Okay, more specifically, making music. As in, why I’m not doing it more often. I don’t mean stuff like the Girl Scout meeting. And singing along with the stereo does not, in fact, count, nor does singing in the shower (to me, I’m just talking about me, I’m not stupid enough to think that my standards apply to anybody else, okay?). I’m having a very bad pain day (due to the whole fibromyalgia thing and not sleeping well last night) and thinking out loud (even in text) sometimes helps me to distract myself from it.
I think there’s probably a whole mess of reasons—lack of energy, being an introvert who has to be really motivated to leave the house, general busy-ness, lack of contacts with other people who are willing and ready to make music when I am, being insecure due to being out of practice, a major phobia about rejection, and an unfortunate tendency to a little elitist about making music.
I have a good voice and a pretty good range (several strong octaves, down from what I had but not too bad anyway) despite being way out of practice from not making music regularly for many years now. I read music and sight-read fairly well, pick up anything I hear pretty quickly, and am learning to sing harmony (I grew up soprano, we seldom get to do harmony). I still know how to play the piano and the flute, but I wouldn’t do either publicly. I haven’t had a piano to practice on regularly since I left my parents’ home at 17, and I didn’t really like the flute that much when I did play it (middle and high school band). Throw in the permanently-numb left hand and I don’t think I’m going to become A Musician any time soon. I’m a singer, that’s it. Do I still get to call myself a singer if I don’t do it often?
I was raised as a deep-water Southern Baptist. Making music was really the closest thing to an ecstatic experience that wasn’t sinful (the right kind of music, in church, of course). Most of my mother’s extended family makes music as easily as they breathe. Harmony just happens around them. I love gospel music—it feels like home. Weird taste for a UU pagan, but there ya go. I cannot remember a time before I was in a children’s choir—I have clear memories of singing in the choir in front of the church when I was about 3. I stayed with it—the only part of church I didn’t absolutely hate—until I left the church completely in my early 20s. I accompanied and led children’s and senior citizens’ choirs as a teen.
I didn’t sing outside of church until sometime in the 6th grade or so, I think. The choir director at school yelled at me because I wasn’t SUPPOSED to have vibrato because I wasn’t old enough. And she seemed not to like kids who could read music—go figure. I dropped out of the choir after a few weeks of her.
I didn’t try it again until I got a wild hair in high school and tried out for the mixed performing chorus because I liked some of the music they were rehearsing. I got in despite their rules saying you had to spend at least a year singing in the no-audition-required-yes-we-suck choir for at least a year first, then preferably spend another year in the girls-only-by-audition-we’re-awfully-boring-and-cliquish group. I explained to the director that I was interested in the mixed group, nothing else, and wouldn’t be singing in any of the other groups. He let me in. It was a good experience. I even got into the All-State Chorus, more fun though the audition scared the heck out of me.
I’ve never liked singing with people who don’t do it well. It’s a problem in church groups because they’re almost always based on a “come join us no matter what!” premise. I’m sorry, but some people should be listeners. I know quite well that many people can, in fact, sing quite well but don’t realize it, and that almost anyone can be taught to carry a tune. There’s not a whole lot of teaching going on in most church choirs, and the directors seldom have the time or energy to go teach some enthusiastic, loud, but darn near tone-deaf people to find the note, much less stay on it. How many of them have the background to do it if they have the time or energy? I’ve never actually told one of those people that she shouldn’t be there, but having to listen to them tends to put me off even listening to the choir during church services, much less singing with them. Yes, if I were able to view it as a way of worshipping and divorce it from the whole idea of performing, I’d be much better off. I haven’t managed it yet.
A few years ago I attended and enjoyed an Omega Institute workshop called “No Wrong Notes” led by David Roth. It was a good experience, but I’m afraid I have to disagree with David—there are some wrong notes, and there are some bad voices. I don’t think having a good voice is something to be proud of—it isn’t really something you can control (beyond training stuff, I mean). You are either born with a pleasant, strong voice and a good sense of pitch, or you aren’t. What you do with that voice is up to you, but if you aren’t born with the ability, you can’t create it in yourself. It’s like eye color or height — just there, something you got through genetic roulette. But if you got a crappy voice in the lottery, please don’t sing. At least, not in a choir. Sing in the congregation, sing to and with your kids, in the shower, whatever; don’t try to perform.
I also attended one of Elise Witt’s “Singing for Fun” workshops over a weekend two years ago. No auditions or prior experience were required, but I guess the combination of paying for it and the drive to the remote location may have caused some self-selection. Everybody was good. Everybody was focused. Some incredible music happened that weekend in groups, both formally and in a jam session. I did some improvisation for the first time—I don’t even LIKE improvisation, but what happened with the two people I was randomly assigned to sing with, feeding off each other and responding to each other in something that I can only liken to the most incredible sex you’ve ever had—wow. I’d give a lot to have that on a regular basis. We were singing in front of everybody else in the group, but for the first time ever I totally forgot about anything but the music, the people I was singing with—I was just completely, entirely, there. No self-consciousness, no worry, no thinking about what would come next because whatever it was would come as it was supposed to because that’s what was happening. And it ended well, together, in harmony, with no prior discussion, arrangement, or real signal—it just came to the end it was supposed to have and there it was.
I worked with precisely one really good music director in all my years of church music involvement. One and only one. His name is John Davis and he went off to finish a graduate degree in music and is, I think, teaching at a college in Alabama now. He demanded a very high standard from his youth and adult choirs, he worked very hard with them in groups and as individuals, and he got remarkable results. He was a rarity and I hope, wherever he is, that he knows how incredible he is. I stuck with that church (and Christian churches in general) several years longer than I probably would have otherwise due to him.
There are several choruses around town that I could join. Unfortunately, the only one I know of that’s anything like convenient to me doesn’t require auditions. While I get really nervous about auditions and hate rejections, I’d rather go through the stress of an audition and be part of a group that’s worth hearing than be part of something that sucks or is even simply mediocre. Some of the others that require auditions—well, I just don’t actually enjoy the kinds of music they do. Why bother if I won’t enjoy it?
There are two monthly folk-singing meets that I know of and have attended and enjoyed. There are also monthly housefilks. I know a lot more of the songs the first two do (mostly stuff from Rise Up Singing) than the filk stuff, and I feel uncomfortable at the filks because everybody else does seem to know the music and I don’t. And I feel fairly out of place because I don’t play an instrument, when most everyone else seems to have SOMETHING in hand—a guitar, some sort of rhythm thing, etc. Being around with nothing but my voice feels akin to showing up empty-handed at a potluck.
But none of those three monthly events actually does a thing for my need to make music, actual music on purpose that you work on and can be proud of as a result. I don’t actually need to perform in front of an audience as much as I need the feeling of coming together and creating something beautiful. I’ve done a lot of solos in the past, and am coming to realize that I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as ensembles anyway.
I haven’t attended a choir practice in our new UU congregation yet due to a scheduling conflict. Next week the scheduling conflict is gone, so I’ll go try it. Somehow every time the full choir has performed I’ve missed it, too. The small groups I’ve seen performing have been really good, though. And everything I’ve heard about the music director has been very good.
I actually spoke to a woman who was pulling together a gospel quartet a few months ago and was going to go audition. I felt good about the standards she’d set and what I heard of her music. I was uneasy about being hypocritical because the more I talked with her the more obvious it became that she was a very gung-ho charismatic Christian who was seeing the group as “a ministry” and a chance to “witness” to more people. I just wanted to make music. I figured that finding out that I’m “living in sin” with Sam probably wouldn’t go over well, much less the whole pagan poly thing or many other details about my life. As it turned out, my old car died and I couldn’t get to the audition, and I couldn’t remember what I did with her phone number after I got a new car a few days later. Maybe I’ll find a non-witnessing small gospel ensemble someday? That would be just about perfect. I can certainly sing gospel music with no sense of hypocrisy as long as there’s no impression that I’m doing it to promote the theology in the lyrics.
Maybe someday there’ll be a pagan gospel group around here. Gaia Consort comes close. They seem to be pretty full-up with singers and they are from the pacific northwest, nowhere near Atlanta. I’ll just have to settle for singing along with their CDs and hope to see them live someday for now.
I know people who live for music. It’s their passion. And I know I’ll never be one of them. They have that drive that makes them have to make music every day, day in, day out. They write music, create something totally new. They will go out and do whatever it takes to make it a career. And I know that isn’t me. I’m not that passionate about it. Music is important to me, but it isn’t a vocation. On some level, that feels like something of a failure. On another, I know that I’m pretty darned happy with the life I have, and wouldn’t be able to spend nearly as much time with my family if I even tried to do anything close to what those Real Musicians do. Oh well.