In early January, I began a profound excursion into a new part of my healing shame journey: reclaiming singing.
Ever since I was a child, I have believed that I can’t “carry a tune.” In elementary school musical tryouts, I would get cast as a narrator, because I had a strong and confident speaking voice, but I was told to sing more quietly. Now, I’ve just recently realized that telling me to sing quietly might have been well intended – to help me hear those around me so I could better match their pitch. But what I internalized was a habit of singing so quietly that I couldn’t even hear myself at all.
For years, when I was asked that party-game question, “if you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be,” I would answer that I’d be able to sing. I thought it was just a characteristic I was born with, like brown hair, or not being athletic. But wait! I was actually born with very light brown hair, nearly blonde, and it gradually got darker and darker for years, until it was nearly black. And then it kept changing, to where it’s now salt-and-pepper! And, speaking of athletic ability, what do you know? I’m now doing low-flying trapeze…!
Still, I didn’t realize until recently that most of what held me back from singing was shame. It’s not that I’ve never done any singing. In fact, I was determined to have a Bat Mitzvah despite my inability to sing, and did so. The experience was absolutely terrifying. A couple of years before my own Bat Mitzvah, I had witnessed our congregation’s operatic cantor’s daughter stumble through her Bat Mitzvah portion, being corrected over and over again. (It is considered very important to get all the words and notes correct when chanting Torah, and there is a formal ritual role called a “gabbai,” whose job it is to correct the chanter—of any age or level of experience—if they make a mistake). I remember clearly the powerful feelings of vicarious humiliation at watching this, though I have very little memory of my own sister’s Bat Mitzvah, which happened that same year!
Despite my fear, I was determined to have a Bat Mitzvah, because my Jewish identity was very important to me. As most B’nei Mitzvah children do, I practiced with a tutor and on my own for months, and learned the Torah and Haftarah portions. In the practice session with the Rabbi shortly before the big day, he said I was doing well, but suggested I try singing in a lower register. I tried this in front of him, but under the pressure and anxiety of the day itself (I was so scared I thought I was going to throw up), I couldn’t do it, and reverted to the higher voice I’d been using before. Again, now, I can see that he was trying to help me have more power, more of my full range. But at the time, it just felt like one more thing I couldn’t get right. Although I don’t think I got corrected much, I felt shame about my voice during and after my performance, and huge relief when it was over. (An exception was the set of prayers that come right after the Haftorah reading – they are the beginning of the “denouement,” after the hardest part is over, and have a kind of triumphal march tune to them, and I think I sang them in a lower register, with confidence – and I remember feeling sorry people weren’t really listening to them because they’re considered so much less important than the biblical passages themselves!). The next year when the Rabbi tried hard to convince me to be the chanter for the same Torah portion again, I adamantly refused. There was NO WAY I was going to put myself through that again!
Since then, I’ve occasionally worked on trying to learn to sing better a few times. I remember in my early 20s, at the Midwest Wimmin’s Festival, having a private session with someone, who I asked to help me learn to sing. And when I was living on a communal organic farm in rural Missouri, I went through a period of time when I sat at the piano and practiced playing basic melodies and singing along. I remember Ann, a long-time member, saying once, “Listen to her!!” in surprise and pleasure. It surprised her, because usually I never sang loud enough for anyone to hear!
However, these efforts were short-lived, and I still had the “I can’t carry a tune” and “If there were one thing I could change about myself” stories running in my head. And, I now realize, a huge bucket of shame. Shame, remember, makes us want to hide.
When I began my deep dive into somatics, in 2012, I started having urges to sing during some of my 1:1 coaching/bodywork sessions. I realized that healing my relationship to my voice was an important part of my journey, and I committed to finding a workshop or person to help me with this. I looked around a bit, and tried an online program, but nothing really fit. Plus I had all kinds of reasons why it seemed like a bad idea. Why should I try to learn to sing? I had a lot of other things I was working on. And even if it were possible to learn to sing, it felt so… privileged. Did I need to be good at everything?
Still, somatic awareness has a way of permeating many areas of life in unexpected ways. After one particularly intense session, I noticed that when I listened to music, I could feel it in my body in a way I never had before. And, the occasional times when I would sing – at a singalong, or at religious services, I was sometimes able to feel my voice resonating in my own body, from within, rather than being completely caught up in trying to hear what it sounded like from the outside, worrying about whether or not it was in tune with others, and fearing others’ judgment.
Then, last Fall, my colleague Julie returned from a Center for Courage and Renewal leadership program and brought a story and song from a guest trainer, Barbara McAfee. I instantly recognized it, and her, from an Authentic Leadership in Action conference I’d been to in Columbus Ohio in 2011. And when I heard she lived nearby, in Minneapolis, and went online to look her up, I felt instantly – she’s the one! I signed up for a Full Voice Coaching Intensive – two back-to-back half-days of work together in person.
In preparation for the work, I wrote about my history with singing and my voice, and about my dreams for my “voice set free.” Even before the intensive, I began making up little songs, and singing in the shower. And I realized suddenly, with relief and laughter and tears, the deeper meaning and potential of the bathroom remodeling project we’d just completed. I’d felt a bit silly and guilty spending extra money to commission a gorgeous tile mural of a waterfall for our master bathroom shower. After all, only Don and I were going to see it… But now, I bowed in awe at my subconscious wisdom, as I realized I had created the perfect sanctuary for healing my relationship to song.
The in-person work with Barbara was intense and very emotional for me at times. And also playful and fun. Barbara works with a “five elements” system, assisting people to access five different qualities of the voice. Each quality is represented by a “character”; the “earth” voice is a low, Neanderthal type, the “fire” voice is an Italian tenor, the “water” voice is Julia Child, the “metal” voice is a nasal, Siamese cat, and the “air” voice is a high, breathy airhead. These qualities correspond to the 5 chakras, and have different strengths and properties. They are important for public speaking as well as singing. I found that vocal exercises playing with these characters were not only fun, but gave me so much else to think about that I could forget to worry about whether or not I was hitting the “right” pitches.
Since the intensive, I have practiced nearly every day, and am deliberately learning some specific songs that I love. And, I’ve realized something kind of obvious, yet profound, about my old stories about my voice, and about practice.
I’d imbibed the widely-held cultural belief that some people are naturally born artists or musicians or singers, and the rest of us shouldn’t even try, but should be consumers of others’ creative expression. Growing up, I got a lot of positive strokes for the things that came easily to me, but I somehow felt that if I wasn’t automatically good at something, there was no point in trying. This left no room for practice, or hard work. This was problematic on many levels, and I have obviously had to learn to work hard at some things. But it is still new to me to realize that my ability to sing a song well is not black and white, i.e. either I can or I can’t. It really is easier to do it well if I practice it!! Duh! And in order to practice, I have to be able to hear myself sing, both on key and off-key.
Realizing this, I remembered a time when I was struggling with learning to sing some prayers for religious school, and my friend Rachel Bloch made a tape for me to practice with. I surprised myself and everybody else with how well I was able to learn to do them, with this support and practice! How could I have so easily forgotten this lesson? Now that I’ve finally remembered, I am gradually learning to sing songs that used to seem completely hopeless to even try.
Is the shame completely gone? No. But there’s a lot less of it. I haven’t yet broken out in song in front of a roomful of people, though I do plan to work my way up to karaoke… I still struggle with fear and shame even singing in a “safe” space where I know the person listening will be supportive. But I now understand that it is the shame and fear that disable my voice, rather than an inherent inability. And I am allowing myself to sing, loudly, even when I can’t hit all the notes. And I am taking pleasure in it! Don and I have even begun singing together a bit.
I no longer think it is privileged or greedy of me to want to reclaim this part of myself. No, I don’t need to be good at everything. I don’t need to be good at many things… at horseback riding or sailing or flying an airplane or flying a kite, to name a few. But none of those were areas of deep shame for me! I don’t even need to be “good” at singing, but I do get to heal my shame about it, and learn to enjoy it.