One of the greatest things a voice teacher ever told me was to stop singing.
It was a turning point in the history of my saga-like relationship with my voice. I’m pretty open about my history of vocal issues, and here’s the Coles-notes version:
When I was thirteen and a budding soprano, out of nowhere one day, singing started to hurt. I went from getting solos and traveling the world with my wonderful children’s choir, to being unable to produce a sound without feeling tightness and pain in my throat. Overnight, singing made me miserable.
Losing my ability to sing comfortably was like having a tornado rip through my life and destroy everything I loved. Being a singer was my singular source of joy, and the cornerstone of my identity, and the choir that had once been my happy-place now felt like a place of shame and depression. I spent several years trying to find help through vocal lessons, but nothing worked.
As a teenager, I quietly shut down the part of myself that desperately missed singing. I did an English degree. I got good grades, I got involved in campus theatre to satisfy my stage-itch. Occasionally I’d open my mouth to sing, and it would hurt. So I would stop.
But when I finished my degree, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I travelled for a few months, I had crushing insomnia, and in the midst of spiritual turmoil, my lost identity as a musician came rushing back. Through a series of quite magical encounters, I got “forced” (that’s sort of what it felt like at the time) to rejoin a serious choir, and I found a voice teacher – an acting coach! – who could help me. We began working with my voice as not just a physiological entity, but as an extension of my soul.
It took simultaneous voice lessons and private therapy to begin to understand why my voice had shut down at age 13, and what I needed to let go of in order to sing again.
A year later, I started a music program in a college in Montreal, with a major in classical voice. The first few months were brutal. My voice was ready for serious training, but I wasn’t sure my heart was. I was so afraid of the vocal tightness coming back. I longed to be a “normal” overachiever like all my friends, who all were in either grad school or law school, rather than a college music program with classmates who were fresh out of high school. I wanted to quit, to run away, to give up once and for all on ever reclaiming what I’d lost at age 13.
This was exactly ten years ago. Early in my first term, seeing how terrified I was of my voice, my teacher gave me advice that would change me:
“just don’t sing for a couple of weeks.”
It was the most liberating thing I’d ever heard.
Listening through last week to Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast on creativity, Magic Lessons, I was reminded of what my voice teacher had told me a decade ago. In one podcast episode, Gilbert instructs Britta, a successful novelist who is feeling stuck writing her second book, to quit writing for a month. “You probably had all this sense of pressure…I want to prove to you that you have time.”
I felt a palpable sense of relief for Britta, upon hearing Elizabeth Gilbert command her not to write for four weeks. “Finally, you can just give yourself a break!” is what my heart said to her. “You can just be yourself.”
So, following my own teacher’s instructions ten years ago, I took a couple weeks off singing. My teacher still saw me for lessons those weeks, and we spent the hour making simple vocal noises that sounded nothing like music. I was free. For years I’d been grasping to reclaim something. Now I could just sit in silence and do nothing. It wasn’t like I’d given up, it was that I’d just stopped fighting so hard.
I realized I could give up the fight for my voice, if I wanted. I could make a solemn pact with the universe that I accepted that I may never sing again. I could ceremoniously say goodbye to the dream that one day I might just enjoy singing again. Because that’s all I wanted. I didn’t need to be famous, or even be known that much as a singer at this point. I just wanted to enjoy it. And I was ready to let that go.
These two weeks of not-singing were so meaningful to me that I even wrote a song about it at the time (which, in retrospect, means I must have cheated).
I recall those two weeks of not singing as some kind of sacred coming-of-age vision quest. When I emerged from the two weeks of vocal hiatus, I was ready to work. But not just nose-to-the-grind, capitalist-economy-work-ethic kind of work. I was ready to do my work of becoming the person I was meant to be. I could make a sacred, conscious commitment to the work.
This commitment saw me through the doubts that I should be in law school or grad school like my friends. It saw me through the fear that my voice was gone for good. It saw me through the daily practice required of music school, the sheer tedium of just having to show up and do the work.
Two years of music school gave me enough of a vocal technique foundation, that I could trust would carry me even if the old tightness came back some days. Completing the program took more courage than anything I’ve ever done. It still feels like a miracle that I did it.
I try to remember now, when I’m fighting extra-hard for something and spinning my wheels, to consider what it would be like to just step away. It seems counter-intuitive to impose a hiatus from the very thing we’re wanting to work on, but by stepping away, we can connect with the person who’s not anxiously striving for something that feels increasingly impossible. We can trust ourselves again, even love ourselves again. And then, with a full heart, we can go after what we really want, and probably get it.