Hello, beautiful souls!
Today is not what I’d call your regularly scheduled programming. I want to tell you about something I don’t typically talk about in this space.
I’ve been on a journey that not many people other than my family and close circle of friends know about.
Before I jump in, I want you to know that you are in my heart as we continue this weird, transformative, uprooting journey together. As our world, in its glorification of all things fast-paced and hustled, pushes toward reopening, I encourage you to stay slow and introspective. Don't allow the lessons of this time to be swept up by the whirlwind. And please, please be safe. Stay home as much and as long as you can.
Okay, here goes.
Let's start with a fun fact - I'm an opera singer!
Yep, that’s right. I’ve spent the last eight years formally studying classical singing.
I was in my first opera at age 19. I played leading roles, sang in summer festivals at home and abroad, won awards, wore the gowns, got the reviews (positive and negative)… the whole thing. That glamorous, elusive, competitive, challenging world was my life, and I thought – for a really hot second there – that it was going to be my career.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an insane amount of fun. I was passionate and driven. I loved the art most of the time. I loved the drama, the romance, the death. I loved the people I met through opera. They made me who I am and remain some of my closest soul friends.
But here’s the part I rarely talk about – there was something going on underneath the surface. The moment I decided to walk the path of classical singing was the moment I began to unknowingly deny many other parts of myself that wanted to be seen.
Let me give you some context.
I grew up at the piano. I was raised on jazz, blues, rock, country, old pop. My first love in this world was sitting on the piano bench and singing my little heart out to pop tunes that packaged up my soul’s deepest musings in a few punchy lyrics and four chords on loop.
To this day, I get a little teary thinking about the freedom, pure joy, and worthiness that I felt sitting on that bench, bearing my soul to the four walls around me.
The piano bench was the first place I felt heard and seen on my own terms. I was naturally gifted. I quickly grew an identity around being musically talented beyond my years.
My first job was singing Christian pop tunes in a funky and dear little church in Alexandria, Virginia. Occasionally, they’d stick me at the piano to play and sing for an intimate moment in the service. The compliments would roll in. I would tell them I was just happy to be there, and I meant it. I didn’t even care if I got paid.
Guys, I LIVED for this stuff. This was my lifeblood, my therapy, and what I felt I came to this earth to do. I was alive and at home in this music. No one could touch me there.
Somewhere in my high school years, I was told that my voice was begging to sing classical music. This was a valid assessment. My voice was blossoming rapidly, and I had power and volume beyond the four-chord songs I was singing at the piano.
What I didn’t know when I committed to preparing to audition for collegiate vocal performance programs is that piano/singing Maya would soon have to fall by the wayside. The very foundations of my musicianship would have to become a strictly “for-fun-only” endeavor. There were more important things to attend to, for God’s sake! Diction! Technique! German!
The passion was quickly replaced by the clinical.
So began the slow loss of my voice. My authentic, original, unrefined voice.
Before I describe the struggles that ensued, I want to be clear that this was not the fault of any voice teacher or mentor I had along the way. I have had nothing but uplifting, encouraging, beautiful, insightful, and technically gifted teachers who have become some of my dearest friends and most beloved confidants. My voice grew rapidly under their guidance. I learned more than I can quantify. I am forever grateful for all the times I shed tears – happy or sad – in my lessons and was met with open arms and motherly love.
But something bigger was at work. Something with energetic and emotional – not physical – roots.
I began to feel a tension in my voice that’s difficult to describe. It’s a stuck-ness. I feel a disconnection between my inhalations and the start of my phonation, and I sense some kind of energetic obstruction in my throat. It’s as if something is blocking my voice from fully and freely resonating. Sometimes I describe it as the sensation of being choked by my voice.
It feels awful.
The stuck-ness wasn’t always a hindrance to me. It was subtle in my first few years of undergrad when the sparkly pieces of piano/singing Maya still glimmered at the surface, and the confidence I felt about my voice was still deep and bright.
The stuck-ness got deeper and tighter and heavier as the years went on. The accumulation of commentary, scrutiny, rejection, others’ opinions of my voice – positive and negative – slowly engulfed my own opinions. Their words became louder than my thoughts. I couldn’t hear myself anymore. Where I once felt shiny and sure, I was becoming small and confused about whether I was worth being there at all.
And that’s the thing about classical singing – it demands that we feel worthy.
Let me explain.
As singers, we share a deeply personal part of ourselves when we allow those big sounds to escape our mouths. We demand that attention be drawn to our presence. We occupy space, physically and energetically. When we sing, we say to the world, “Hey, listen to me! I feel worthy of being heard and seen!”
When you think about it, that is a massively powerful statement. I feel worthy of being heard and seen.
I was trying to make that statement with my classical singing, but my physical body wouldn’t allow it. It knew that wasn’t true, and the body can’t lie. It was saying to me, “You’ve abandoned yourself. You’ve abandoned the piano bench, the joy, the sparkle. You left the place your heart and soul naturally wanted to be. You’ve allowed the opinions of others to overshadow your own thoughts about yourself.”
My vocal difficulties came to a head in my second year of graduate school. These times were dark. I couldn’t sing more than a few notes in the practice room without melting down in tears. The tears sprung from the deep knowledge that I had complied with every "should" laid out for me by the world, but stomped out every flame of my own passions and desires along the way.
I’d lost all sense of my own beauty and natural gifts. My body – through my voice, since the voice is after all part of the body (more on that next time) – was calling me home.
I didn’t realize until recently that home is the piano bench. I had almost forgotten. Home is the raw, unrefined, messy, joyful nights of pouring my soul out to pop songs and leaving the bench feeling like I expressed myself in a meaningful way. That is the other side of the darkness for me.
I have many reflections to share from the other side – too many to fit into this post. Next week, I am going to report back about what I’ve discovered. Think self-worth, vulnerability, finding our true voices, speaking for ourselves, and being ourselves bravely.
I say “our” instead of “my” because I think our lives are all variations on this story. And this story can happen countless times within a single lifetime. This is what we come into these bodies to do: To lose and find ourselves again and again, to deny our inner longings only to realize that voicing them will make us whole, to suffer through experiences that will force us to reemerge shining that much brighter.
This is our story. Our beautiful, broken, imperfect human story.
To be continued…