When People are Watching

“Does she ever make you record yourself and listen to what you sound like?”

“No. Why?”

“Well, I don’t see how else you’ll ever get better, if you don’t hear what you sound like.”

“That’s what the piano is for. I’m supposed to match that tune. A lot of times I can hear myself going wrong, and that’s when you hear me stop and correct myself.”

“Well, is all I know is ever since you started taking singing lessons, you’ve been sounding more and more affected and you’re sounding worse and worse! But whatever, I’m not your singing instructor.”

Why, I wonder, do conversations like this make me feel like garbage? I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was coming to complain, that he was disgusted by my practice–the practice that I thought had really gone pretty well. I already hate practicing where everyone can hear me, but there’s no place else to practice. Everyone loathes it. They’re sick of my songs, sick of hearing me work on my range, sick of the fact that when one is singing–really singing–their voice carries. You have to, to let the air out, without holding it back. Any other way, and it damages your vocal cord. That’s how I know when I’m singing wrong–it’s uncomfortable. I know I’m singing right when it seems to float right out of me without any strain at all.

I suspect that’s what my brother was calling “affected”. Because when we talk, conversationally, we’re not speaking on our air. So I kind of know what he’s complaining about, and I know he’s wrong. I made a brief foray into trying to explain the reason behind the “affectedness,” but it was clear he wasn’t interested. He felt the need to tell me I sounded terrible. I apologized he was tormented by listening to me sing.

But I’m still going to sing.

And I’m still going to feel like crap.

I try to rationalize it away. He was just one person. My singing instructor says the opposite. My friends who sing notice great improvement. It feels right within my body. I’m enjoying myself. But I guess I don’t have much inside of me that resists very well that tone of voice.

You know that saying that everyone is plastering everywhere? About dancing like no one is watching and singing like no one hears? The thing that gets me every time about that is that it is being used as a rebuke about self-consciousness. That no one is really listening or watching anyway, and if they were, they could only really appreciate your offering. The truth of the matter is that people do watch, and people do listen. And guess what? They think and say critical, harsh things. They don’t like what you do.

If there’s really any truth in that statement, it has nothing to do with flowery, happy feelings of self-affirmation and coming out of your shell like a beautiful butterfly. No; it’s about setting your face like a flint, and doing what is very hard. It’s about defying every dark voice, voices that really are there. When people talk about “dancing like no one is watching,” I think the picture that often gets imagined is one laughing in the summer twilight and twirling with the autumn leaves. It’s really more like trying to find the spirit to dance in a war-zone. It’s realizing you have every reason to shut up and sit down, and getting up and singing anyway.

Which begs the question: why?

If you really do have every reason to shut up and sit down, why would you even call it “inspiring” to stand up and sing? What if people are just mad at you for singing over the war-ruins? What if everyone thinks you’re doing such a bad job of it, it’s a disgrace to everyone’s pain?

It also begs the question: how?

Even if we could pretend that it was really inspiring to sing badly, inspiring to disgust your listeners, inspiring to publicly fail, repeatedly. . .where are you supposed to find the strength to do that? There’s a reason why people don’t sing when others are listening or dance while others are watching. It’s hard. And it hurts.

Do I have splendid answers? Not really. At the core of it, I just know that if I don’t, I’m allowing myself to be caged and bound. I’ve always wanted. . .but, no, there’s an audience. Locked up inside of fear, not being who I really am.

Who I am is a disaster area. Who I am is a train-wreck. Who I am doesn’t summon butterflies and adoring crowds. Who I am annoys people and disgusts them.

But if I’m not who I am, I might as well be dead. If I’m living, I might as well strive to be alive. I can’t be alive as anyone other than me, even if me is the one who sings affectedly, has calves like a Clydesdale, and bosses people around indiscriminately during house-moving jobs. I might not want to be this person, but it’s my job to be alive. Part of that job description means singing even though people are listening, and don’t like it that I am. I apologize, but I cannot cease–without ceasing. The hard things still have to be done.

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