A Darkened Auditorium

Carol A. Hand

As a child, I would often run through the woods behind my house so I could sit next to a little stream and sing for hours with the music of the water as it washed over and around the rocks in its path. As a little girl, I dreamed of being a singer when I grew up. I loved to sing. My parents were too poor to buy the piano I desperately wanted to learn to play so I could sing with an instrument, but they did finally buy me an instrument they could afford. It was one that I found awkward and embarrassing — an accordion. For a tiny stick of a girl, it was a funny sight for me to imagine — this huge appendage strapped to my chest as I struggled to move the bellows and press keys at the same time. I was never good at playing it, although a kind musician at the summer camp where my family sometimes spent vacations asked me to perform with him when I was about ten. I was too excited to experience the fear that would later overwhelm me at the very thought of standing on a stage. That would come later.

By high school I sang in choirs and loved blending my high soprano voice in harmony with so many different voices. I tried to start a small singing group with three others: an alto, tenor and bass. But our first performance was embarrassing. Some of my partners forgot the words as we sang and others forgot the chords. We lived through the teasing and embarrassment, but the group didn’t last. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to sing in public again, but I still loved to sing. It was my way of connecting with a deeper part of myself to let feelings and creativity flow. When I got to college, I met a few other women who loved to sing. They taught me a little about playing the guitar and introduced me to a little coffee house in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood. On our first visit, it happened to be “open mic night,” my friends dared me to sing. With my knees like rubber, barely able to breathe or swallow, I walked up on the stage and somehow managed to sing something despite trembling fingers that missed many chords. To my astonishment, the owner offered me a job singing on weekend evenings.

Stage fright became a constant reality. I didn’t know many songs, I wasn’t very good on the guitar, my soft voice needed a mic to be heard and didn’t have a wide range for lower notes, and I could never predict if the sounds that emerged would be cloudy or clear. I needed to learn and practice new things. But where could I go in the windy and wintry city to practice? Then I discovered the college auditorium, often deserted on late evenings during the week. I would walk up on the stage in the dark room and sing for hours, safe in the knowledge I was free to experiment and make as many mistakes as needed.


Photo Credit: Onbroadwaytheater.com

The first weekend when I walked to the coffee house for my new “job,” it was daunting to see my name in lights above the door. Despite nausea, weak knees and trembling hands, I made it through that weekend and several more without any truly embarrassing moments. Practice didn’t ease the terror, but it helped me reach ever deeper to sing from my heart and my spirit. But my career abruptly ended one evening as I was finishing my practice session in the auditorium. As I was kneeling to put my guitar into its case, a voice from the back of the darkened auditorium caused me to pause. “YOU DON’T SING FOR PEOPLE!” As I peered out at the row of seats, I could barely make out the darker shadow of someone seated in the very back of the room. The dark shadow rose and walked into the slightly lighter aisle. I could see the middle-aged white priest in his vestments. He repeated his words, “You don’t sing for people.” Then he turned and walked out without another word. It was the last time I ever sang on a stage. I diplomatically resigned from my weekend job, packed my guitar away, and didn’t open the case again for many years.

At the time, I wasn’t able to understand my reasons for allowing these words to silence my voice. But it did make me realize one of the reasons for my stage fright. I really didn’t care if people thought I sang well. It was more a fear of revealing my heart before strangers in such an open and unprotected way. What if they found me lacking depth or substance as a human being? What if they found my words silly and trite, too angry, too melancholy, or incomprehensible? It was not the priest’s unkind words that silenced my voice. It was his uninvited presence and his harsh, unasked-for criticism. The words uncovered my greatest fears. As someone between cultures, could I ever learn to reach across divides to understand others and be understood? This priest was a stranger. How did he know how to craft strategic word-weapons to wound a stranger so deeply? And why would anyone ever do so?

I have never found the answers to those questions, but I did make the decision that night not to share the songs in my heart with strangers again with such naïve vulnerability. I don’t regret that decision. The priest’s unkind words didn’t silence the songs in my heart. The songs patiently bided their time, looking for other ways to emerge.

Years later, I remember those words every time I teach a class or speak in public, and every time I post a new essay on a blog or send out a manuscript for editing and peer review. I ask myself “Is this true? Does it come from my heart or my ego?” As a singer, I both did and did not sing for people. I sang because there was a song in my heart that needed to be given voice, and I hoped for people and hearts that would listen and sing back their songs. It’s the same with writing. I write because there is a story that won’t let me rest until it is spoken. Once written, it only comes to life if others read it and join me in dialogue. Dialogue is like the voices of a choir adding harmony and counterpoint, depth and breadth, dissonance and resolution, to the stories that unite us in our shared humanity. Yet even if dialogue doesn’t come immediately, I know that I have contributed what I can to touch the hearts of others.


Photo Credit: Carol Hand, Carlos, José, and children, 1973, photographer unknown



15 thoughts on “A Darkened Auditorium

  1. Carol – Thank you for this thoughtful and honest essay. If it makes me wince, that means it’s something I really need to hear.

    Ouch. Where is that fine line between selfishness, feeding that greedy ego, and doing what we must for our own sanity and well-being? I still don’t know, though I suspect too much of my own work is motivated by my immature, insecure self, rather than the wish to communicate. At times, it feels like a lifelong high-wire act, of course without a net. I wish us all luck!

    And when (if ever) do we learn which criticisms to heed and which to ignore? Again, I still can’t tell. My first guess says YOU should keep singing and writing, as loud and long as you can. Maybe someday I’ll sort out my own priorities … someday. – Linda


    1. Linda, The depth of your honesty brought tears to my eyes. Thank you! It reminded me of a something I recently read on Ron Levine’s blog. I don’t remember the exact words, but the essence is, “I write to explore life, not because I have answers.”

      The questions you raise are profound and complex, and from my perspective, only you have the right to answer them, not the voice of a stranger in a dark auditorium. Ask them, but please don’t let them silence your voice — you have too many important things to say.


  2. I think it was Carl Van Doren who said, “Yes, it’s hard to write, but it’s harder not to.” In your case, it may be harder not to sing. In my case, it’s far better for everyone that I write and not sing. 😀


  3. This story saddened me – one that a priest would be so unkind – two that he silenced you. I love to sing and wanted to perform – but for years was told I couldn’t carry a tune – I got better – just as I get better with dancing. At any rate, sing whenever you feel like it, especially if you are feeling joyful. Oddly last week, I found myself singing in the hospital halls! Maybe one day we’ll get to sing together. And I love that you write to create dialogue, that has always been my goal with writing too.


    1. Thank you for empathizing and for your kindness. In the long run, I really don’t regret the decision to put away my guitar — I still have one that I occasionally pull out. Even though I rarely have time to sing these days, my house is always filled with music — mostly classical to keep my parakeets happy. And the little dog I adopted several months ago sometimes sings with tenors and sopranos when operas are playing — a truly funny sight as he tilts his little head back, stretches his lips, and makes the most incredible sounds. It makes me laugh.

      I am pleased to hear that you love to sing and dance, and even if we never have a chance to sing together, I am grateful for the chance we have to share our stories — just a different way to give voice to songs.


  4. That was simply beautiful! There was so much honesty in this touching essay:) I am a mediocre singer at best, but I feel just the same way about my writing. I remember the night I first showed my Korean mother my English poetry, and at first complaining that she could not understand it, she ended up by saying that she was very disappointed at how depressed I was, and that I was obviously an immature and unsophisticated writer. I cried bitterly in the ensuing silence, but like you, I found ways to stand up again and keep writing! (Although I don’t think my mother was being unkind, unlike that rude priest. :/ What was he thinking!) I’m very glad you found ways to keep singing, and I’m envious of the fact that you can both sing AND write so well! Thank you for giving me a gleam of light today!


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Esther. Your poetry and prose are beautiful, spoken from the heart. I am sure your mother was only trying to protect you from pain and disappointment, and someday I am sure she will recognize your gifts.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Cindy. I think he’s long gone, and although it felt earth-shattering at the time, in many ways I am very grateful to him now. I’m not sure I could have survived in a competitive surreal ego-oriented arena. It was one of the times in my life when I could have taken a different path based on ego and competition, but a voice in the darkness or in the light of a busy day forced me to remember what was really important in life 🙂 .

      (I still sing for my granddaughter and parakeets.)


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