Beginner’s Mind

I have always loved to sing. Some of my earliest memories are of both my parents singing to me, and later, full-hearted singing on family car trips, learning my parents’ vast repertoire of old folk songs, while making up crazy verses to “The Deacon Went Down in the Cellar to Pray.” My dad was an instrumental music teacher and ran his own music studio: Davis Studios of Music and Dance. Stacks of band instruments—trumpets, accordions, flutes, trombones, clarinets, a saxophone, and even a tuba—sat under the Baby Grand in our living room. Music was everywhere.

My parents forced me to take piano lessons, but I hated to practice. After a few years, I quit. Unfortunately, I continued to be a musical dilettante. I played French Horn for a year in Junior High; then I quit that, too. As for singing, my carefree relationship to my voice ended when Mrs. Stout, my elementary school music teacher, listened to me belt out “My Country Tis of Thee,” pulled me aside and whispered, “Just mouth the words, dear.” I didn’t sing again for years.

Many of my writing students come to me reporting similar injuries. A journal that was discovered or read. A cruel comment by a teacher, a parent, a sibling. An English paper covered with red marks. A vicious critique of a vulnerable first draft. A stinging rejection letter. It doesn’t take much to squash our creative voices, and that goes for both singing and the written word. It takes a huge risk to try again after years—or even decades—of having our voices shut down.

When I became an adult, I started singing again. I’ve always sung with my children and they in turn, love to sing. Eli’s been in choir and chamber choir at his school for the past six years and always has a song on his lips. Rarely a day goes by when a contagious tune isn’t running through our household.

But aside for one very brief stint 25 years ago, I’ve never had a singing lesson. I don’t know how to make harmonies, I don’t know if I’m flat or sharp, I don’t know a D flat from an B sharp, and I always hear music in my head that I can’t begin to recreate with my voice. But songs are always moving through me.

A month ago, at the urging of several songbirds in my long-term women’s group, I joined the fledging Santa Cruz Community Gospel Choir. My friends reassured me that beginners were welcome. I didn’t have to be experienced; I didn’t have to have any vocal training to be part of this choir. I didn’t even need to know if I was an alto or a soprano. (I’m an alto, I’ve discovered).

I came up with a dozen reasons not to go to my first rehearsal. I was sure everyone would spot me as an imposter, that I’d get kicked out my very first day. But that little girl who loved to sing forced me into the car. She told me to buck up and get over it. My heart was thudding when I walked into the rehearsal hall, but I signed up, paid my money, and sat down in the alto section.

I was terrified and excited and happy, and I have been terrified and excited and happy at each subsequent rehearsal. I adore the music. Our new choir is blessed with an extremely talented musical director, Tammi Brown, and a hot 3-piece band that includes a professional pianist, bass player and drummer. I still find each new song intimidating, but I am finding my voice in the most literal way. My friend Jan, who’s also a beginner alto, and I have just started taking a weekly singing lesson together—and they’re fun. I can’t believe how happy singing makes me. Being in a gospel choir is the fulfillment of a childhood dream I didn’t even know I had. It’s adding spunk into a life that was feeling tired and flat.

Joining the choir is great for me professionally, too. It’s very good for me as a teacher to be a beginner. I am having a first-hand experience of my students’ fears, anxieties, excitement and fledgling first steps. My empathy increases every time I’m sure I’ll never hit that high note or worry that the women singing next to me are going to tell me to shut up and mouth the words. I am more acutely aware of how scared my students are every time I ask them to pick up a pen and write. I, too, am experiencing how hard it is to persist in the light of the inner critic. And at the same time, I am experiencing the transformation and renewal that comes when we take the risk to follow a dream and try something new.

 The Santa Cruz Community Choir is open to new members. If you’re interested, come to one of our rehearsals. Sundays, 5:30-7:00 PM at the First Congregational Church, 900 High Street in Santa Cruz.

 

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