I’ve always loved singing. Since I was a little kid. And all through school, I sang in choruses, chorales and choirs. I’m a pretty good singer, I guess, in that I can basically carry a tune and have a fairly nice alto tone.
But, mirroring my personality, I’m also pretty shy about it. I can belt out songs alone but never really to anyone else. I either ‘tone’ it way down so it just sounds meek and lame, or I won’t do it at all. One of my young childhood memories is of my grandmother asking me to sing to her in the car. I just couldn’t do it and I felt really sad about that for a long time, like I’d let her down.
The ironic thing is, I really want people to hear me – as I talked about in a recent blog (Part 1 of this ‘Voice’ series). But I also always caution myself not to overtake a conversation, sound cocky or overconfident, be insensitive and inattentive, or, maybe when it comes down to it, sing out! I get ridiculously nervous, too, if I try to play piano for anyone, deep down afraid maybe I’m showing off, rather than sharing something I’ve worked hard at.
I recently came to realize how an experience in junior high school might be a metaphor for how I tend to let others’ voices overtake mine.
Here’s what happened …
I was trying out for this really competitive, coveted spot in my high school choir. The singers wore long black robes, sang mostly church music in gorgeous, four-part harmonies (even in Latin), and performed in hotels in the Catskills and at exchange concerts with other high schools in different parts of New York State. It was considered a big deal and once you were in, you worked really hard and were even graded.
The tricky part, for me, was that the four parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass) weren’t separated out in sections on stage or during rehearsals, like many other singing groups. Here you were part of a four-person team, where you each sang your respective melodies and harmonies standing right next to each other. Which is beautiful but, for me anyway, TOUGH!
At my choir audition, I sang for the junior high chorale leader and was doing fine … until he started accompanying me on the piano and I could no longer hold my tune.
And here’s the humiliating part …
He called in the high school choir director and said, ‘Listen to this,’ like I was some sort of freak show. I know that sounds dramatic, but I marvel at teachers and other authority figures who don’t realize their insensitivities, especially with vulnerable young people. (Like the doctor my mom once took me to so he could check me for head lice, which was running rampant in my elementary school. He came in the door, looked at me and said, ‘Ew, stay away from me!’ I didn’t even have it, but the comment still hurt. And obviously, I still remember it today!)
I did wind up trying out for choir again a couple of years later – in 11th grade – following some serious practice, and focus, on my part to sing out my own tune. It was one of my proudest accomplishments and most meaningful experiences.
Decades later, I still think about that broader struggle maybe others feel too – to be confident, and focus hard enough, to maintain your own voice. And, best case, to beautifully harmonize with those around you, no voice overtaking the others, just complementing them.
Confession: I still can’t quite sing with the radio in harmony (just along with the melody) and I’m truly impressed by singer-songwriters who so simply play one melody and rhythm on the piano or guitar and sing another. Wow.
My closing observation is the power of our literal voices, when we say things out loud. It can be frightening, it can be freeing and it can make things more ‘real’. Don’t you find that? Do you also notice how someone’s whole demeanor can change when you say hello to them in the hallway and hear them acknowledge you back, maybe even with a smile? For me, hearing their voice all of a sudden connects you, as fellow human beings. It’s a great start anyway.
Quote from another great recent book club read that fits: ‘Funny how a bit of singing brings us together. There we were in our own little worlds, with our own problems, and then suddenly they seemed to dissolved, and we realized that it’s us here now, living through this, supporting each other.’