Friday, March 7, 2008

Earthly voices

I am not a singer. I’ve never been. Often, my mom has reminisced about singing as a tiny girl, singing with her siblings, even singing on the radio; we've always known she has a pretty alto voice. In high school, my best friend had a lovely voice, too; she fronted the jazz band while I honked away on my giant tenor saxophone—not nearly as intriguing as sultry vocals, I well knew, but it was the best I could do. A couple of people in college told me I was a decent singer, encouraged me to try…but I was so busy being unrestrained and unscheduled at that point in my life, I just didn’t have time to seek out any real singing opportunities, and then I was finished with my degree and all those golden chances had drifted out of reach.

Fast-forward many years, through several embarrassing karaoke attempts and the growing realization that this was not a talent of mine. All that time, I sang in the car, in the shower, to myself. I sang when I knew I wouldn’t offend anyone. I had pretty much abandoned the whole idea, yet in my head was hidden the musical knowledge I’d stored there: piano lessons as a child, 8 long years of band geekery, adoration of symphony and its many instruments, all rolled into a safe corner of my brain to remain intact but unused.

And then, we found our church and began attending regularly.

I won’t lie: the reason I came back after that first week was because of the music. It was just wonderful, inspiring, soul-touching stuff. Sunday after Sunday, I drank it in, and slowly, the dream came alive again. I refused to acknowledge the re-emergence of the dream for many months; the choir was too good, and I could never hang with them. It was enough just to hear the music and add my quiet, dubious voice to the beauty.

And then, one day, it wasn’t enough. I thought to myself, what have I to lose? I can try, right? If I stink, I can live with that—at least I will have given it a shot, and I'll know with certainty. I worked up my nerve and finally called the church to inquire. But. They weren’t currently accepting applicants. I had to wait. They would call me back during open season. (I didn’t like the sound of that at all—open season?!) I bided my time. I figured they’d lose my name, would change their mind, perhaps disband; I almost forgot about the whole thing… Almost.

Months later, they called. I set up a tryout, terrified even as I wrote it in the calendar. The day rolled around and I was literally short of breath. What had I been thinking? I had no right singing with these people. None. The worship leader would immediately label me the sham that I am, order me from the rehearsal room, warn me never to return. I’d be unable to show my face in church ever again.

I reported for my tryout, and lo and behold, the worship leader was very personable and gentle. He asked me what part I thought I should be, and I made my best guess. Then he made me sing “Amazing Grace” while he played along on the piano; I stank up the room, voice quavering, face twitching, plagued by uncertainty and shame.

And then. Grace was exemplified and the kind-hearted, foolish fellow invited me to join choir. I accepted, with much trepidation and insecurity; when rehearsals began in the fall, I sat slumped in my seat, surrounded by seasoned singers. But wait! We began to work our way through a song, and I heard wonderful voices, but also mediocre voices, and even an off-key voice. Some people could read music, but many could not. A few of them could hit every note on the page, but most of them were just like me—with a limited repertoire of tuneful sounds. Why, they were normal people! They were not, as I’d suspected, musical geniuses. These people were everyday people, some of whom could sing amazingly well…and others who really could not sing any better than me. Even more amazing was that as weeks passed, slowly but surely that stash of musical notes, terminology, and symbols began to creep back into my awareness. Now, four years into it, I feel more at ease about my contribution to this wonderful team of voices. And I hear, with amazement and joy every time, how the combined effect of all those varied sounds creates a wonderful sound. Flaws are camouflaged, strengths are heightened; we all become one voice, be it hushed, sweet, jubilant, or victorious—but always grateful.

And it’s a funny thing: when I try to sing in the car, with the radio, along with contemporary music, I still am quite weak. My voice cracks, I can’t hit notes, I make myself hoarse. It’s ugly. But when I’m singing for church, I can sing better. Honestly, I can—it’s not my imagination. When I use my voice for that purpose, to glorify God, my voice is stronger, a little bit more true. I’m still not great, but I can say with certainty that I am my best singing self when I’m belting it out for that awesome audience of One. I wonder if my song-mates have had the same experience. I wonder if they, too, are most melodious while worshipping God through song—when the pressure's off to sound perfect, when it's sufficient to be humble and sincere.

It makes me ponder what other undiscovered abilities we might unleash in ourselves if we could travel beyond our own preconceived notions and just step out in faith. I hope to discover more possibilities, in me and in everyone around me.


Anonymous said...

Why does a church make people try out for choir? i never heard of that.
Happy singing.

Mel said...

they call it a tryout. in retrospect, it's more of a placement meeting; a lot of the people singing are not musically schooled, and might think they're soprano when actually they're not. plus, it's a way for the director to gauge where you stand voice-wise--whether you need to stand next to a strong singer so you can follow them, for example, or whether you would be a good, strong voice to place a new member next to. a lot of it, too, is talking to you about where you are in your faith. are you there to sing solos and garner praise? or to praise God? and the fact that I've heard some not-so-good voices around me sometimes tells me that the director is much more concerned with our sincerity of purpose than our perfect pitch. which is awesome, and a big part of the reason I have stayed in the group. we really are there just to worship.

Anonymous said...

Good for you, Mel! I, too, love to sing, sing all the time, but never in a group since grade school chorus. I, too, had a college roommate with a gorgeous voice who sang with the Heinz Chapel Choir and still sings with a professional group and at church. (So, I am quite aware of my own limitations!) Thanks for getting out there for all of us wannabe songstresses.

Anonymous said...

of all the things I DON'T miss of church, I DO miss the singing. Group singing is so awesome. If I could just show up and enjoy the music... and avoid all the other stuff....

Facie said...

Good for you, Mel, still singing in the choir. As our choir director often says, when you sing, you are praying twice (and maybe you said that in your post and I just missed it).

Our choir is open to everyone, but our director, who has a PhD in some sort of music something or other and plays at least four instruments really demands a lot from us. It/he really has made me a better singer. And if music gets people to church, then I am all for that.

Mel said...

thanks, all, for your encouragement. and athelas, the singing is just to bring us and keep us--but working through all that "other stuff" is probably the real reason we should be there, tough and annoying as it can be. at least that's what I suspect...