Friday, January 13, 2017

Voice Lessons, Or Lessons in Humility

I've never been a singer.

I've always loved to sing (who doesn't?), but I've never sung loud enough for people to hear, save for a few (mostly drunken) occasions. I never want to make people cringe at my off-key gusto. I don't do karaoke. I've always known I couldn't sing, and for some reason I couldn't bear the thought of other people hearing me, laughing at me, ridiculing me, or even just pitying me.

How did I know I couldn't sing? I think my brother was the first to break the news to me. He was in high school chorus, and I think it was partly his job as big brother to destroy any sense of confidence I might have about anything (and he did), so he told me my voice was horrible. And then in youth choir, not one but two adults told me I couldn't sing. One kind of rolled her eyes when I said I was tired of being the piano accompanist and wanted to sing. The other came right out and said it: "You can't carry a tune in a bucket."

Now, the eye roll may have been disbelief that someone who so clearly loved piano wouldn't want to play piano. Maybe it wasn't about my voice at all. And the woman who said I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket? I don't know. I want to make an excuse for her, too, but I can't think of why any adult would say such a thing to a 14-year-old, unless they really meant it.

I've always been self-conscious about my singing voice. When I was writing music in my teens and twenties, I always wrote words, but I never sang them unless I was alone. When I'm in the car with other people, I don't sing along to the radio—even though that's all I do when I'm in the car alone. If I do sing in front of someone, I purposely make myself sound worse than I am, I guess so the eye roll and the cringing will be in response to that, and not in response to ... my actually trying. My real voice.

I first wanted to take voice lessons as a teenager—the one who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. Of course I never did take lessons. The idea was preposterous, really. And presumptuous. And I know I wouldn't have lasted a single lesson.

In college, I played with the idea of lessons but decided against it. In the music building (where, being a music minor, I spent a lot of my time), I could hear the voice lessons going on from the main hallway. And I cringed plenty at the shrieks that came from the lesson rooms and the practice rooms. I rolled my eyes a lot. (Which wasn't nice, I know.) And I wasn't about to put myself in a position where people were going to cringe and roll their eyes at me.

Back then, I had a fear of being bad at something. If I'd signed up for voice lessons, they wouldn't have lasted because I couldn't bear to be less than perfect. I know I never would have allowed myself to sing loud enough for anyone to hear me from the hallway. The thought of their cringing and laughing would have stopped me cold. And at I probably would have burst into tears of self-loathing at that first lesson and wanted to kill myself. (I was kind of messed up back then. I pray that my daughter never has to go to that dark place where I spent so much of my teens and twenties.)

Since then, I've thought about voice lessons numerous times over the years. I do love to sing, and I love music. I love to play songs on the piano and sing them, whether they were written by me or someone else. I hate that I can't truly enjoy that experience—even when I'm all alone—because my inner critic constantly tells me how awful I am.

At a Girl Scout camping trip last fall, I ended up leading the songs because the volunteer song leaders all got sick or just didn't show up. I "sucked it up" as they say, and did what had to be done, because ... really, who ever heard of a campfire without songs? Much to my surprise, I realized I liked leading songs. I liked being the one up there, leading this group and that group in a round. No one cringed or laughed (to my face, at least), and everyone appeared to have a good time.

After that weekend, I knew it was time: After 30 years of wishing, it was time to find a teacher and learn to sing. I wanted to be good at song-leading—to have a nice, loud, on-key voice that people could follow. And I wanted it for myself: I wanted to be able to fully enjoy singing, inner critic be damned.

So I signed up with a local teacher and took lessons with her for about a month. She assured me that I could carry a tune, which was news to me and a huge boost to my confidence. At the same time, I didn't want someone to tell me how good I was; I wanted to know how bad I was so I could start improving. As it happened, that teacher didn't work out due to scheduling conflicts, and I found someone else. Yesterday was my first real lesson with him, following a free trial lesson to see if we got along. (We did.)

Oh, wow. The guy teaches out of his house in the country, which is a blessing to me because I don't have to worry about people cringing on the other side of the door. And he has me sing loud. Middle age has rendered me much less self-conscious than I've ever been, but I still don't know if I could sing that loud if there were people on the other side of the door.

That first lesson was a lesson in humility, and I'm sure it will be the first of many. At one point, my voice cracked on a loud, high note and his chickens in the backyard started squawking in response. Later, he had me sing (loud) notes and hold them as long as I could. On several notes toward the end, my tired voice was cracking all over the place. If was awful. He said not to worry, that the goal now isn't to sound beautiful but to get volume. I accepted that and kept singing, but my goodness ... it was not pretty. Ten years ago, there would have been tears. And then last night, I practiced holding a long note (loud again), and my sweet, concerned seven-year-old came running into the room, asking if I was hurt.

Fortunately, I'm at an age where I can genuinely laugh at myself and move on. And that's just what I did.

But still ... with piano, I'm good and I know I'm good, even though I always have more to learn from people who are better. With guitar, I'm not good yet, but I'm musical enough that I'm picking it up pretty quickly. With voice? I'm bad. Horrible. And the whole idea of me taking voice lessons—someone as awful as me—is bringing up some of the latent self-hatred that I thought had left me forever. That self-hatred was once a monster that ravaged me and occasionally tried to kill me, and now it's more of an annoying mosquito bite ... but it's still annoying and it still tries to demand my attention. So I'm dealing with that.

I know have a long way to go, but I'm glad I finally decided to do this. It's scary, but I think that's because it's important to me. If it weren't important, I wouldn't be having all these feelings.

I'm going to keep at this thing until one day, probably a long time from now, I open my mouth and a beautiful sound comes out. And when it does, I'll be the happiest 89-year-old that ever was.

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