This is a story about humility. This is a story about accepting your authentic self. This is a story about music.
I’ve spent my life letting go of things only to regret not fighting for them, walking away because I was too afraid to stand up and admit that they mattered to me. I did that with music. I didn’t know it mattered so much, but I always knew it mattered enough that I was sad I wasn’t more involved in it. I was intimidated, always, by my musical peers, believing they had something I didn’t, something that gave them a special right to make music. I never felt like I was allowed to make sound and ask other people to listen. And I was afraid to be judged. I was afraid that somehow I just didn’t get it. That there was some mystery that all the other people in the world – even the ones who sing miserably bad karaoke – knew that I didn’t.
Let’s back up. In the beginning of 2017 I was incredibly sick, coughing for months, unable to get better and doing my best to work through it, talk through it, and not lose my job and I coughed myself into laryngitis. Not knowing that laryngitis should really be over in about 3 days, I didn’t see a doctor until it had been going on for a couple of weeks. So began a journey of heartbreak and discovery. I had done so much damage to my vocal cords by coughing that I had nodules. The ENT specialist did little but send me to speech therapy, and I was expected to recover by learning how not to damage myself further and let myself heal. Needless to say, I could not sing while this was going on, and already hadn’t been able to for a few months by then. It was painfully obvious suddenly that I had been singing for decades, all the time, whenever I was around music, and that it was an outlet for a very deep musicality I didn’t know I possessed. Singing was what I needed desperately, and the loss of my voice began a cascade of existential panic and fear and heartbreak. It was like having a finger chopped off and just praying and hoping that they could sew it back on.
I grew up with music….sort of. My father played the piano sometimes. He had guitars, but I never felt connected to him through music. But when the time came, I eagerly picked an instrument with all the other fifth graders and started to learn. I picked the flute, and I can’t say why. It’s what the other girls picked, I guess? The violin seemed too dorky? I don’t know. To this day I wish I’d picked the violin or piano, but that’s not what I did. And I played the flute through the end of high school, participating in my school’s very substantial and well-supported music program, but was never brave enough to do more than just show up even though deep down I wanted a whole lot more. I didn’t audition for the “fancy” band because I was just too shy, and when I finally did audition, spurred on by my band conductor, I completely choked. I recall being told that if I would only practice more I would be very good, but I was so afraid of judgment and so good at deflecting attention I had my music teacher letting me off the hook for lessons. I hated practicing, and while I had this very strong desire to be more musical, something was in my way – or some things. One was my own history of being told by a cousin, whose approval was deeply important to me, that I “couldn’t sing.” We were young kids, but it broke me in a way that never really healed. So, while I loved to sing, I only did it when no one was listening. And I did that my whole life, for over 30 years. And then there was the flute.
I put the flute down after high school. I’d shifted my efforts towards visual arts, believing somehow that that’s where my future lay and it’s what I was supposed to do – was expected to do, even. Music was an extracurricular activity, not something to take seriously as a life path. I can’t say why I thought photography or any fine art seemed more legitimate, but I think my own shyness and fear of performance probably made that justification very easy. So I got an art degree. I can look back now and say that while I enjoyed making things – and still do – it never felt as organic to me as music does. I’d never have recognized that before, but I can say that now. I’m good at making things, but I don’t feel truly passionate about it. it never made me cry or feel deep intense things the way music does. It was almost clinical, the way I approached it. I did best later in life working in fabrication, which had a very concrete goal and a combination of creativity and functionality that worked for me the way a blank canvas never compelled me.
But music found me no matter where I went. Even though I had put down making my own music, I was around music a lot. I don’t think I had a romantic relationship with a single person who was not some form of experienced musician until I was 35 and already divorced. That relationship was probably partially a failure because he simply did not get it. And it was strange and foreign to me that this person I was so intimate with didn’t have the capacity to discuss something so fundamental to me. At the time I didn’t recognize this, but it was so obvious. Until losing my voice and looking back on it now, I didn’t know how much I talked about music, how much I needed to talk about it, how much I needed the people around me to understand it so we could discuss it. How I tore it apart, analyzed it, and couldn’t stop myself from doing so. My husband, my boyfriends before him… they’d all played instruments and I took it for granted that it was a part of the fabric of my life, all the while not participating, feeling secretly envious of each one of them, and being terrified to admit it.
And this is the biggest thing of it – I was terrified to admit to anyone how important it was to me. It was the deepest, darkest, most vulnerable place in my soul, and after being told at age 8 that I was a bad singer there was a part of me that could not ever open up to that kind of judgment again. I would never, ever let on to anyone how much I wanted to play or sing or make music. I couldn’t completely hide my interest, but never got close to sharing the deep pain it caused me to not participate. That I was paralyzed and felt like it was something that I wasn’t “allowed” to do. My cousin had told me I wasn’t allowed, and I believed it, and that was that.
So to now, and I lost my voice. With it went my ability to express any kind of musicality at all. I didn’t play the flute anymore, or any instrument. I didn’t have any instruments and that flute was 3,000 miles away in a box somewhere. It didn’t call to me, either. I didn’t want to play it. And that was an equally huge epiphany – I HATED the fucking flute. All those years of playing it and I HATED it. I hated how it sounded, I hated practicing alone, I hated everything about it. I hated how “girly” it was, and I knew then the other reason why I never invested myself more deeply when I had the opportunity. I was playing the wrong thing and never knew it. What kept me playing was the community, playing with others, expressing myself, and the emotions that creating music opened up in me. I equated that with loving to play my instrument, but the instrument was wrong for me. Music was my passion and I never made that distinction until I lost my voice and had nothing else with which to make music. That triggered a huge resentment in me towards my music teachers and myself for not recognizing at the time that I had this very deep well of musicality inside me that was not finding the right outlet. Someone was supposed to have guided me, helped me get through that block, read my shy little mind and hand me the thing that would have exploded the huge wall I’d built around me. Why had no one done that for me? In truth no one could have, I don’t think, but as a kid who was not guided by anyone in any way, it was just one more area in which I’d been let down during a time in my life when I needed direction.
But 22 years later, I am forced by circumstance to confront this fearful, 8-year-old part of myself that wanted to be seen but was terrified to come out of hiding. It had snuck in when no one was looking, but now all the doors and windows were shuttered and it couldn’t be contained. So I admitted to someone I trusted and loved, and who I respected musically, with great trepidation, how deeply important this was to me. It was important to me beyond measure that I respected him as a musician. Because if someone I respected that much would accept that part of me, then I really would know it was ok. He understood and encouraged me and that just blew me away. I got the piano I’d been thinking about for a year and started to play it. I had my flute sent out, knew I would never play it, and planned to sell it so I could buy a guitar and take lessons and learn to sing properly if I ever got my voice back. I had all these epiphanies that just kept going, and one was a big huge smack in the face that told me I wanted to play the bass. It wasn’t something I’d ever looked at before, but one day I just heard something in a piece of music and I thought “I want to do THAT.” That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 3 or 4 months, and I’m astounded at my drive and my progress. This is the first time in my life I have had this kind of motivation and singular focus on a thing. This kind of passion. This kind of tenacity and I play until I’m sore and I never feel like I’m practicing or like it’s work. I’ve never had that before, and now I understand what true passion is. Until now I have picked up so many things, done so many jobs, learned so many skills, and called all of them passions at one point or another, but they were never like this. This has been deep in my soul all along. It never came and went. It was just there, an incessant spark and it grew all that time, waiting in the dark until there was a catalyst to ignite it.
It is now about 16 months since I lost my voice. it took an eventual referral to OHSU’s Voice clinic, meeting with doctors many times, lots of laryngoscopies, several weeks of silence and diagnostics to get me to a surgeon who finally said ‘Yep, let’s fix that.” In November of 2017 I went under anesthesia for the first time in my life to have my vocal cords fixed, and am still recovering and learning to speak normally again. I’m taking voice lessons, and even that… singing in front of one person… is a HUGE step. I don’t know that I am a magnificent singer, but I’m trying not to care or ask for permission to sing. I am giving myself permission.
This entire experience has been one of the most humbling of my life. I have had to confront being an adult who is just learning something on the level of a child. I am lucky through circumstance to be surrounded by people who have played music for decades, are professional musicians, who are super talented and who I respect deeply, and are also my friends. And it is with the utmost humility among you that I continue my rudimentary bass and singing practice and count myself, finally, a musician among musicians.