Wednesday, October 29, 2008


My relationship with singing has been a rocky one, but it has withstood the test of time, as well as overcome my addiction to chronic dabbling. I don't remember much of the early years. I was no child prodigy, singing in gospel choirs or entertaining the family on holidays. In fact, I was noticed for my talent on the clarinet, but I only once remember being complimented on my singing.

We were doing some kind of choral concert in elementary school. Perhaps a holiday one, I don't remember. Fact is, I don't even remember who our chorus teacher was. Anyway, I have this memory in my head of her chastising me for not singing loud enough. She said that I knew the melody and other students were following my lead. If I did not sing out fully, then many others would trail off into uncertain, indistinguishable "counterpoint". So, I sang out.

Memories are funny though. I don't remember her name. I don't remember the setting (did she say this in front of the class? Oh the embarrassment if she did!) in which she delivered her exhortation. I often ask myself, did this really happen at all? Or did I create some memory in order to serve as a reminder to me to continue with the craft? I don't know.

However, I do clearly remember the agony of enrolling in junior high and finding out that I would have to choose between being in choir or in the band. As I mentioned before, I was recognized for my talent on the clarinet, and in the end it wound up not being much of a choice. Nonetheless, there was a pang of disappointment at not being able to continue singing in a choral setting, something I enjoyed immensely.

And that was that for a long time. I focused on clarinet, made All-Region bands, played solos at concerts, and excelled at the path I had chosen for myself. Then I burned out.

I still regret the timing. I was finishing up my sophomore year. I had gotten a relatively high chair in All-Region band and my clarinet instructor was excited about my chances at All-State. But I told him I was done. Finished. I was too stressed out to continue, could not deal with the pressure. He was dumbfounded, but accepted my decision after his initial prodding was unsuccessful. I know he was wondering, "What in the world have we been working for?"

And I had no answers to his questions. I ditched band and played football my last two years in high school, which was a great experience, but athletics were clearly disadvantaged in having a future for me beyond graduation. So it is that I arrived at college and tried to take my alto sax into private lessons and a jazz studies minor. I never got going. I didn't give it the time, I didn't have the passion for the instrument anymore. I could not for the life of me remember modes. Everything just stopped.

Except singing. See, during my senior year in high school the choir teacher made an impassioned appeal to the senior football players to be play the mostly nonspeaking parts of cowboys in Crazy For You. Somehow, several of us ended up signing on, and it involved singing and dancing. There's probably video somewhere, but woe to the person who puts it online.

Anyway, it was my first time to really sing in almost five years. We practiced hard. There were harmonies, and I had to be told that I was in the low tenor range. It was such a great experience that I kept singing in college. But, without an official venue, I subjected my roommate Sean to hours upon hours of torturous, slightly off tune singing while I tried to figure out Boyz II Men harmonies through my computer headphones.

But, through Sean's perseverance, a voice actually started to emerge. The tones got sharper, more accurate. Coming up with accompanying harmonies became more automatic. I sang in public a couple of times at some church events. Then four of us got together and formed a band at the end of college. Listening to the recordings now, I feel like we were as good as we could have been considering our relatively sparse amount of practice. And it was unbelievably fun.

Being in a band is without a doubt one of the defining social experiences of my life. I think can say without any hint of pretension that I miss being on stage. The thrill of being the point of focus for everyone's attention, hidden only by a guitar and the much more talented musicians at my side. While I still shudder slightly at hearing my recorded voice, it was nonetheless a consistently wondrous thing to hear my voice coming out of monitors or house speakers.

Then we went the way of college bands. Sam moved to California, I eventually moved back to Arkansas, and the Fellowship was broken. I still sang on my own. Recorded a few of my songs solo with terrible microphones on laboriously work intensive recording equipment. But, within six months of moving back to Little Rock, the well went dry. Without new songs, singing became an exercise for me, an enjoyment. That's nice, but I lost my voice.

Here in the last five years I've been trying to figure out what happened, trying to recover one of the great joys of my life. My listening in the last few years has honed in on jazz, blues, soul...vocal heritages that I had not explored in my songwriting nor in my casual singing until I joined a gospel choir in Little Rock. The music fit my voice like the missing half of a treasure map. "My vocal cords were made for this!" I thought excitedly.

This is going to sound awful, but even better than gospel choir is karaoke. I'm not gonna lie -- when you sing Al Green at karaoke and make a roomful of drunk rednecks from central Washington get up to dance and applaud when you finish, your ego is insufferable for the rest of the night.

Yet, there is something in me that is misplaced. There's a fear in that thrill of singing now. I don't in any way understand it. As much as I loved being on stage, I hide my voice away now. Ask any of my friends in Portland...most of them don't know I was in a band in St. Louis. If they know I can sing it's only because they've heard me at work or they were present at Lizz's birthday party when I sang "End of the Road".

What happened? Just the other day at work, a friend asked me to sing a line from John Legend to help jog her memory of whether she'd heard him or not. I refused. I don't know why. I love singing John Legend songs...what was the block there?

I don't get it, and I don't like it. I want my voice back. I want to be comfortable with it again, wear it like an old pair of jeans that are slightly frayed at the edges, but oh so comfortable in the seat. I want to invite my friends to witness one of the things I enjoy doing most in life. Seriously, I think there is a lightness in me that is only present when I'm singing and performing music on a regular basis. How many of you have ever seen that?

I don't know what this post is ultimately about. Glancing back over it, it seems a bit narcissistic and self indulgent. But, I think I needed to write it. Put it out of my head and onto some medium, to prod myself to recover that lost love. So, if you've read this far, thanks for following along with my logorrhea. Yeah...

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