Taking risks and learning to sing

I’ve always wanted to sing, but I’ve also always been scared to. I will never forget the day my high school choir director pulled me aside after rehearsal to tell me to sing quietly because my voice was too loud and too out of tune. While these two things were objectively true, hearing them as a fragile 13-year-old was crushing.  It felt like the icing on the cake of a whole slew of teasing and put-downs about my voice. I stopped trying out for solos. I stopped singing amongst friends. My voice went from loud and enthusiastic to soft and breathy. I felt embarrassed. I wasn’t a natural singer. What was I doing there anyway, I thought. 

Last spring, while taking the Deep Listening Course, Dean of the Conservatory of Music Brian Pertl asked everyone to raise their hands if they have ever been told they can not sing. I watched as nearly everyone in the room raised their hands, and that is when it hit me. These are so many people who, like me, have been silenced. Singing is one of the first and most accessible ways of making music that we have. Anyone can sing, and telling someone that they can not is disempowering someone’s creative self. Especially because singing is such a personal instrument, silencing someone’s singing is silencing their voice. 

This past year, I have been on a journey to reclaim that voice. Last Spring term, I started taking voice lessons for the first time with Lecturer of Music Janet Planet. There was so much technique I had to learn. Years of disuse and soft-spoken speech had created a plenitude of bad habits. I had to start at the very beginning—breath, where to place the tongue, where to feel the sound in my mouth, how to find and blend my head and chest voice. I realized a lot of my intonation and tone problems stemmed from poor technique, and like any instrument, I had to practice. There is such a thing as “bad” singing, but so much is fixable if one is willing to take the time and put in the work to understand the beautiful mystery that is each and everyone’s unique voice. 

In addition to learning new singing techniques, I also started writing my own songs. I love writing and have written poetry and stories every day since I was a small child. Friends and family always asked me if I wrote songs, but I never did because I always felt held back by shyness about my voice. That spring, though, I was determined to change things. I took a song-making class and challenged myself to write my first song. After spending half an hour pacing the conservatory stressed out with worry that I would not write something good enough, I finally just sat down and wrote the first thing that came out. Fifteen minutes later, I had my very first song: a meditation on my childhood in the woods of Montana. Two days later, I sang it for my class and thus started a yearlong songwriting journey. 

I love writing songs. For me, the process has become a meditative, journal experience. Often times I sit down, unsure of what to write about, and then I just let myself go from any expectations and pressures and begin. So many times I end up looking at my songs and then afterwards going—oh, that was what it was about. That was what I was struggling with at that time. That was what I was feeling. Songwriting has given me so much therapeutic self-awareness.   

This past Sunday, I was able to share some of my songs at my Tiny Box performance. The songs ranged from things I wrote over winter break to a song I had written that day. It was not a perfect concert. I was still nervous, and it felt so strange to let some songs that were so personal and so vulnerable see the light of day. However, most importantly, I felt like myself, and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about singing your own songs: you can’t hide. Singing forces me to make my art in a land of risk, and I love it.