The Reluctant Musician

The year was 2001. I was 11 years old. Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’” had hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and congruently, was being played on every radio station, a few times an hour, all summer long. I would sit in the passenger’s seat of my dad’s car, and boast how much my lung capacity had expanded since I started singing the bridge (where layers of Alicia’s voice cascade in harmony for 15 seconds) as though it were a sound made with one breath.

I believe it was that December that my parents gave me a keyboard as a gift. My parents recall that I pleaded for this particular keyboard for Christmas; my memory is of it being a total surprise.

I like to imagine that many a musician’s journey begins with the wondrous discovery of an old instrument in the attic, sparking a inextinguishable passion for making sounds. Ever the reluctant musician, this could not have been further from my reality.

I was quickly enrolled in piano lessons, so as not to let the shiny new keyboard go unused, and I did actually enjoy it. I still vividly recall the terror I felt as I was bout to step out on stage for my first recital. 

My piano teacher was a kind and patient older gentleman, who I was really growing to like. Naturally, music students are often encouraged to sing along as they learn to read music; I was no different. Immediately following the lesson in which my piano instructor first asked me to sing, he remarked, “You should really take voice lessons.”

“He obviously thinks I that I am so bad at piano that he doesn't want to teach me,” I thought. Insecurity prevailed, rendering me incapable of seeing another possible intention. Years later, I reflected on that interaction, and realized that the kind and patient piano instructor might have actually paid me a compliment—at worst, he might have simply seen an opportunity to coax a new student into taking an additional course at the music & dance school.

Fast forward fifteen years. I relieved a friend (who was downsizing in preparation for a major relocation) of a forlorn guitar. The guitar remained neglected for over two years, until I dusted it off for my first lesson. Since then, once a week, nearly every week, I sit with my instructor as he bestows a bit of his seemingly endless musical knowledge upon me. Those lessons have been an absolute sanctuary.

As my journey with music progresses, my sense of what I am capable of—in every respect—evolves. I’m excited to see where this path may lead.

A common, yet foreign tongue

Performing is like a foreign language that I have heard spoken countless times, and can often seem to interpret, yet I have been finding beyond my abilities to speak. While watching someone perform, I often feel as though I am engaged in conversation, but more often still, I merely bear witness to the often personal exploration of the performer.

As empathetic beings, humans enjoy being voyeurs to the stories, experiences, and therefore, truths of other beings, insofar as we can interpret their transmission. Though this experience may not always seem accessible, this appreciation is not a privilege exclusive to the cultured, it is a byproduct of our humanity. Seeing someone else's truth beautifully, meaningfully and capably conveyed in live performance is quite unlike any other art form. I envision an ephemeral network of understanding being formed during the relaying of the messages broadcast. In breathing in the experiences implicit to performance, an artist may later reimagine what they've interpreted in their own dialect of the same tongue.

It seems to me that, even more delectable than observing, would be to become a vessel for that expression of humanity and being understood anew, or more deeply than I thought was possible.

Like any language, the best way to learn is to be immersed. For me, this means watching and studying as many live performances as possible: being in the audience to support a friend in realizing their own craft, more often listening to subway performers I might otherwise rush past, spending hours descending into the endless YouTube rabbit hole, and sometimes splurging on tickets to see a great artist.

As my voice grows, my many fears of failure ebb and flow in greater magnitude. I am discovering more about the nature of performance, and (hopefully) am growing closer to expressing myself freely and openly on stage.

One step at a time!

xx C.

From the top

I first realized that I had lost my voice in mid-2012. I had been occupying a time in life where I often felt speechless, deeply powerless, and sometimes pretty useless—particularly at work.

When in doubt, Google it.

When in doubt, Google it.

During a particularly resolute afternoon, I wrote a list called "The Things I Would Do If I Could Do Anything". I redrafted the list several times over the course of some months, and found that music always topped the list in some form. Among other things, I aspired to sing, front a band, perform with Alice Smith, Beyoncé, and/or Lianne La Havas, dance ballet, be an astronaut, and to play an instrument.

In the process of translating my vague desire to "do something...else" to words, I concluded that I had always simply yearned to perform. By my definition, that entailed being a human capable of and confident in doing a thing I love in front of others skillfully. While I love to do many things and am skillful at some of those things, the things that existed in both sets were few.

Singing always seemed to me an innate, yet cultivated ability. I sought a vocal coach who could help me determine where I stood, and help me plot out just how much cultivation I might need. The timing of my search may have been a consequence of the inevitable "new year, new me" declarations, an affirmation of spirit from having started a new job a few months prior, or perhaps a delayed birthday/reminder-of-my-mortality quest, but after years of solitary sing-a-longs, favorite singer mimicry in the company of close family and friends, and much deliberation, I embarked on a journey charted by faith.

A professional vocal assessment with my now vocal coach revealed that while I have excellent pitch and rhythmic repetition, I would need significant ear training and some pitch orientation/recognition work. I'd also have to focus my efforts on releasing a tense tongue and an overzealous jaw, whose ambition is overcompensatory for the underutilized muscles I didn't even know I was supposed to be using.

I remember leaving that assessment feeling deeply inspired, overflowingly full of possibility in a way I don't think I've ever felt before, and, most of all, like I was leaps and bounds closer to having the voice I had found myself so desperately without. I don't recall another time in life when the desire to fulfill my potential was so well-matched by a conviction that I could make it so.

In the 326 days that have followed that initial assessment, I have had 22 private lessons, attended 12 group bootcamp sessions and 8 advanced vocal performance classes, performed 2 songs as a soloist and as part of an ensemble in a Christmas concert, sung at 1 open mic, and have reprised my live band karaoke rendition of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" at Arlene's Grocery exactly once.

Of course, I still have much to learn about music and performance, but I've already learned an immense amount about myself, the nature of practicing a new craft, and the important role that the support of my family and friends has played in everything I've been able to do in life.

I'm thoroughly enjoying the journey, and look forward to what's to come.

xx C.