In my youth I loved to sing and people praised my voice. I sang in choirs at church, in school and regularly performed as a soloist. I knew, however, that I wasn’t as good as the girls who had voice lessons. Nonetheless, I fantasized about being discovered and becoming a famous singer.
In college, I auditioned for the top choir, but the Director didn’t select me partly because my sight reading was weak, but predominantly because my vocal skills needed work. The Director believed in me enough, though, that he allowed me to receive voice lessons, even though they were normally reserved for the singers of the top choir.
Now was my chance to get to the top. I had lessons with a voice teacher and practiced with a pianist. My pianist was also a magnificent singer so with her I had not only an accompanist, but someone who could augment my teacher’s lessons. We practiced in tiny basement rooms of the music building that just barely fit ourselves and a baby grand piano. The rooms were not entirely soundproof, however, and I could hear the voices of other, better singers reverberating through the room.
I wish those voices had inspired me to greater heights. Instead, they embarrassed me. If I could hear them, they could hear me too and I was not of their caliber. It didn’t matter that other singers were only ever encouraging because I didn’t trust their words. My fear of what they might really be thinking led me to practice only infrequently and I ultimately dropped out of the lessons after one semester. I had plenty of good excuses — too busy with work, school, and volunteering — to cover for my squandering this opportunity. Ironically, after years of waiting to be “discovered,” when I finally was, I feared that I would be identified as a fraud. So rather than try and fail, I bailed.
Nonetheless, throughout my early adult life I sang in choirs, octets and occasionally as a soloist. But when I moved to D.C., I stopped. In these years, I have occasionally gathered with friends to jam and sing; I even sang with a couple one-night only bands in bars, but I’ve done nothing consistent. During this time, I have watched other bands with lead singers that are sometimes downright bad, and I wonder why they get to be up there and not me.
Except that I know why. Because they made the effort to do it and I haven’t. I have continued waiting for someone to “choose” me; I didn’t want to have to be vulnerable and risk rejection or discovering that I really wasn’t that great by saying what I wanted. The one time I took initiative and thought I had formed a band in which I would be the lead singer, I discovered at our first practice that two of the instrumentalists also wanted to sing lead. In my desire to be amenable, I sang backup on all but one song at our only performance. It sums up the theme of much of my adult life: always the backup singer, never the lead.
I could psychoanalyze about how my mom growing up was an amazing opera singer and I believed my voice could never measure up to hers. While she expressed pride in my singing, she was too busy or who knows what to give me voice lessons or find them for me. She arranged one piano lesson for me, but then they stopped. So perhaps I took from this that my voice wasn’t worth the investment or that I wouldn’t get what I asked for anyway, so why bother? Regardless, I’ve been an adult long enough to know that whatever messages I took from our relationship, I can choose something different even though I may find it hard in inexplicable ways.
I don’t want to live a life of regret, but I’ve told myself that I don’t care for so long that I find it hard to tap into caring. Except that when I first drafted this story, it was about jealousy and how it inhibits me, including in my current writing endeavors. Then my friend who reviews my posts called and berated me — literally yelling — because I’m not singing. I teared up because I knew she was right.
Yet I find it difficult to overcome the myriad of excuses I’ve been telling myself for so long to make it feel okay that I’m not doing something that I love. Choirs that I’ve considered joining are not good enough, too good, or I don’t like the music they perform. While I love singing for itself, the true thrill for me is in performing. Opportunities to perform are less frequent and more work to organize than, for example, my painting class, which I can attend, see my improvement, and then admire my painting at home. For the type of performing I’d like to do, I’m too old or I should play an instrument, but I never stick with it long enough to get good. And on and on.
The truth, though, is that to perform, I’d have to ask for what I want and I’m not sure I’m there. Not just with singing; I keep waiting for some magical opportunity to present itself or for someone to know what I want and give it to me rather than making my own opportunity. Many days I’m afraid the adage of use it or lose it will catch up with me.
Perhaps this is where self-compassion comes in. I accept that I have unseen limitations that hold me back from something that I love and I’m not going to beat myself up over it. But maybe my self-compassion will also push me to take a step, even if a small one, toward returning to my love of singing and performing. Today, for example, I spent an hour singing a couple of my favorite songs. As I’m seeing myself improve at asking for what I want in other ways, maybe, just maybe, I’ll figure it out here too.
Also published on Medium.