Learning to sing has been on my list of life experiences for years. This was the year that I finally broke down my barrier of self-consciousness and signed up for a retreat that promised participants would find their “true voice” by the weekend’s end.
Several summers ago when I took a leadership workshop and singing was included in the week long list of activities, one of the leaders accurately predicted that each of us would much rather parade around naked in front of the group than stand up and sing.
It was hard to believe then that singing hadn’t always been so terrifying. As a child, I eagerly belted out popular songs in elementary school shows. It never crossed my mind then that I should be self-conscious about my voice. It was natural to sing as a form of expression and singing with a group only made things better.
When I was a teenager someone told me I had a terrible singing voice and I silenced myself. Later, as an adult, singing along to a favorite song, my significant-other loudly proclaimed that I was tone-deaf and I stopped singing altogether. It would be years before I began singing alone in my car again, but even then I always made sure that the windows were securely shut and the music was loud enough that I couldn’t hear the sound of my own voice.
Each season as I flipped through the magazine of courses published by a retreat center that I frequent, I’d linger on the workshop called “The Natural Singer.” It took years before I worked up the courage to sign up. This past March as I drove out toward the Berkshires listening to the sound of my own voice singing along to familiar songs, I was sure I was making a mistake.
The workshop leader, Claude Stein, managed to create a space that was so completely open, welcoming, and safe that he had a group of 30 people singing within the first few minutes of the session. Here was this man with thick curly hair and a half-way untucked white shirt covered in his morning coffee spills who expressed so much self-confidence that it was impossible to feel intimidated in his presence.
One of the first exercises involved partnering with someone, standing face-to-face, and singing directly into his/her eyes. I faced my partner, a woman about my mother’s age who I quickly noted could sing just fine, and sang out Claude’s positive affirmation lyrics like, “I’m listening,” “You have a beautiful voice,” and “I’m gonna sing my ass off.” By the end we were laughing, tearing up, and hugging. The ice had been broken for all of us.
He distributed index cards on which we wrote our names and goals for the workshop and promised us ten minutes of personal one-on-one instruction to help us get closer to our goal. Then, much to my dismay, he informed us that our personal coaching time would begin with us singing lyrics to a song of our choice, a cappella, in front of the whole group. I could tell by the photos in the brochure that solo-singing was part of the weekend, but I expected it to come after many hours of practice and voice lessons.
He shuffled the cards and began pulling names at random for participants to come up and perform their solo in front of the group. Suddenly I couldn’t think of a single song lyric to sing. Lucky, by some grace, I wasn’t chosen that first night.
My name was pulled the following day at the conclusion of the second session, just about half-way through the group.
The thing that struck me most about everyone who had gone before me was that each and every one of them could already sing. Here was this group of 30 adults, many of them school teachers who spent their days using their voice in front of groups of teenagers (possibly the most critical audience known to man), convinced that their singing was not good enough and yet not one of them sounded bad when they got up to perform their solo. Even more amazing, Claude somehow managed to see immediately what it was in each of us that needed to be let free in order for us to sing in a voice that was clear, authentic, and uninhibited. The transformations that occurred in 10 minutes time were truly inspirational. My own journey was no different.
I received the usual “rock star welcome” from the group, stood up in the front of the room, planted my bare feet hips-width distance and took a deep breath. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure it was going to burst my ear drums. Despite the smiles and encouraging glances, I was terrified to sing the first note. And yet I managed to squeak out the first verses of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” without dieing of humiliation.
Though my goal was to explore tone since more than once I’ve been called monotone, Claude immediately shifted his coaching from piano scales to volume and range work. He stood in the far corner of the room and held his hand to his ear while encouraging me to yell out “This Little Light of Mine,” which at that point was more like “This Little Voice of Mine.”
He came to stand beside me at the front of the room and somehow coached me to match his voice as it grew successively louder. With each repetition of a different positive affirmation I felt my voice swelling and rising first from my lower abdomen, then solar plexus, and finally bursting fourth as if from my heart itself. I hardly recognized the sound of my own voice so loud, strong, and melodic.
I was the last singer for the Saturday classes. After floating out of the room, the endless possibilities of the evening stretched ahead. It was snowing outside and too cold, but, still spinning with enthusiasm from singing in front of the group, I changed into my running clothes, filled up my Camelbak, and headed out for a long run.
I tried to talk myself into turning around half a dozen times within the first mile. Then I remembered that Claude had said he tells all of his marathon runners to sing as they run. I thought the idea was ridiculous– I could barely breathe, how would I sing? Alone on the edge of the deserted two-lane highway I decided it was worth a shot.
I sang snippets of songs I could remember and when they ran out I made up my own lyrics just as Claude had been leading us. I sang about being fearless, strong, running, not turning back, and finding my voice. I sang at the top of my lungs when only the river and mountains could hear and felt happier than I’d been in a long while.
I ran like that for 3 hours and 13 minutes even after the sun had set, my flashlight batteries had run out, and the snow continued to pelt down on the streetlight-less streets, just me and the road and my songs. When finally I made it back to Kripalu I lifted my head to the sky and rejoiced in song. It had been one of the best runs of my life.
Just before the workshop I told my high school students that I was going to go away in March and return in April a singer and that I would serenade them in the classroom. I said it half in jest, not expecting anyone to actually remember.
Today, a week into May, someone in my most challenging class said to me, “Miss, remember you said you would sing for us?” I quickly said, “Yes, but that’s not going to happen.”
And in typical teenager fashion, they kept asking me to sing for them until eventually I relented and promised if they could work for the entire period, I’d sing a song in the last five minutes of class. I hoped they wouldn’t be able to hold up their end of the bargain, then felt my pulse racing when I saw 20 pencils dip down to papers simultaneously and silently after my promise was made.
And so, five minutes before the end of class, I found myself singing along to Mariah Carey’s “Hero” to a group of 20 teenagers who dimmed the lights, waved the flashlights on their cellphones in the air, and cheered and clapped when I made it the whole way through without passing out. The kid who I was certain had been plotting to slash my tires during class the day before high-fived, thanked me, and said, “See that wasn’t bad at all. You just have to have confidence in yourself.”
This student knew it, Claude Stein understood it, and now I’ve discovered that finding my voice wasn’t about hitting every note, increasing my range, or performing flawlessly for a crowd of people, it was about having the confidence in myself to sing and speak fearlessly and to know that whatever I sound like, it will always be good enough.