Vocal Adrenaline

For as long as I remember, I’ve had a problem with my voice. I remember the day it began vividly – it was one of my first classes in Canada. American History. Our teacher was a skinny little man, probably in his late fifties. His skin was a phoney shade of copper brown, his nose bespectacled, and his head adorned by a mop of floppy, greasy hair through which he insisted on running his fingers at every opportunity. His wardrobe must have consisted of an entire closet of tight-fitting grey suits, and a few dozen pairs of squeaky black loafers. One eyebrow was continually raised, and it seemed a smug sort of Sean Penn-esque smirk had visited his face one day, and liked it so much it decided to set up camp. Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan.

One of his favourite things to do was to assign presentations. Get the students to stand up there all class so he didn’t really have to do anything. My first time up was during my first term in a north American high school, and I was nervous. Nervous they’d make fun of my accent, or that I’d be too quiet for them to hear. I got up there, glued my eyes to the page my hands were struggling to keep still, and started to read. I’d barely got to my second sentence before Mr. Milan stopped me, and started laughing. “Slow it down, and speak up! Nobody can understand a word you’re saying!”  My face flushed. Everything I’d worried would happen had happened, and in front of the thirty other students, too. I took a breath, and continued shakily. Every presentation from that point on was prefaced by Mr. Milan’s jibes, reminding me of my initial humiliation. That moment had forever traumatised my feelings toward public speaking.

“I wonder sometimes how any of us survive when we are all so fragile as children that makes it impossible to reach adulthood unscathed. I find myself wondering if these things don’t happen to force us to grow, but so often we don’t know how to heal and remain stuck.”

Jenny, local blogger and kindred spirit, said it so well in one of her recent posts. Sometimes, I don’t think people realise the lasting impact their words can have – and the damage it can potentially do in shaping someone’s future.

I was telling a good friend of mine this story last weekend, after we’d finished recording a chapter in his audio drama (!). At the beginning of summer, he’d asked me if I’d be interested in a role in a radio play he’d written. I was shocked – I had zero acting experience, and my voiceover work was pretty limited – stuff that required nothing in the way of character or emotion. Still, he convinced me to give it a shot. A couple of weeks ago, we did our first take. And for some reason, he was thrilled with my performance. Outside, I’d been reading the lines, but all the while the inner monologue had been on loop, telling me I wasn’t believable… my accent was too different… why the heck would he want someone with no acting experience anyway… but somehow, he thought I was good.  I told him about the incident in high school,  why I was so afraid of using my voice, and how I didn’t understand how all these opportunities to do so kept popping up lately.

Narrating the company video at work. Recording the voiceover on our radio ad.  Being given a job where speaking in front people is now my primary function. Being asked to host radio shows three times in the last two months. Why did they want my voice? My friend asked me what the logical conclusion would be. If I was no good, why did people want me? “Well… maybe it’s not that bad?” I said. “People don’t want ‘not bad’,” he laughed. “People want excellent.”  I didn’t know what to say. Compliments are so hard to take when you’ve believed the opposite thing for the longest time. But I was grateful for the encouragement… and slightly intrigued.

See, I’ve wanted to use my voice in another way for a while now. Every time I hear a good song, watch X Factor or crank up the Glee soundtrack, I have a near irrepressible urge to burst into song – but my thoughts limit me to doing so solely when there’s nobody home, and all the windows are closed. I never used to have this problem – there was a time I thrived on performing – taking stage school, putting on shows for the neighbours, and once upon a time, fronting a punk rock band. I love to sing. If I had three wishes, I’m pretty sure one of them would be to have a voice like Lea Michele. I had this conversation with an old friend this summer while I was in England, who, since I’ve moved away, has become an accomplished actor and musical performer. He had an interesting thought on the subject: If you have the urge to do something, and you feel like you have to break into song, it means that’s what you should be doing.” He went on to convince me that though some people may naturally be better singers than others, it doesn’t mean anybody can’t become a great singer with the right training.  “It’s just muscles,” after all – and, like couch potatoes can become athletes with enough hard work, training, and dedication, non-singers can gain strong musical voices the same way.

Filled with hope, I decided to do something about it. I hired a vocal coach. I was supposed to have my first lesson last Thursday, but – and I hate to admit it – I got hit by what happens when you rush into things before you’re ready. I ran the thought of singing in front of someone else over and over in my head until I was so nervous I was nauseous, and ended up making myself sick. I could’ve kicked myself – I’m not a patient person, and when I want something, I want it right away. Taking the long road is hard in the best of times, but when something ridiculous like nerves is your barricade, it’s the most frustrating thing in the world.

I still want to take that lesson. Study, train, and practice. Sing in the house regardless of if the windows are open or closed. Learn to let go and dive into something I love… with the hope that one day, I’ll have the guts to perform. Maybe it’ll be at the work Christmas talent show. Maybe it’ll be around a campfire. Maybe I’ll even do karaoke – I only have another nine months after all, and it’s so frustrating that something I want to do so badly is going to be one of the harder ones to cross off the list. The coach was understanding, and sent me some extremely kind words of encouragement and reassurance. I’m going to give it another shot next week. I just have to pluck up the courage, and keep some more of Jenny’s words of wisdom in the back of my mind:

“If I’m lucky enough to be able to take lessons, I am not going to waste it by being afraid! I finally get that it is not only about giving myself permission to make mistakes. It is also about believing that I am worthy, and have the right to shine.”

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52 comments

  1. This is awesome! I loved your Wicked performance (squee!) so I am not surprised that this is something you definitely would love to do – so props to you for hiring the coach and going with something you enjoy. I hope it brings you much happiness. xx

    1. Awww you are too sweet!! 😀 I really hope I can grow the proverbial balls and go for it again. I feel like kicking myself when Sweet wants to sing and I go make him sit outside so I can practice without him hearing if I’m bad. I just want to be able to do it without reserve… it’s so frustrating when I’M the only thing holding myself back! I’m glad you liked the Wicked vid… that makes one of us lol

  2. Public speaking is definitely something a lot of people, including myself, seem to struggle with. I wish I knew the secret to getting over it. I love what your friend said about singing, though. If you feel like it, sing. Clearly you have some vocal talent. And I’m so glad you’re giving the vocal lessons another shot. It’s hard to try something new, and it’s easy to just say “maybe this isn’t for me” after one little detail goes wrong. Hang in there!

  3. Hi Emily,
    Thanks so much for the link and the quotes! I am truly honored.
    So sorry to hear you missed your lesson. Please, please, don’t give up! I can almost guarantee that it will be a lot less frightening than your mind is making it out to be.
    I’m looking forward to hearing what happens next!

  4. hey em give yourself a bit of a break. you had the courage to put yourself on the internet singing which i know is different than in person but it showed us what a lovely voice you do have. nobody is going to be perfect at anything the first time around, and i know your a lot like me, wanting to be good at things right away, but your only human and we all make mistakes, the whole point of taking a class and coaching is to learn how to be even better than you already are– nobody is going to judge if you can’t pull off the rachel berry’s first time round!!! i hope you go for your first lesson soon, so i can hear how fab you did and how much more comforable you are, and that much closer to your goal. you’ll be awesome.

  5. It’s too bad the impact that some people have on our lives even when they don’t realize it. I know I’ve had people impact me negatively in such small ways and those small things last forever.

    1. I know – I can think of a handful of times that have been maybe a simple sentence said by someone, but have stayed with me forever. I guess that’s where different personality types come into play – someone may think a statement is meaningless in the long run, and someone else may let it sink into their souls, affecting how they see themselves forever. We should all be careful with our words.

  6. I loved this post! And your friend is right, you have an amazing voice and an amazing way of articulating yourself. As someone who is afraid of new challenges, I understand your fear of tackling voice lessons, but I sincerely believe that you will be thrilled with yourself for rising to the challenge. Thanks for being such a constant source of Inspiration 🙂

  7. I’m going to quote Marianne Williamson as she said it better than I ever could:

    Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
    Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
    It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
    We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
    talented and fabulous?

    Actually, who are you not to be?

    You are a child of God.
    Your playing small does not serve the world.

    Don’t play small, Emily. ❤

  8. Hey, let your light shine! 🙂 These are the words from the good shepherd sister I always bring with me since high school.
    ..And I wish you more of that hoped courage..
    Good luck!

  9. Emily dear one of the reasons I love to read your blog is that you are so honest and genuine. I see so many blogs where people just talk about the good times and not the REAL situations they go through behnd the scenes and yours is an honest portrait of just what a great person you really are. Props to you dear for having the courage to share your struggles. Remember all the things you’ve been nervous about before and have accomplished brilliantly – they should prove to you that you can do this as well.

  10. Good luck Emily! Your voice kicks butt 🙂 It’s funny though, I have other friends who have British accents, and had similar experiences with teachers. Why would anyone do that to a child?? Yikes.

  11. Good for you Em! You will do this and you’ll do it great, I know it!

    I’ve had a similar experience with a stupid teacher. One day during class, he said something to the effect of, “I never put my my good outspoken students in the corner when I make a seating chart,” basically blabbering on about how his best students are never in the corner. And there I was in the corner. What teacher says that?!?

    I didn’t let it get to me! Our classes raised hell enough (because he was a bad teacher all around) and we switched classes to a much better teacher. I never blamed myself for his pathetic speech that somehow made himself feel better. When people make comments to hurt you, it’s never about you. It’s always about them, and their insecurity.

    So, get it girl! Plus, I love your voice and your accent.

    1. How horribly insensitive!! I’ve never understood how people put others down and get some kind of satisfaction from it. 😦

      I’m glad you ended up getting another teacher!! And thanks for the sweet words 🙂

  12. You know, that is so great that you have overcome some of that fear of public talking/singing. I have no doubt that you will be doing great in that singing class. You’ve been making some huge progress regarding your self-esteem in the past year or so (at least that has been my impression), you can do this as well. Just remember that when you go to that singing class next week.

  13. – Well we’ve heard you sing, we’re still alive and willing to hear more 😀
    – Hey, never be ashamed of our accent! It rocks and it gets us… places.
    – I want to get a vocal coach! I just think it would be the most uplifting and life changing to be able to sing and know you’re good. From the sounds of your voice, you definitely have a more-than-alright basis to work on (bless ’em, some people just were not destined to sing…) and you should most certainly go for it. You don’t want to be old and croaky voiced in 2060 and wish you could sing like a little Stevenage angel?
    – You’ll regret the day you told us you got a vocal coach, we’re going to expect an a capella version of Glee songs with every other blog post!

    ps sorry I’ve been ‘away’ so long

  14. As a teacher, I really try to remind myself of how my words can be perceived. Thanks for the reminder! Also, I want to frequently perform on stage. Sigh…I really should attempt it. You should too!

  15. You’ve hired a vocal coach? That’s good. It’s the first step. Reading all these comments, I’m assuming they’ve all heard you sing. I haven’t heard you sing but I bet you’re great at it. I myself is a frustrated singer and I love karaoke. I’m not even that good!

    And yes, you are worthy and you have the right to shine! 🙂

    1. It was my musical vlog debut back in the spring…. it was pretty bad but entertaining!! 🙂 I think I just need to stop being such a perfectionist and realise it’s okay not to be stellar – if I love doing something I shouldn’t let worrying about what people think stop me from doing it. Easy to say, hard to put into practice though :S

  16. Interesting ideas! I can’t believe that teacher, that’s horrible. I watched Oprah talking about the educational system (at least in the U.S.) today and she made it look pretty bad. There are definitely bad teachers out there but there are also great teachers. Isn’t crazy how there are little things in life that can stick with you for so long…even when you know you should let it go? I will never ever forget being in the 5th grade Spelling Bee…maybe I’ll have to blog about it! I think it’s great that you are going to take lessons, life should be about having fun and doing what you want to do (even if you feel like you are pushing yourself); it’ll be worth it! 🙂

  17. Yet again, you amaze me. It can be so hard for us to believe in compliments when people have tried so hard to break us down, especially in certain areas where we’re already self-conscious. For instance, my dad’s nickname for me was Furby (which caused me to start shaving my forearms in an effort to rid myself of that extra hair) and Poochie (because of my small pooch).

    For what it’s worth, I think you have a great voice & I definitely think we need more vlogs from you, just so I can hear your voice again & again. 🙂

    1. Oh my dear – everything I hear about your Dad makes me want to give you an enormous hug. Nobody should have to hear such cruel words. I had a similar experience in school when a boy said I had arms like a monkey – I started shaving my forearms as a result too and I would try and cover up at every opportunity. Words can do more harm than weapons sometimes 😦

  18. When it comes to singing, boy do I love it too!!! I’m like you–I cant help that urge that just wants to burst into song. And lemme tell you: hiring a coach helped TREMENDOUSLY. I hired my vocal coach last year and worked with her for about 5 months (I wish I had gone longer though because you should). Before her, I’d sing and play guitar for my friends, and they’d just smile and nod. But now… people love it. And the girls swoon (especially when you hit falsetto)

    I can’t tell you how much I relate to all your feelings surrounding it…. hyper-focused on what people think of you, yet wanting so desperately to sing and be heard. This is my advice to you: let the latter be your focus. It’s one or the other: everything that’s holding you back, or the path that brings you towards what you love to do. Pick one.

    And you know, as simple as that sounds, it’s not easy to just “let go” of the anxiety. The trick, however, is awareness. Feel the sensation. Isolate that voice in your head. What does it say to you? Accept that it’s there, don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. Then say to that voice, gently but firmly, “You can talk all you want, but I’m going to sing. I’m going to speak from my heart.” No one in the audience will be able to relate to someone when their heart is withheld. But when you believe in it, when you go for it, your body, mind, and voice will be free, and someone in the audience is going to fall in love with you and your message. And that, Miss Emily Jane, is such an amazing beauty to behold. It’s freedom, it’s complete vulnerability, and it’s exhilirating.

    Practice, practice, practice. Listen to your coach. Give him your time and your heart. He will work with it, and he’s more than willing to forgive you for your mistakes. He will set your voice free, and once he does, there’s nothing stopping you from sharing your beautiful, beautiful heart with the rest of the world. Let your windows down, unlock the doors, and let your beauty be heard.

    Go to that lesson Emily Jane.
    Go for it, kick that anxiety in the face, and tell it that *your heart* runs your life, not your fears. Just as it always has!

    *hug!*

  19. Sometimes, I don’t think people realize the lasting impact their words can have – and the damage it can potentially do in shaping someone’s future.

    This is SO TRUE!

    I think especially teachers have to be careful with what they say to their students sometimes as it might “get stuck in your head” forever.

    I think you’re doing fabulous though in seeking out opportunities (or being sought out ;)) to overcome this fear of speaking (and singing!) in front of people.
    Good for you, Em. ❤

  20. Awww, Jon Michael I can’t even say how much I appreciate your comment. The fact that you took the time to write such an encouraging message really means a lot!! You’re absolutely right, it IS a choice between letting your heart and your fears rule your life, and choosing the latter is so out of line with how I want to live it I’m going to keep those words firmly ingrained in my mind next time I go for that singing lesson. And, I would LOVE to see a video of YOU singing!! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement!! I really hope I can find the guts to do it – I just booked my “version 2” lesson for the week after next, so I’m crossing my fingers determination will win over fear this time…

  21. wow…Thank you so much for sharing this, Emily. (c: It was something I certainly needed to hear. Singing, in particular, is something I struggle with as well. I’ve had people encourage me and tell me that I had a good voice, but I have a tendency to write it off as someone “just being nice”; I can’t just receive the compliment for what it is.

    You (and Jenny) have definitely challenged me to start changing my way of thinking. I’m really looking forward to hearing about your progress!!

    1. Oh thank you!! I understand how you feel with having difficulty accepting compliments. It’s like I feel on the inside, I’m REALLY not good, why are they saying I am? Not just with singing but with lots of things. I feel, like you, that they’re just “being nice”. I guess we have to work on giving ourselves a bit of a break sometimes 🙂

  22. Well I heard you sing when you sang that song from Wicked and I thought you sounded great! Good for you for overcoming a fear (or working towards it), esp since it’s something you are so passionate about. It’s intimidating to sing in front of others, but it’s also quite a rush. My High School boyfriend’s dad was a choir teacher and he helped me on a solo and I was SO intimidated at first, but then I realized he wasn’t going to judge me and just wanted to help me, and it was great working one-on-one with him.

    1. That’s really encouraging – and the instructor emailed me saying it was totally normal and she had someone who was about my age who was so embarrassed and scared at first and after a few times, was totally pumped and comfortable. I just wish I could fastforward to that point. 🙂 Thanks for sharing though – it definitely made me feel a little less alone.

  23. I had practically the same thing happen to me in high school! I sometimes wonder why they let certain people shape such influential minds.

    That’s awesome that you’re going to take lessons!! Way to overcome your fear. Your determination shows through so you will make it happen! It’s also my biggest dream to actually sing but I have such a horrible voice it’s not even funny. I unfortunately am a tad tone deaf. 🙂 Best of luck and I look forward to hearing all about your journey!

  24. Hey Emily i am a really good singer and i do sing Glee songs too i do want to sing with you guys I love Jessie st James so much

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