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