Once upon a time, I sang. I've loved doing few things more and few things as much since. Some of my very favorite memories involve going onstage in front of an unsuspecting audience. But aside from the rare karaoke hoedown, I've not been on a stage in 20 years.
When I was a teenaged wannabe, back in the good old/bad old '80s, it was extremely difficult to make it as a female singer unless you were working some sort of shtick. You had to shave off half your hair like Cyndi Lauper, or be thin enough to slide into the leather pants of Chrissie Hynde or Pat Benatar. You couldn't just get up there and make music, all mild-mannered and suburban-like. I had pipes, but no desire for pomp or circumstance. Plus, the anxiety I'd feel about auditions shredded my innards like grating Parmesan.
Eventually, girls my age who were unencumbered by stage fright got heard. The Juliana Hatfields and the Liz Phairs established a more restrained rocker girl image, a compelling juxtaposition of little-girl tones speak-singing the sordid stories of their precocious lives. I wore jeans and all, but I had a deep voice and didn't sound at all like a precocious little girl. It was tough to imagine where I'd fit in.
Also, I lived like Girls before Girls, except my existence was not subsidized -- not even during college. I had a day job. And another day job. And a few waitress shifts. For a time, I had all three. I hid behind the fact that I was too busy to write music and rehearse, and my slow-boiling fear of the stage festered into a full-blown phobia. So I realized other dreams. My turn of phrase pleased clients. I got published. I got married and had children and had even less time to find musicians to play with, even just for fun.
Being a frustrated singer harbors a unique set of challenges. Folks don't understand why you have to hear a song fifteen times in a row to master the nuance of each run. You seethe a little each time a favorite song comes on in the car and the chatter around you continues during your jam. You wonder if you've thoroughly pissed off your neighbors each time you test the shower's acoustics. Your mind literally processes the day's events as they occur like a Glee sequence: Should anyone in your circumference so much as utter a phrase that echoes a song title, the mental gold lamé curtains part to kick off a full-scale production. Unless it's a shit day, which would turn the curtains velvet blue and the venue into a smoky club where you clutch the mic, a lone chanteuse, eyes fluttered shut, emoting each self-indulgent note into the hazy ether. You're a little too happy about the disposal of that annoying kid with the skunk hair on American Idol because you are vehement that his voice is pedestrian. You yell at The Voice when your favorites get voted off because you fear deeply that the one gifted individual you favor might be forced back into the obscurity of a suburban office park, aside from the occasional dust off to tape a "Where Are They Now?" special.
When fear monopolizes your passion for something, there is much to be said for finding the courage to get over yourself. I recently went with my husband to his childhood friend's memorial service. His friend died at the ridiculously young age of 41 in a freak snowmobiling accident, while exploring his beloved Alaskan tundra. Twenty years before, he'd dropped out of college and hitched to Alaska with nothing but chump change in his pocket, determined to manifest his destiny in the same mountainous wilderness he'd fervently imagined since he was a little kid. His loving family deeply lamented the loss of his presence, but somehow found solace in the fact that he left the world doing just the thing that made him happy and what he felt was his purpose on earth. How many people can truly say that?
Singing into an amplified stick in a room of people is a far cry from skinning animals to survive in the frozen tundra. So what kind of wimp was I? I realized that I was tired of singing backup in my life, and whenever I make my way to that great audition in the sky, I want to rock the shit out of that mic so hard I make the angels weep.
In its atrophy, the part of me that loves to sing has only grown more agitated, gnawing at me from within. It may be too late to get a record deal or write a top-ten single, but as long as I'm breathing, no stage fright is worth losing out on the glee (pun intended) I can find in doing the thing I love -- even if it's just during those karaoke hoedowns. Like the one I'm having this very weekend.
For more by Vivian Manning-Schaffel, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.