We all have fears. Collectively, humans have a fear of heights, fear of small spaces, fear of public speaking, fear of abandonment, fear of dogs. We acknowledge them and occasionally have to work through them to conduct our lives. I’m not a huge fan of flying, but after downing three vodkas at the airport bar at 6 a.m. I have faked bravery and managed to get on a plane many times. I have no real desire to overcome this fear, because it doesn’t affect me that often, and the airport bar is never out of my coping mechanism.
I have had one fear my entire life that does haunt me however. Sadly this fear is also the same response I give people when someone asks me “What’s your dream job, if you could do any job in the world, what would it be?”
More specifically, sitting at a piano or with a guitar, singing sad songs about broken hearts and broken dreams in a dark corner of some forgotten little hotel bar in the middle of nowhere—maybe even at that airport bar.
Some of my friends reading this are nodding their heads because they know my fear of singing in public. They know that I fear it so much that I can’t even enjoy others doing it. I will turn my chair in a bar on open mic night to face away from the stage, and if you want me to leave your house just suggest “How about some karaoke?” If you take one step in the direction of that microphone I’m already in my car and halfway down the block. I get a knot in my stomach at the thought of it, even at the thought of someone else doing it.
I can’t enjoy the bar up the street from me when they have musical artists perform. I’m uncomfortable the whole time. My heart will race. I’ll reposition my chair. I’ll ignore them to the point of being rude.
It’s not that I’m trying to be rude. It’s actually the opposite. I’m so overly empathetic to them that I want to make it easier for them. It’s as if I want to say “Never mind me, don’t be nervous, I’m not looking, see, not looking!” I’m so nervous for them that I feel a little sick inside.
They get up in front of a room packed with strangers, and they do my dream job. They fulfill my fantasy and have a blast doing it, as I hide like a cat under the bed.
This is a recurring scenario in my life and often times the reason I shy away from live music.
The fear causes me to miss out. It makes me squirm and experience unpleasant anxiety symptoms while my friends are kicking back, feeling the music, letting loose and enjoying themselves.
When my kids were babies, I sang to them. I sang with them. We sang in the car to silly songs that annoyingly stayed in my head for hours. I rocked them to sleep and sang a Linda Ronstadt song to them every night (I’m sure they don’t remember). They never judged my singing ability. They loved it. I loved doing it.
One time we had friends staying with us and after singing my son to sleep I rejoined them in the living room. My friend said, “I heard you singing through the baby monitor. It was so sweet. Do you do that every night?”
I was mortified. My evening was so preoccupied by the fact that I had forgotten about the baby monitor and had carelessly allowed someone to hear me singing that I could hardly engage with my friends the rest of the night.
Recently, in a moment of brash insanity I reached out to a vocal coach inquiring about voice lessons. I told her briefly of my paralyzing fear, and how I wanted to challenge myself to overcome it, step out of my comfort zone. I actually used the phrase “might throw up” in my initial email and hit SEND. It felt like I had bungee jumped off a tower.
That was nothing compared to the adrenaline rush and immediate anxiety I felt when I received her response the next day. “See you Wednesday at 3:15.”
Wednesday came (very quickly as I was dreading it) and I arrived to her studio in a bundle of nerves. Shaking, my stomach in knots, sweating…
The first thing she did was give me a pretty intense pep talk. It felt more like I was in a therapy session than a voice lesson. It was a lot of listening and nodding and no singing. I was thinking, “she better make me sing today because if I leave and don’t sing I might not ever come back.” She must have heard my mental whispers because after some breathing lessons she sat at her keyboard and we began.
Keep in mind I had prefaced my meeting with, “I have no idea if I can sing. I’ve never tried.”
Her response was quick.
“Everyone can sing. And everyone should sing.”
Oh crap, here we go…
“Start with this,” she sang a string of vowel sounds as her keyboard played along.
I repeated them.
My heart pounded.
“Again…” and her keyboard played a different strand of notes.
After each she would play notes that sounded as if the keyboard was proclaiming “Tah-dah!”
Finally she stopped her torture on me. I thought I might need to sit down. My knees were weak. I felt dizzy.
She looks up from the keyboard and smiles, “Very good! You have about a 2.5 octave range. You’re a true alto and you’re going to be amazed at what you can do.”
“Oh well…um…I don’t really want to become a singer. I just want to overcome my fear of singing.”
She smiled, “Ok. We’ll see about that.”
What had I done? I saw it. I saw that little glimmer in her eye, like the teacher who was about to pass out the pop quiz.
So for a few months now, every Wednesday afternoon—I go to a voice lesson.
*that ka-thud you just heard is some of my friends fainting and hitting the floor*
And I hate it.
In fact, I hate Wednesdays so badly now that I hate Tuesdays too just in preparation. Am I singing well every week? Oh God no…sometimes I sound like the person I would turn my chair away from at the bar for fear of seeing their embarrassment. Do I feel super self-conscious, uncomfortable and sweaty singing in front of her?
Every. Single. Time.
It’s absolute agony if I’m being honest, but I’m there.
Recently, even before I started voice lessons, I had noticed some ringing in my left ear. As the ringing became more severe I decided to consult a specialist for it and after numerous tests, hearing evaluations and an MRI, it was discovered that I have a sizable blood vessel growing through a cluster of nerves in my ear giving me some nerve damage. Long story short, my ear ringing is because I am slowly losing my hearing in my left ear.
I sat in the car after the appointment with my ENT wearing a demo pair of hearing devices, shaking my head at the irony of my situation and wondering if I might cry. I have to “wonder” if I might cry before I cry because in my family of Southern women crying isn’t encouraged. I have to evaluate if something is “cry worthy,” and then give myself permission to cry. Sounds ridiculous, right? It is, but that’s just how us Southern women with years of specialized training in dysfunctional emotional patterns roll.
I decided that I didn’t need to cry over it, because… wait a minute….in reality it was a good reason to end my voice lessons—hot damn!
Hearing loss I’d like to introduce you to silver lining. I was getting out of that Wednesday afternoon session of suffering.
It was the “well I tried to sing, but look, I’m going deaf in one ear so I might as well just quit,” excuse and I was taking it all the way to the bank.
Or so I thought.
My voice teacher listened attentively as I gave my little sob story about losing my hearing and when I was finished said, “It’s ok. I have had several students who are hearing impaired over the years. You don’t need to be able to hear to sing. I’ll teach you… OK, lets start today off with some breathing exercises…”
She wasn’t having it.
I was stunned for a second. I paused, but then began my breathing and running my vocal scales just like any other lesson. She wasn’t giving me the chance to quit.
As I sang, I heard her voice on that first day “Everyone can sing, and everyone should sing.”
Then I heard my own voice in my head, “She’s right. Why are you holding back? Because you’re afraid you’ll embarrass yourself? Sing louder. Sing like you don’t care. Missy sing for yourself, use your voice, for once in your life don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Don’t be afraid of sounding bad, so what…don’t be afraid of messing up, don’t be afraid of being afraid!”
As I began to sing my rather horrendous rendition of a truly great song which I practice every week—and every week I manage to completely annihilate—I felt some of my hesitation lift, I felt some confidence budding, and some power and depth in my voice I’d never felt or heard before. I thought about the children she must teach (for I am her oldest student ever) who are singing without any shyness or trepidation, like only kids can do—some wearing cochlear implants, some who can’t hear their own voices when they sing, but they sing like nightingales in the shower nonetheless.
Afterwards my teacher looked at me and smiled,
“That’s the best I’ve ever heard you sing. Don’t ever tell me you can’t sing again.”
I left my lesson that day with so much more than knowledge on breathing, pitch and tone but the discovery of a voice I never even knew I had. The one I’ve kept muffled under the covers for fear of being too loud, being too much, being wrong, being bad, being afraid.
I realize now what those singers in the bars that used to make me uncomfortable realize. It makes no difference how you sing it’s just important that you sing. It’s freeing, almost spiritual, when you do something that you suck at, but you just do it anyway. The problem is by the time we reach adulthood, most of us have mastered the art of avoiding things we suck at, or think we suck at, or are afraid we might suck at.
So for now my new hearing devices and I are continuing on in our pursuit together just to sing, period. Because we SHOULD sing, and because my hearing loss is predicted to worsen, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hear my own voice as it sounds now. I want to hear it as much as possible.
Maybe one day I’ll have the courage to pursue my dream job of singing in a dark corner of that lonely little hotel bar by the airport. And maybe I’ll suck at it.
Hell, I’ll be deaf anyway, I probably won’t even know.