fear of singing

Deep Throat #1: On Being and Unbeing a Singer

By

Atlanta drivers are assholes when it rains. They were not the reason I was breathing so deliberately, so carefully as I drove across the city, not what was tempting me to hyperventilate. But they made my fiancé, four days out of abdominal surgery and sitting tired and stiff in the passenger seat beside me, wince every time one passed us on the right at 70 miles an hour in the driving downpour. I drove as carefully as I could, trying to hide the fact that I kept having to stop myself from holding my breath and hunching my shoulders up around my ears.

I sucked air determinedly in through the nose, out through the mouth, white-knuckling the steering wheel and stealing glimpses at my poor hurting boy sitting grim and thin-lipped beside me. I’d offered Ben the option of continued convalescence on the couch at home earlier. He’d refused. I reminded him that it was still an option. “Nope,” he said firmly. “Wouldn’t miss it. I’ve got your back.” I felt myself flush, felt my heart beating just a bit too fast for comfort, and did my best to just take a deep breath. Again.

Self, I thought sternly, you are just being silly. All I was doing was going to a church, after all. All that was going to happen in that church was a holiday event, a sing-along performance, if “performance” is the right word for a sing-along, of the opening third—the Christmasy bit—of Handel’s Messiah. All I was doing was going to go sing along. In public. Which meant singing in front of other human beings for the first time in nearly fifteen years.

It wasn’t like I was going to be a soloist or anything. With luck, in fact, I’d be all but invisible. With luck there would be enough people singing at any given moment that I would not even be noticed amongst all the other warbles, hoots, honks, and squawks of gentle oratorio-loving strangers d’une certaine age. It was the lowest-pressure, most anonymous singing event I could think of to which I could gain entry simply for the price of a ticket. Or at least that was how I’d talked myself into it.

Besides, Ben had fresh stitches in his belly and was still riding shotgun, which made backing out at the last minute too chickenshit to contemplate, even for me. I kept driving north through the gray and the rain and the jackass traffic, trying my hardest to concentrate hard enough on the driving that maybe I could forget about the tightness in my chest, my sticky-dry mouth, the boulder in my throat.  Even the hopeful bits of me were miserable. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck, I thought, I’m actually going to sing.  

You wouldn’t think singing could scare me. I was a professional musician, a professional classical singer, from the time I was 7 until I was almost 30. I was never a child prodigy, for which I am endlessly grateful, but I was a working musician from a very early age, singing with professional-caliber choirs and alongside grownup professional musicians who ranged from the rank-and-file violinists and trumpeters of a world-class orchestra to people like… well, I hate saying this because it makes me feel like the rankest sort of name-dropper, but… people like Leonard Bernstein.

Sometimes when I tell people this they imagine such a precocious musical career was the result of insane stage-mothering, but that’s not so. It wasn’t necessary. I liked being a musician. I was good at it. It was interesting. It got me taken seriously by adults, held to the same standards, treated pretty much as an equal. It gave me an identity. When you are a classical musician at a professional level there is no question about who or what you are. Your life automatically has a purpose.

 

Because I was a musician, I did not go to college. I attended a top-tier music conservatory, which, if you are unfamiliar, is basically a ferociously competitive vocational school for people with profound and highly specific talents and skills. The best conservatories don’t admit students on the basis of potential to attain professional caliber. By the time a classical musician is college aged she has to already be at that level or she’ll likely never acquire enough of an edge to succeed. Thus classical musicians are trained at classical music… and virtually nothing else. When you are a classical musician at a professional level there is no question about who or what you are, or what you do. Ever. 

Except that sometimes, oftener than any classical musician I know has ever admitted, it does eventually become a question. Statistically, of course, it must be so. There are not enough places, in the great parlous game of musical chairs that is the world of classical music performance, for everyone to sit. In the end some people just don’t have the chops to make a go of it. Some people just don’t have the patience. Classical musicians, like other working artists, deal with preternatural amounts of penury and shit-shoveling in order to stay competitive. Sometimes shit just happens—a car crash or an addiction hitting bottom or the realization that someone’s got to put shoes on the baby. Sometimes the interest, the talent, and the opportunity just can’t all be made to happen at the same time. One’s ability to be that thing, a professional classical musician, gets lost, or given up. Or taken away. Or maybe all those things. And so does that sturdy, symbolic, insular but sometimes magical identity.

When I stopped singing—when I gave it up, had it taken away, when I let it slip from my fingers, oh, it’s a long story—I got lost. When I shut my mouth I lost a part of myself so ingrained, so accustomed, so integral I had not even known it was possible to lose it. To this day, the amputation has never quite stopped being a shock.

The scar tissue was thick. It took years before I could look at my avoidance of live music or the sobbing that overtook me when I listened too closely even to the car radio and recognize the signs of phantom pain. It took well over a decade before I could go back to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony where I’d spent time as a summer fellow, for so much as a Sunday afternoon concert. I avoided old friends and gave away almost all my library of scores. I reinvented myself as a writer and historian, a cook, an activist. I left those first three decades of my life where they lay, quite silent.

For a very long time I did not miss singing. I would not. I could not. Having left the profession behind I no longer had a right to it, or a place. But eventually, under the fear and the shame and the grief, I recognized the shape of longing. I missed my voice, plain and simple, missed the grace of opening my mouth and making music happen. 

This was its own panic. I didn’t know if I could any more, no clue what lay in my throat waiting to be unearthed. Nor did I know how to just sing. I had no memory of singing that wasn’t about profession, about vocation. How could I sing, and not have singing be who I was?

There was only one way to find out, and so I kept driving through the rain. My fiancé squeezed my hand as we walked through oil-slicked parking lot puddles toward the big white church, then held the door for me. I blinked back tears, ignored the soldiers-marching sounds in my ears, pretended I wasn’t holding my breath, and walked through.

It was warm inside, anticipation in the air, piano-choral scores tucked under arms. I could not make eye contact with anyone, hardly even with Ben, but I could follow the other singers into the sanctuary, sort myself along with the rest into soprano, alto, tenor, bass. I felt my spine straighten, my shoulders drop.  I looked around and could see immediately that the shape of the hall would dull the sound. It didn’t matter. I could breathe.

If you can breathe, you can sing. 

So I did. 

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Hanne Blank (www.hanneblank.com) is a writer, historian, and educator whose work lies at the intersection of body, self, and culture. Trained as a classical mezzo-soprano at New England Conservatory, Indiana University School of Music, and Tanglewood, she feels that those who cannot figure out what the connections are between her musical career and her literary one probably just need to go to the opera more often. She currently splits her time between north-central Massachusetts and Atlanta, Georgia. More from this author →