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In a few days I'll be meeting up with my new choir. And by "new choir" I mean brand new just forming choir. For the last couple years, I've been auditing the choir class offered at the local community college for free. But my teacher departed last December for a better job, and the college has yet to fill the position. So, when I saw an ad in the local paper looking for singers to form a new medieval choir, I summoned together all the scraps of my ego and emailed the director to set up an audition. And then I freaked out.
The ad had said she was looking for "polished" voices. The Fraud Police in my head were berating me for putting myself out there when I am not a fully trained singer who can read music fluently. I mean, I know enough to ask for the bathroom and order the soup, but I'm not going to have a discussion about nineteenth century utilitarianism. Metaphorically speaking. But I had also had bad luck with solos.
The first time I had tried out for a solo was in my first choir class in the seventh grade. It was terrifying. I had spent the last six years of my life in elementary school being verbally bullied, day after day. I was an outsider, looked down upon by most. The only thing I took pride in was my brain. No one could argue that I was smart. But I also had a voice, and almost no one had heard it. I thought it was good, but I had never shared it in front of my classmates. I was deeply afraid, even if I didn't consciously put it in those terms at the time, that they were going to take this away from me.
But they didn't. When I stood in front of my class and sang, I was so quiet they had to turn down the backing music to hear me, but everyone applauded. Later, a girl I didn't know came up to me in gym to say that she had heard I had a good voice. I was not used to other kids coming up to me to say something nice about me. From that validation and some others, I felt pretty sure I had gotten one of the two solos. The class seemed pretty sure that I was going to be picked, too, because, when our teacher named, not just the two, but the four, soloists, the entire class turned to look at me. I had not been named. I just sat there with that punched in the chest feeling, willing my face to stay impassive, to not cry.
Shit, it still hurts. It had taken so much to get up there and I knew how well I had done. I was quiet that first time, but that's fixable with just a little bit of encouragement and practice. And let's not forget, there would have been a damn microphone in front of me. I know that getting passed up wounded me more deeply than it would have affected others because of all the wounds I had going into it. I don't think my teacher had any idea of who I had been at my other school. I don't know what drove his decision to go to with the louder singers rather than try to teach this little mousey voice to be a stronger singer. I don't know if he didn't want to bother trying to teach me or if he thought it would motivate me to sing out more next time.
I didn't try out again for a long time. When I did finally get a solo, I screwed up by accidentally telling off my friend in the front row loud enough for the mic to pick it up and boom my mutterance across the auditorium. A later solo - a beautiful duet with a very talented friend of mine - got scrapped because our teacher spent so much time chewing out a classmate that he declared auditions over before we had tried out. Audition sooner next time, he said.
After that, I moved, and when I found my new choir to be a little more "jazz-hands" than I really cared for, I dropped the class. I stopped singing for a long time, even at home. That was a mistake. I've never fully recovered that high soprano of my youth, and later solos have been unwieldy or underwhelming. To my ears, anyway. I've still had compliments, which helps. But putting myself out there again is incredibly difficult.
And that is part of the reason that I keep putting myself out there - because it does scare me. I love music, and I love singing. I don't want to lose it again. Yet, most of the people who know me still have never heard me sing. So, I sing in choirs because I love to sing, and I audition in front of people because I want to be able to sing in front of people alone without being scared of them. I've come a long way with that, but I discovered that there is still so much anxiety bound up in doing it.
I had gotten myself to send that email because I had decided that I would let this new choir director decide if my voice was "polished" enough, instead of culling myself ahead of time on her behalf. But it had still taken me a couple hours to write those few lines. And when she replied, it took a couple days to get through the full-on panic attacks to reply back. But somewhere in there, in the backs and forths and reschedulings, I decided to trust her.
Instead of expecting Simon Cowell, or the other belligerent bullies who made me miserable at school, I decided I would expect the best of this potential new choir director. I would expect that she is warm and friendly and encouraging. Maybe I would have another sucky audition, or maybe it would go well but I still wouldn't be a good fit for the new group, but I decided that she would still not be all "judgey" and condescending, and would not accuse me of wasting her time as a professional. And if she did, well that was something she would need to work on as a person.
Fortunately, she turned out to be just as warm and friendly as I could hope for. My audition did suck, in many ways. I left my music at home and my water in the car. The music, I turned out not to need as I had pretty well memorized all three pieces, and she supplied me with a cup of water, because it turns out that my throat turning into Death Valley right before I have to sing is just a thing my body does. We chatted for a bit, then she let me pick which piece to do first. I said, let's do the one I'm sucking at right now. I had pretty well taught it to myself between the sheet music and YouTube, but I could not get the trills down. She even let me try it a second time. A little smoother, but I still bombed on the trills. I think she appreciated my "let's do it anyway" attitude.
The next two pieces went better. At 37, with two small children to yell at ("Get OFF your brother!"), my voice is not a little mouse anymore. It's not a high soprano anymore, either - I sang the "Ave Maria" chant a second time as a tenor, to give a sense of my range. And since we're doing medieval pieces, which were mostly sung by men, having a deeper range worked as an advantage over the many "coloratura" sopranos who also auditioned. I was eventually selected to fill one of the three soprano slots in this new choir.
So, while that all feels like an overly long and self-indulgent preamble, it ties in with a lot of what I've been writing about over the life of this blog. A little bit about my sensitivities and struggles coping with my anxieties, a little bit of the "I kiss my fear on the mouth" mantra I have tattooed to encourage me to overcome them. And it's a little bit about how society often shows a lack of support for people who don't "fit."
Why are people so afraid of public speaking? Because we are afraid of what the group will do when we focus its attention on us. In a state of nature, if we are kicked out of the group, then our survival is very much more at risk. So nowadays, when we put ourselves out there to be judged, we still feel that primal fear of rejection as a matter of life and death. And let's be honest, even in our modern stability, we do not cultivate a culture of encouragement and acceptance. Instead, we cultivate competitiveness and dominance.
But that's a broad generalization. There are many individuals, many localized spaces, that are supportive and accepting. Just imagine if that's what this society did as a rule. What would it be like if we rallied around each other? What if we didn't try to make people feel threatened, separate? What if we didn't try to make people fit in and instead allowed them to be in, as they are?
From my early life, I had been degraded and bullied, up close at school, and from afar by the media proxies who scorned the poors. This, as well as my innate sensitivities, left me in greater need of feeling secure within the group. My difficulty sharing something precious to me, something I enjoy - music - is just one way this damage has manifested.
This last January, I did another whirlwind trip to SoCal (nobody had died, this time). I was able to meet up with an old friend at Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade. We had discovered that, during our long absence from each other's lives, we had both had sons at around the same time, and both of these beautiful boys had turned out to be on the Autism Spectrum. We sat there for a while talking about how each differed and how they were the same. Her son is especially fond of asking pretty girls if he can give them a hug. It helps that he's adorable and a five year-old.
We talked about the challenges of being out with each of them and our strategies for dealing with their respective outbursts or challenging behaviors. We talked about how other people did or didn't deal with it. I had considered, at one time, printing up little cards with a brief explanation of what the Autism Spectrum is so that I could hand one to people when I couldn't talk to them because I had to deal with Henry. I had seen a few examples online that often came off as confrontational and snarky. Some of my friends had also argued that it's none of anybody's business what's going on with my son and I didn't owe them any kind of explanation. It's on them for being ignorant and intolerant, they said.
The problem, I said that afternoon in January, is that people are not shown how to handle people on the Spectrum. Not just the Autism Spectrum, but the Human Spectrum, too. Some people are going to have outbursts. Some people are going to be overly sensitive to different things. Some people are going to be loud and yell at you for no discernible reason. Some people are going to need to open and close every door they see. Some people are going to be unable to touch any door unless they have a glove on.
Some people are just going to have bad days.
The healthiest solution is to cultivate a society that is more aware of the diversity of mental health behaviors and is more accepting, in general. We should scorn scorn. There are always boundaries and caveats, but that is the direction to aim for. That is the goal.
And in the meantime, we have to try to trust other people to be understanding. Many of them will be. There are many more people who want to see you succeed than want to tear you down. And for those who would show hostility or indifference when you are vulnerable, we need to not elevate their failure to be kind and understanding. We need to be sympathetic that they have fallen victim to society's failure to teach them compassion. We don't know their story, either.