Growing up, my family attended mass every weekend. My parents were then, as they remain today, very active in their church. Faith and God were their highest priorities. And they attempted to instill the same values in their children by requiring weekly attendance at mass and encouraging our involvement wherever there were opportunities. They accomplished their goals with varying success, but no one can accuse them of not giving it their all!
Having always been an extremely shy child, I refused to do anything that would make me the center of attention at church. My brothers were altar boys for a few years. My sister, being the oldest and more cooperative offspring, became a lector in her teenage years. I’d watch her walk up on the altar, stand in front of the lectern and recite the weekly readings as I marveled at her confidence. At some point, my dad tried to coerce me volunteer in the same capacity. In words that were slightly more acceptable coming from my youthful mouth to my stern dad’s ears, I basically informed him it would be a cold day in hell.
He couldn’t make me stand up in front of the church and read from the Bible, but he could force my involvement in other ways. The Catholic mass holds much opportunity for communal prayer and response. As I sat in the hard pew amongst my parents and siblings, Dad would silently assert his authority by reaching for a missalette in front of me and placing it in my hands. There was no question what was required of me. Participate. I know Dad hoped for enthusiasm as well, but he’d take what he could get.
I would recite the prayers and respond according to the routine and flow of the mass. Singing, though. That was another story. Those church hymns were so ancient and boring. And the notes were often too high for me. And we Catholics weren’t as openly spiritual as some other faiths. There was no dancing in the aisles, no raising of the hands in praise, no spontaneous shouts of “AMEN!” or “Halleluja!” And as I recall, not a lot of loud singing from the pews. Mr. Teeters always lead us in song at Saturday mass while Mrs. Mrozinski accompanied him on the big church organ. On the rare occasions we went to Sunday mass, there was a choir with a handful of members. And for those of us in the congregation who didn’t sing with confidence, there was no hope of being drowned out among a sea of other voices. There were always a few voices that rose above the others, some in tune, some not. More power to them, I thought. Not me.
I was already a self-conscious teenager. I wasn’t about to add my voice to the few who could be heard. I mouthed the words to the songs. This did not escape Dad’s attention. On more than one occasion, I stood in the kitchen at home after mass, at the other end of one of Dad’s famous lectures. The scene was always the same. Dad insisting that next time, he’d better hear me singing. Me standing stubbornly, angry, refusing. He couldn’t make me sing, I’d say. He’d find a microphone and hold it up to my mouth if I didn’t start, he’d reply in anger.
These stand-offs with Dad only made me feel worse and the poor quality of my voice only magnified in my mind. I knew I was a terrible singer and Dad couldn’t make me sing at church.
Around those same years, I started high school. Somehow I fell in with a group of kids who were involved in theater. I worked as part of the stage crew on many productions and watched in admiration from the wings as my high school friends stood confidently on stage performing. Musical productions were fun and full of energy. And each one needed a bigger cast of performers than the non-musical plays. The star performers could really sing, but they needed a supporting choir for the many musical numbers. Somehow, someone convinced me to try out. I don’t know how that happened, but I’m sure there was something to the fact that one of my peers expressed belief in my ability to sing. My friends carried a lot more weight than my dad at that time. I began to believe I could do it.
With shaking legs and frayed nerves, I found myself up on stage during tryouts and somehow forced myself to sing … in a manner in which everyone could hear me. I was mortified inside, but I think I shut my eyes and just made myself keep going. I hated the sound of my voice, but I carried the tune until finally it was over. A boy I knew from the school bus stop patted me on the back and said, “You did great!” I didn’t believe him, but I now felt as if I’d taken a few steps toward conquering the feeling of self-consciousness that constantly floated around inside of me. I figured it could only get easier from here.
And when the cast list was posted, I saw my name on it! I’d never been so elated in my whole young life!
But when I informed my parents at home that evening of my accomplishment, my pride was crushed. There were many reasons given. None of them seemed fair at the time, but the bottom line was that I would not be performing in the musical. And mostly what I remember from that conversation was, “If you can’t sing in church, how do you think you’re going to sing on a stage in front of an auditorium full of people anyway?”
It didn’t matter that I thought I could do it because I’d be surrounded by friends who would also be singing, loudly, in front of an auditorium full of people. It didn’t matter that this tiny, little part in the school musical might help me grow a little bit and take a few small steps toward overcoming my fears. The conversation was over. I was told to inform the theater director the next day that I would be dropping out of the cast. I never thought I was a good singer. Never had hopes of being great. I just wanted to be part of something at school and this was one way I could do that. But it wasn’t going to happen. I think that was the end of my involvement in the theater group. I was embarrassed at having made a cast only to have to quit the next day. And there also ended any thought that I could be confident enough to put myself out there in front of others, in any way.
That lack of confidence continued to stay with me to some degree for the rest of my life. Of course, I grew up and learned in many ways that if I put my mind to it, I could probably do it. But I never got over that fear of singing in front of others. In all of my church-going years, I quietly refrained from singing. Didn’t sing to my kids unless it was in silliness. My cars have been the only ones to ever hear me belt it out.
But I have this sister, and her husband who’s in a bunch of bands. And they love to go out and sing karaoke. And I love to go out with them. And I’ve sung – but always with others. Always letting someone else take the lead. Always holding the microphone a ways away from my mouth. Always embarrassed, though I’ve learned that most people go out to sing karaoke because if they were good enough to be in bands, they’d be doing it there instead. And some people sing well at karaoke, but most people don’t. And no one cares because it just feels good to sing. And usually everyone has at least a good buzz going on anyway. I mean, look at this guy dancing! He didn’t care what anyone else was thinking. He was just living it up!
And so there we were again last night at the karaoke bar, my brother-in-law, my sister and me. My sister suffers a similar feeling of trepidation about getting up there and singing, maybe not quite as much as me, but still. A few people who were there the last time were there again. And they came over and told us all that they remembered us from two weeks ago – mostly because my brother-in-law and his band mates made a pretty good impression then. But they told us all they were glad we were back and hoped we’d all sing again.
My sister and I made a pact. We said we were going to do it. Not as a pair, not hiding behind each other. We were each going to go up there and just sing. Alone. Not because we think we’re fabulous singers. We’re not. But we can carry a tune and it just feels good to sing. And because as many years as have passed, we’re each still letting this feeling of self-consciousness hold us back to some degree.
There was no big challenge to the songs I sang, but I did it! My sister did too! People hooted and cheered and clapped. And my brother-in-law at one point said, “Nice job!” And we knocked knuckles. And I think he summed it up so well when he mused that people just want to do the things they enjoy doing and have someone encourage them for having done it. So simple, but so right.
And you know what? I’m still not going out and singing to the world, but I did sing in front of a bunch of people I don’t know and it was fun. It felt good. And next? Who knows? Maybe I’ll tell everyone I know that I’ve been writing a blog on the internet for the past eight years!
But probably not just yet. :-)