When I was a kid, I’d get asked to sing almost anywhere I went– at restaurants, at parties– and I’d gladly get up and perform some showstopper, enjoying the ecstatic applause of the grownups around me.
When I started singing professionally, the expectations of others made me anxious, and I’d often come down with a sore throat or stuffy nose before a show or audition. Despite this, I’d still win first prize at competitions, and get cast as the lead in any play I auditioned for. In high school, I was voted “Most Likely to End up on Broadway,” even though that was never a personal goal.
Then I started to write my own songs, fashioned after singer/songwriters like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King. Sitting at home at the piano with just my pen and paper, I could experiment and play, belting high notes, fiddling with melodies and lyrics, with no audience to hear me if my voice cracked or if I hit a wrong note. Compared to the “prison” of others’ ears, this felt like freedom.
At this point, it never occurred to me to keep my singing to myself. I’d been taught by my mother and my church that this was a waste of talent at best, and a sin at worst.
In college, I was accepted into a jazz vocal program at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, and I sang in a competitive a cappella group that would often choose me to sing the lead, despite my growing anxiety. Later, I’d perform at friends’ weddings, and at age 20, I even walked down my own aisle to a recording of me singing “When I Fall in Love.”
By then, I’d stopped writing music, and was singing only occasionally at church, hiding among the harmonies of other voices. I didn’t recognize myself as a singer anymore. Just someone who could step in as filler for what other people needed or wanted.
The other day, I sang alone for the first time in years. No kids were around to try to convince me that I should audition for Broadway; no friends to overhear me and compliment me on my sound.
Just me at my keyboard in an empty room, giving myself a sweet little gift. Maybe one day I’ll sing for others again. Maybe I won’t. I realize now that the choice is part of the gift.