The Right to Sing

I started singing when I was a toddler. Probably. All children do. I see it with my nieces and nephews. One thing I also notice with the children in my life is how early they become shy about singing; it seems to happen long before they become shy about other things, like dancing, telling tales, making jokes. I’m not sure why, but this block comes very early, before the rational mind even takes hold, at least in this culture.

For me, it came gradually. I remember writing songs around the age of 5, thinking I would become a rock star. I also remember singing along to Toyota jingles on TV and I do believe I was relatively uninhibited there. My first outlet for singing was the Christmas kids choir at church. I quickly understood my sister and I were better at singing than the other children. We had no trouble with pitch or rhythm, we knew what we were doing and had the confidence to sing out. I got a thrill; I was better than the other children at something and I was getting hold of that precious commodity: attention. My first solo in public was at the age of 11 and despite my nerves, it went very well. That was the year I began singing lessons.

Over time, my vanity grew. As a teenager, I was neither popular nor cool, but I could sing like an angel and everyone knew it. Back home, I was the youngest of 6 children, all of them talented high achievers, all of them older and and higher on the food chain. But I was the only one with singing lessons, I was the only one with church solos. I had a role and I had a place. I existed.

A crushing realization dawned on me as I entered CEGEP and later university for music studies, that others were better at singing than me. Many others and much better. And I could see they found a joy in it which I could not comprehend. When I didn’t get into performance studies in university (they accepted me in a transitional program that would allow me to audition for voice performance after an extra year of training), my self esteem took a hit. It was the only thing that had ever made me stand out, and it couldn’t even get me into an average level music school.

At that age, I had no ambition. I was 17 when I auditioned and 18 when I started university. All I wanted was to have a degree, a skill and a place in the world. At the time, that meant a place in a university program. I also realize that my need to be “good enough” was crushing my voice, my technique and my soul. Unlike other voice students, I never imagined myself on an opera stage. My weekly singing lessons were a battle with myself and a plea for my teacher’s approval.

Years later, when I chose to focus on acting, I came at it with more maturity and less anxiety than I had with singing. I am still fairly neurotic, but I am more keenly aware of one important factor for all artists: when the search for approval is greater than the pleasure derived from the art, it’s the beginning of the end. And it isn’t worth it.

My music studies are my skeleton in the closet. Mentioning them is a way of impressing people and justifying my lack of a degree in theatre, but it also creates an expectation that I should be a very strong vocalist. The truth is, I am a scared vocalist. Most trained actors I have met sing with steadier, more confident, more anchored voices than I do. They did not train as singers for 15 years and yet, in my opinion, they achieve results I cannot reproduce. Not to mention that opera training does not automatically translate to knowing how to belt or sing contemporary forms of music. I lived and trained in my head voice for half my life. When I first tried to sing in my chest voice, it came out in a painful scream. I had never used that voice. And I had many powerful insecurities lodged in my instrument. Part of my voice was off limits. Forbidden. And embarrassingly untrained.

So, at the age of 30, I began my training anew, with new teachers and new techniques. It was like learning to walk and it was thrilling and scary. But it still wasn’t enough. So I decided, a couple of months ago, to create a show called Origin, featuring some of my original songs. Songs that I have never shared with anyone. An excerpt of that is now being presented in the Shortstanding Festival and I have committed to putting on a full length production of it in this summer’s Fringe Festival. At this point, I am no longer interested in just fitting in or getting by. I want to reclaim my right to speak. My music, my words, my voice. For the first time since I was 5, I am giving myself permission to be a rock star.