A few years ago, my then-guitar teacher and I were having a conversation about what type of musician we considered ourselves. He asked me if I ever considered myself a singer, and I emphatically said no. He asked me why.
“I dunno, I just never really have been,” was my reply. I explained that I’d always been the pianist, the so-so guitarist and the even less so-so bassist.
He asked again why I didn’t consider myself a vocalist. I explained that I’d never really practiced it as I did piano, and with the exception of a few voice lessons that I took (and which went badly) from an operatically-trained woman in her late 20s/early 30s (when I was, like, 10 or 11), I sang in the shower and the car and that’s about it. Or, if it was in public, it was in a crowd of people where you couldn’t tell my voice from the others.
He explained that for years he also felt the same way about his voice. It was unique and unsure, and he never felt comfortable being anything other than the guitarist that he was.
One day early on in his career, he was getting ready to play his usual gig at Disneyland. He and his bandmates expected their singer to show up, but the singer was MIA. Once it became obvious that one of them would have to do double-duty for the evening, my teacher decided he’d fill those shoes.
At first, he was terrified. He wasn’t a singer — never had been, never would be. He stumbled through the first song, then the second, and realized he wasn’t doing the songs any justice by being nervous. He knew he needed to embrace his own voice.
I think he said they ended up taking a break for a few minutes so that he could compose himself, and when they went back out there — intentionally choosing a livelier number to play instead of what the setlist called for so that they could inject some energy into their performance — he owned his voice like he never had before. He owned it because he had to — there was an audience who was expecting a show that they already weren’t getting because the singer had bailed, so he had to step in and fill the role that they weren’t aware was missing. He didn’t care if his wasn’t a trained voice, and he didn’t care that it was “unique” — he used his voice and sang with all the confidence in the world, because the people there didn’t know any differently. For all they knew, he could’ve been the singer for years.
The crowd ended up loving the show, and he’d just earned himself the role of lead singer, in addition to lead guitarist. The other singer never returned, and to this day, my old guitar teacher is still singing. And guitar-ing, banjo-ing, dulcimer-ing, dobro-ing, mandolin-ing and bass-ing.
I remembered our long-ago conversation this evening and thought about how true it is that when you discard your worries, fears and concerns you might have about what others may think or say — or even when you discard your own thoughts about how you’ll feel about yourself — that’s when you tend to find your voice. Your literal voice, your writing voice, your voice in the world, your niche among many — in an office, in a class, in a company, in a circle of friends. It can be a painfully difficult thing to find, but when you cast off the very things that quietly fill your head with whispers of doubt, I imagine it’s a freeing sensation like no other. I don’t know for sure, because there are so many voices in my own life that I’m still trying to find.
Tonight I am thankful for recalling that conversation, and for the inspiration gleaned from the rainy evening to let the fears wash away after years of building up. It may not happen overnight, but with patience and continuing to put one foot in front of the other, the switch — in time — will be flipped.
And a voice will be found.