Self, Reclaimed

18 months ago I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever made myself do.

I sang in public.

What made it so hard wasn’t that I had never done this before, it was that I had. Many times.

I started performing when I was very small. I was in school musicals where I usually had a solo singing part, and at age ten I opened my school’s Christmas service in the local church singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City.”  At twelve, I was given a lead role in a musical based on Cinderella — I was Prince Yohann.

Throughout high school I performed solos in each year’s choral concerts and sang a duet for our class’s graduation. In college I was the only Freshman with a solo part in that semester’s production of “Allegro.” I sang at friends’ weddings and I was given solos in many performances of the choir of which I was a member.

And then I stopped singing.

Why exactly, I’m not sure. Singing had been the very core of my identity for so many years. The fact that I became a mother right before I stopped may be part of the answer, but that’s too psychologically deep to go into here (I did investigate this in my MA thesis, however). Whatever the reason, by the time I was in graduate school at age 38 and had the chance to perform in extremely informal and fun cabaret, I could not do it. I couldn’t even remember the words of one of my most favorite songs.

I wrote my thesis about reclaiming voice, a metaphor for reclaiming self. It wasn’t until I was deep into my research that I made the — what should have been quite obvious — connection to my singing voice. My singing had been my way of expressing self for years. But I could no longer do that. Singing had become just too raw. Too vulnerable. Too in my body.

Then came my final semester of grad school. And my very last chance at Cabaret. I forced myself to sign up and then I cried. And cried. I was a nervous wreck for the entire 24 hours before the show. It felt HUGE. Like this was a turning point. I was either going to bomb completely or have a break-through.

I did neither. I got up there and I sang. And it felt like the most natural thing in the world. My body knew how to do this.

Today I am at another milestone. After a year of lessons, I am performing in my first formal recital in almost 15 years. I am learning to emote on stage, I am learning to be vulnerable. I am learning to go into body and find, then express what’s there. I am learning that I have a voice and that I have a right to be heard. I’ve never sung this type of music in public before — it is operatic, a style I denied was my true forte because it was so… so… loud. And opera-y. But I will deny no more. I have a voice. I have a talent and I will sing with joy. I will share my gift.

Yes, this is a big deal to me. I need it to go well. Because it is more than a recital; this is Me. Reclaimed.

 

Hallelujah!

Copyright © 2011 Darren Hester

It would be a stretch to say that all Christmas music is beautiful. Every year when turkey-leftover soup is still very much on the menu and I find myself in a store singing along with some ear-gnawing song, I cringe with self-derision. But the Christmas carols, the ones I have heard and sung since birth, they are beautiful, if only for their warm familiarity.

Growing up in England where Christian music was sung in school and the Christmas concert was often sung in church, these carols are in my blood. When I was twelve I was the soloist for “Once in Royal David’s City” in my town’s big Anglican church. I can’t hear that carol today without feeling a rush of emotion. I love to sing these songs, but unless I attend church I don’t have the opportunity to have my heart soar. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in general, some of the most powerful choral music ever written is religious.

But music is my “religion.” Singing powerful choruses in a large group – which I have been fortunate enough to do with various choirs – or being in the audience wrapped in a blanket of sound is when I leave my monkey-mind and become closer to whatever that higher-ness is. It bothers me that, other than Broadway,  there are few other places than church where I can experience this (and Broadway ain’t exactly free or as convenient as the church on the corner). To feel the magic of music I must visit a place  that for me represents centuries of domination to listen to words that do not speak to me as a woman. (I write this with hesitation because the church with whose choir I do sing with occasionally – to get my fix-  is an extremely open and welcoming place where I have never been told I was damned for having the audacity to be be born so very imperfectly human.)

Frankly, it frustrates me that God holds a monopoly over “my” music. But I will continue to sing in Handel’s Messiah at Christmas and listen to Lessons and Carols from King’s College on NPR each year because at the end of the day beautiful music is beautiful music. The voices and the strings swelling, grabbing my heart, the timpani beating in my stomach, and the majestic horns making me feel things very little else has the capability to do. And until Winter Solstice songs are as familiar to us as “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” I will just have to sing with those choirs of angels.

Prompt: When I _____ I feel closest to God(dess), Spirit, the Universe, etc.