Worth Doing Poorly

Growing up and in early adulthood, I heard two conflicting messages about my voice. One was that I have a beautiful voice that soothes and comforts and brings pleasure to the listener. The other was a mostly nonverbal discouragement in the form of ignoring me or making fun of me, which from my perspective was more mortifying than fun. These messages applied both to my singing/speaking voice and my writing voice. I’ve come to understand that those discouraging me from making my voice heard were doing it either to protect me from pain or embarrassment or to protect themselves from injury to their own egos, but the messages stuck so firmly that even dissection and understanding weren’t strong enough solvents.

For one reason or another, I chose to listen to the “keep quiet” message more than the first, and I kept my mouth shut. It seemed safer for me and safer for everyone else around me.

But the desire to be heard, to make noise—a joyful noise, a mournful noise, perhaps even a beautiful noise—persisted. Eventually, the need to be heard overwhelmed the fear of being heard, and in August of 2013, I started taking voice lessons.

I took lessons for a year before I chickened out and quit. After a two-year break, I’m back at lessons again. I’ve been taking voice lessons again since July, along with a music theory course. Both of these are challenging, what with my perfectionism and my allergy to being wrong, looking inept, and feeling incompetent, but I’m sticking with them because I’m an optimist.

One thing that’s helping me keep at it is that I’m making an effort to talk about it when I’m feeling scared. Because that’s been kind of a surprising thing to me, that what I feel when I can’t get my breath support right or can’t immediately tell the difference between a first inversion and second inversion major chord is full-on fight or flight fear.

Luckily, my voice teacher (also my music theory teacher) is a good sport about my communication plan. I e-mailed her week before last that I was thinking about taking another break. She wrote me back a thoughtful e-mail about incremental progress and the pros and cons of taking time off, and I stepped back from that ledge for now. Then this week I wrote to her about my fear that I will never be able to get the hang of those pesky chords, nor will I ever be able to hear the difference between an out-of-tune note that’s flat versus an out-of-tune note that’s sharp. She’s used to working with teenagers, so perhaps that’s why she’s so good at addressing my angst.

But I’m not only talking about my lessons when things are going poorly; I also make a point of talking about them when things are going well. Like two days ago when it seemed like I might have cracked the chord code (for now). I told everyone I encountered, including people who don’t understand my excitement because they’ve been playing an instrument since they were four (my daughter) and those who love and appreciate music but don’t know anything about music theory (my spouse). They might not get my excitement, but by sharing it, I can highlight for myself when I’ve made even little bits of progress.

And then there are nights like tonight when I’ve been feeling anxious all day about the election and like I’m not quite in my body, not quite here, really. I didn’t feel like doing my voice practice, but I did it anyway, and by the end of my practice, I felt lighter. I was still aware of areas that need improvement, and I was still aware that I was likely unaware of many other opportunities for improvement, but I just enjoyed the feeling of singing out. It’s like the feeling of release and power that I get when I’m driving by myself and roll the windows up and sing along with Sarah McLachlan or Ani DiFranco or Aretha Franklin only tonight I had that feeling while singing in Italian in my living room. If I’d quit week before last, I would have missed this.

Now if only I can remember this feeling during those long spells when the old critical voices whisper in my ears. I might not be able to quiet the voices entirely, but perhaps I can inoculate myself against them. Or at least I can sing over them.

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