Oh, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing
“You can’t sing!”
“You sound terrible.”
“Ugh, please stop.”
I heard this a lot when I was a kid. Ever since I could speak, I was trying to sing. Of course, not a lot of kids are good at singing; but early on, I was told that I could not and I should not. This was somewhat crushing, so I learned to keep my voice to myself and to be ashamed of it. I chose to only sing in my room or when nobody was around. I did try out for a few choirs where I could blend in, but my crippling stage fright kept me from pursuing it much.
I remember in high school I started to try and take ownership over my voice. Occasionally I would sing with some bravery with a friend of mine in youth group who played guitar. Once, we tried to sing in a talent showcase at our church camp; my attempts at singing soprano (the ever elusive goal) were quietly and lovingly shut down by the youth leaders. I wanted deeply to sing in my high school’s choir, but refused to brave the audition process.
A few years later, I found myself in a college worship service. A classmate in the row in front of me turned around and said, “I don’t mean this to sound weird, but I noticed you have a lovely voice! Have you thought about auditioning for the choir?” I probably looked at her like she had three heads. I was in the middle of refusing when she said, “You could get a scholarship if you get in.” So, I immediately signed up to audition. What the hell?
I found myself looking at the piece of paper in the audition asking me what my range was. I had no idea what to put down; my range was technically in the alto range, but I had only ever tried to sing soprano. I had no idea how to pick up a harmony, so therefore I resided in screeching cat territory. I auditioned and they placed me as a first alto. I remember almost walking out of my first practice, completely overwhelmed by the sheet music and how half of the 40+ people in the room already knew all the songs.
However, I had just finished a summer of learning to play roller derby for the first time. Derby had taught me to work hard to get better at something, and not give up if you weren’t a natural. So, I decided to stick with choir out of sheer stubbornness.
Choir became one of the most important and indispensable parts of my college experience. I stayed in choir through all four years and traveled all over the state to sing at local churches–we even traveled to Ireland and Northern Ireland one year. My life became rehearsing at all hours of the day as we would sing in between classes walking around campus; making spotify playlists of our music; learning which other university’s choirs I could be jealous of. I consider choir to be my first team sport; there were lots of moments of choir drama, necessary communication, and the necessary teamwork of learning to sing together, not just by yourself. Choir was also an extremely important avenue for me to gain self-confidence in finding my musical voice as well as my personal voice.
Choir became my refuge- there are certain hymns we would sing that would become hallmarks of some of the most difficult moments of my life–breakups, deaths, the stress of applying to grad school, of reconciling my sexuality with my faith. Choir became the bolster for my faith and was my greatest religious educator. Choir became my stress relief; studies show that the forced rhythmic breathing several times a week that comes with choir has the same effect on the brain as yoga and meditation.
I also had no idea that choir had become this important to my psychological and spiritual wellbeing until I didn’t have it anymore. Graduating from college was exhilarating, however I have no doubt that one of the reasons grad school became so difficult and stressful for me because I did not have the creative outlet I had before in choir. I did join a local choir at a gorgeous Methodist church for a while, and it got me through my first semester. However, my mounting complicated feelings toward the Methodist church and my rekindled affair with roller derby drew me away from the choral world.
Recently, however, I have been craving choir again. Even more, I know I need to be in church but I am absolutely the worst at going to church on Sundays (the irony of ironies.) So, I went to my first choir practice at First UU of Nashville last night. While it had been two years since I had been in a choir practice, it felt like no time had passed. While picking up harmonies are a weak muscle that needs strengthening, it was beautiful to feel my body re-tune itself to the nature choir. Having the correct posture, the way I used to hold my music, my diction and enunciation, how to moderate and control the breath, how to listen to your section and tune out whatever needs to be tuned out, how to read music and watch a conductor at the same time. It felt like coming home.
There is still so much about the command to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God and neighbor that my fatigue heart feels currently overwhelmed by, but there has always been something different about music. It is a space of active rest; the theology that is taught in music comes different than that of a sermon or article; the way justice is championed through song is different than that of a protest or an organizing meeting. Music is the space where the soul comes home to rest in the hope that God loves us, that there is such a thing as justice, and that people of faith can come together and witness the sacred. And while it is a space of rest, it is also still a functional form of calling the gathered community to action and faith. I am looking forward to growing in my UU faith, learning about the UU traditions, and recovering from compassion fatigue through song.