I have never really loved my singing voice. When I was younger, I was so embarrassed by it that I wouldn’t sing around anyone– only by myself, along with my Mariah Carey cassette tapes (setting the bar really low with that sort of range, I know), in my bedroom, door closed, radio volume: high. I wouldn’t even sing “Happy Birthday” at parties, just mouth the words so that people would think I was participating.
I got over it a little bit after I reached high school because one of my best friends was the singer in our church’s youth group band and she asked me to help out. She was the first person besides my parents who ever said she thought I had a nice voice, and being in the youth group band was something I really, really, really wanted to do, so I said yes. But I was anxiety-filled the entire time I was in front of people. I would sing very softly, with the mic held a safe distance from my face, so that, with any luck, nobody would hear me. A born performer, my mother used to say. Plus, Cana and I didn’t really understand about harmony yet, and the songs were so high that even a chipmunk couldn’t have “sung out” without bursting some capillaries.
I owe the same best friend for getting me into choir. The advanced group. I was supposed to be put in the beginner’s group, but I begged the director to put me in the same class as Cana, and she let me. That was, perhaps, one of the only moments of mercy I remember from that woman, who once got so angry at our group that she threatened to beat us with a wet hose. Anyway, the whole “not knowing how to harmonize” thing is a pretty giant drawback when you’re an alto. I got by with a whole lot of practice at home and by standing next to the strong singers in my section. I dreaded spot checks, though, when she’d pull one voice from every section and have us perform in front of the rest of the group. This was worse than having to dissect stuff in biology– which I escaped by finding some illegitimate student-government-related activity to be pulled out of class for. I bombed spot checks. I’d drift into the melody every single time, because that’s what the soprano was singing. But I’d also try to keep it lower, because, you know, alto, alto, alto. I think I ended up somewhere in tenor territory. Or maybe James Earl Jones territory. It’s hard to remember. Let me tell you, though, that it is absolutely humiliating to be put in front of a group of your peers– some of whom I heard rumor went on to perform on Broadway or record their own CDs– and then sing all the wrong notes. I only did choir that one year.
Learning to drive got me singing a bit more. Having an entire vehicle to yourself, a cell phone that was the perfect size to double as a microphone, and a new *NSYNC CD is a recipe for a good dose of private confidence, and it made up for all those mortifying moments in choir. (I didn’t realize when I began writing this post that I would be letting you in on all the very legitimate musical taste I have. Now I feel like I should also confess that the first cassette tape I purchased was Michael Bolton’s. And I still know all the words to “Time, Love, and Tenderness.”) I got very good at pretending, at stop lights, that I wasn’t doing anything. Nothing. Just driving, you morons. Not singing at the top of my lungs to the Titanic song.
By college, I knew I really liked singing, but I also knew that I wasn’t too strong a singer on my own. Still, I tried choir again. This time: gospel choir. I went to a very small Christian liberal arts school in San Diego. Where the guys who photographed the promotional materials had to work really hard to make sure the pamphlets made us look ethnically diverse. So much so that a darker-skinned friend of mine literally ended up in one of them twice. Anyway, a bunch of white girls singing gospel songs only worked marginally well, but I loved the music and it was a cool half-unit course that allowed me to sing without having to be heard.
Since then, I’ve mostly avoided singing in public arenas. I am the sort who likes to be good at something immediately, which is why I never stuck with sports or playing the guitar. You have to be bad at both of those things for a long time before becoming good at them, and I didn’t have the patience. But last night, I realized (maybe for the first time), that I do absolutely love my voice. It only took 31 years, a Dixie Chicks song, and an audience of one five-month-old baby girl who couldn’t quite get to sleep.