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.”