Realizing I wasn’t good at singing was one of those distinct coming-of-age moments when you learn that the world isn’t as fair as you once thought it was. I think it was my parents who broke the news to me after overhearing me belt power ballads in the shower. I realized being able to sing well and hit notes is an intrinsic skill, something you’re born with, and I just didn’t have it. Thankfully, I learned this before I showed up at an American Idol audition, as the dream had once been.
Recently, my inner vocalist got a shred of hope when Mariah Carey announced her Masterclass on “The Voice As an Instrument.” If anyone could teach me how to sing, I hoped, one of the best singers on the planet could. So after Carey’s Masterclass debuted last week, I sat down and opened my laptop in the comfort of my own home, ready to learn vocal exercises and techniques, and, ideally, become a better singer.
Instead, I got a reminder that Mariah Carey is one of the best singers on the planet and I am not. Carey’s nine-lesson course wasn’t about how to use my voice as an instrument — it was about the myriad ways she’s able to use hers. In the second lesson, “Producing With Your Voice,” I learned that Carey doesn’t know much about notes and simply sings pitch-perfect renditions of what she wants when she gives notes in the studio. “People have no idea how amazing it is to be able to sing something to someone and have them play it back to you,” she said. No, I do not! I thought. (But give Daniel Moore, her music director playing those notes back instantaneously on piano, a raise.) In two lessons about background vocals, I watched in awe as Carey and her backing vocalist Brandy exchanged runs and riffs, all while chilling on a couch in Carey’s Butterfly Lounge. Sitting on my own couch, I once again realized I’d never be able to do the same. A section of the eighth lesson, “Taking Care of Your Voice,” promised Carey would share secrets about “whisper singing” (her terminology for those signature whistle tones); the secret? “It’s really difficult for me to explain.”
I don’t fault Carey for any of this. After all, she wasn’t telling me I could sing — she was getting paid to talk about singing, her singing, for a few hours to a few hopefuls. In true diva form, she turned the class into its own performance: a document of her remaking her classic song “The Roof (Back in Time),” complete with a string-quartet intro and those backing vocals by Brandy. (There was also a requisite tie-in to her 2021 memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey.)
To her credit, Carey is an encouraging teacher. “You can create magical moments too, whether you sing, hum, whisper, whatever,” she assured me during one of the background vocals lessons. “Don’t be afraid to use your instrument.” I’m not — I embrace that I’m a bad singer, and if this class inspired me to do anything, it’s to subject my friends to a private performance of “Fantasy” at my upcoming karaoke birthday party. “Having melodies run through me,” Carey told me in lesson one, “for me, that’s a gift,” Unfortunately for the vocally challenged like myself, she can only share it in so many ways.