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finding my voice … again

June 13, 2012

In 6th grade, I sang 2 solos in the musical revue our school put on every year.

My mother did help me put together my costumes (Catholic school, so no money for anything ‘frivolous’ like the arts). Unfortunately they were kind of ugly and old-ladyish, as my character was Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother.

Still, I was very excited about singing in front of the entire junior high. I felt anything was possible if only I could get in the spotlight. I practiced my songs at every opportunity, and often imagined how marvelous the whole experience would be.

And my performance did feel amazing! I felt powerful and competent and charismatic, all for the first time. I couldn’t wait to share those feelings with someone.

Afterward, my memories are chaotic: sudden awareness of bright lights, and lots of proud parents milling around congratulating their kids.

One or two mothers spoke to me. I don’t remember what they said; I was too busy scanning for my mother. Her opinion was the one that mattered the most.

But she wasn’t there. Suddenly my triumph was ashes.

Some of the adults noticed that no one was standing with me. And suddenly I became my usual social pariah. No one wanted to be seen with the performer whose own (housewife) mother had better things to do than show up.

I’ve always wondered if I was really any good that day.

Maybe I only got the parts because none of the better singers or prettier girls wanted to play an old lady.

Maybe I was terrible, and everyone just pretended I was good, out of pity.

Maybe … well, the usual litany of self-doubt and second-guessing every artist suffers through.


Ever since then, I’ve wondered if I could sing in front of people again. Could I possibly recapture the joy? Or could I at least feel pleasure in (learning to) sing in my natural range? (It used to be alto, but I often sang 2nd soprano because the parts were more interesting.)

So, Monday night I had my first voice class.

There was supposed to be 9 students, but only 7 showed up, and a 8th halfway through. Four women, three men, and me. Half people of color, half white. A range of ages: a high school student, up through people I think are in their late 50s. Two are trained singers; at least one sings in a church choir; but the rest seemed, like me, to have not sung much since before high school.

I don’t spend much time thinking about what a class might be like. I had some vague impression that the class might sing together. But I didn’t think it through, because if I had, I would have realized that our instructor would first have to sort us out, by what we can sing.

And that is what happened.

He sat at the piano and played 4 notes for each person; they were to sing an ‘ah’ at that note. Despite the discomfort and terror some people seemed to be feeling ahead of time, and despite the rocky start of some people, every single person in our class eventually managed to hit all four notes … except me. Apparently I didn’t hit any of them. I was too low for all of them. He kept saying, “you need to listen; then sing what you hear.” I had been nervous at the start, and volunteered to go second (mostly to get it out of the way). He remarked on my nervousness, which of course made me more anxious. Since I was only second, I didn’t know if other people would have difficulty too. In some way, I felt like I broke the ice by being terrible: no one else would need to be as nervous as I had been.

But instead, everyone else nailed it. And everyone else got applause. But I didn’t.


I held myself together by sheer force of will through the end of class, the walk to my car, and part of the drive home. I told myself that this failure was going to help me with being present in the moment without expectations. That I could choose not to tell myself (self-defeating) stories about why this happened. Plus, I learn more from failure than from success. And now, even hitting the notes at all would be a success for me, so I have a greater range of ways to improve than everyone else.

But I still felt kind of heartbroken. And I realized that ‘being in the present moment’ includes feeling what I’m truly feeling, not trying to push it away, or talk myself out of it.

So I turned on the radio, and I sang along to some of the songs. And I cried.

I also realized that when I sing along, I modulate my voice to match the other singer(s), not the music itself. I don’t think I have any idea how to match the music with my voice. And that singing just one note, by myself, when there is no context? Makes no sense to me. Why would I ever be singing one note by itself?

I think part of this may be the same problem I’ve experienced in many other media: I can’t do simple or basic. (Which makes it very difficult to learn, yes.) Generally, I have to jump in, far ahead of what I actually understand. I root around, connecting things that don’t normally go together, until a gestalt understanding emerges. Instead of the orderly and linear construction of a building from a blueprint, my learning process is a thicket.

So, in the beginning, I can come across as a total airhead, blundering every which way. But if I persist long enough, my eventual understanding is much more complex than someone who follows directions step by step.

I have actually tried — really hard — to learn things ‘in order’. My brain just doesn’t work that way. But people whose brains do work linearly think if I just ‘tried harder’, this time it will magically work. It won’t.

I have had no luck explaining how my brain does work, though, without giving the impression that obviously my way is better, and anyone who doesn’t think this way is stupid or limited. (Which I don’t believe.)

I would really appreciate finding a vocabulary that would allow me to talk about the way my brain works without seeming to judge people. But maybe that’s just a function of being in a minority. I don’t know.

In the meantime, Spouse has ordered a keyboard so he can play notes and I can try to learn to sing them.

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