I not only had to sing my songs well, but I had to overcome many years of bad singing habits. Though I could belt pretty loudly, I had a habit of singing many notes in falsetto, sounding operatic at times when I should have sounded more contemporary. After watching many hours of YouTube clips of Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Linda Eder, Barbra Streisand, Christine Aguilera and countless other singers, I came to a conclusion.

“Is it me, or am I under the impression that much of popular singing is melodic yelling?” I asked Big Mitch during a lesson one day. “You’re a thousand per cent right!” Big Mitch exclaimed gleefully. I finally got it. Now I understood his admonitions during our lessons; “Stop using your little girl voice! You’ll be disqualified!”

His instruction had finally clicked with me. However, it didn’t come with perfection in performing my assignments for him. During one lesson I looked over at him in his chair, his eyes squinted closed with a look of disgust on his face. I was crushed. Would I always miss the mark?

That night I made a decision to buy him a card and a thank you gift as a token of my appreciation for his instruction. Although my heart would sink to my knees sensing his disapproval of how I sang a song or executed a vocal exercise, I knew that my singing had greatly improved. I had never sounded like this, and could sing contemporary songs with belting ease. I knew that I would never be the same person due to our time together.

I gave Big Mitch a thank you balloon and card with heartfelt words of how grateful I was for him. He was very touched, and showed it to Megan. I kidded with him in the card that no matter how disgusted he looked during my lessons, I knew that I had made great progress, because my resolve and self-confidence in becoming the next Susan Boyle had not wavered.

He was scheduled to go in for surgery two days after my arrival back from my audition in Nashville. We had our final lesson before I would leave. Megan was there for moral support, and Big Mitch asked me to hug him, but sadly said that he couldn’t lift his arms to hug me back. I didn’t care. I hugged him and gently kissed his cheek.

I told him that I would see him as soon as I got back, and would call him from Nashville. He told me that although Megan would handle a lot of his students after his surgery, he didn’t like to sit at home, and would be back to teaching two weeks after his operation.

I arrived at Nashville and auditioned the next day. After a seven hour wait with 16,000 other eager singers, I had my moment. I wasn’t called back. I was told that out of 16,000 perhaps one hundred get called back. It was then that I understood the reality of reality shows; it is the same odds as winning a lottery.

I called Big Mitch and told him what I had learned, but that I was having a good time anyway. I had gone on some tours in Nashville before the visit to my father in Florida. We agreed that I would see him on Sunday, Feb. 9th, several hours after my arrival back in Anchorage. I would sleep at Carol’s in Anchorage after my flight home on Saturday night, Feb. 8th, in order to do so.  Big Mitch stated that he’d like to see me, but I could cancel if I wanted to, as he knew that I would be tired after flying and arriving home at 3:00am. We agreed that I would call him on Sunday morning to confirm or cancel our meeting, depending on how tired I felt.

I arrived at Carol’s house after fifteen hours of flying, including a three hour mechanical delay in Seattle. I was tired and excited, and proceeded to call him that morning. Carol and I decided to have a fun and relaxing day, and to watch a movie in her den. My luggage was scheduled to arrive at the airport later that morning due to the Seattle delay, and I was too tired to go to the airport to pick it up. The airport said that they would deliver it early in the afternoon, so I decided to call Big Mitch to tell him that I’d see him in two weeks.

He said that he was surprised that I had even planned to see him so soon after arriving back in Anchorage in the first place, because he knew that I’d be tired. I told him that I couldn’t wait to see him after his operation, and asked if I could visit him in the hospital. He said that he didn’t like visitors, but that he’d see me in two weeks. He would finally have the operation to enable him to use his hands and arms again, though he was told that recuperation could take up to two years.  He said something about fusing plates and repairing nerves. It sounded scary, but he wanted relief.

The next day, Feb. 10th, I began work at a new job. On Tuesday I called Megan to see how Big Mitch was doing. She said that he had developed pneumonia but that the operation had been successful.

Later in the week I received a call from Megan. Big Mitch had passed away from fluid in his lungs. We were devastated. In my shock all I could think was, “I should have seen him Sunday! I need to talk to him! He’s still here! I should have had lessons from him for the past twenty years! He said he’ll see me next week!”

I attended his funeral that Sunday, Feb. 16th. The funeral home in Anchorage was filled with his family, friends, and students. Tears and singing flowed freely. I learned that he had made everyone feel special.

I enjoy my new job. I no longer feel a desperate need to change my life. I love singing, and have continued vocal lessons with Megan. I’ve decided to audition for everything I can here in Alaska, as well as for more reality shows elsewhere.  I want to make Big Mitch proud. I know now that there is only one Susan Boyle, and only one me. I still hear his comments when I practice. To so many, he will always be “The Voice.”

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