Last night the whole family — me and Jason, the kids, my folks — went out to see the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra’s Big Band concert, which is the best way for medium-to-low-brow folks like us to enjoy the symphony — kind of “Night at the Pops” thing. The first half of the show featured movie themes by John Williams, including lots of stuff the kids recognized — the Star Wars theme, Harry Potter, the Indiana Jones theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The second half was a tribute to the music of Buddy Holly and Peggy Lee, with vocals on the Buddy Holly songs done by the 8-Track Favourites, and Peggy Lee’s songs sung by the really quite astonishing jazz vocalist Heather Bambrick.
I loved pretty much every minute of the show, but when Heather Bambrick came on and started to sing, I had to fight back that overwhelming emotion I feel every time I hear a woman with a truly amazing voice: envy.
I’ve always thought it was one of God’s crueller jokes to create someone like me: someone with an absolutely passionate, bordering on obsessive love for music; a phenomenal ability to remember hundreds of song lyrics; and absolutely no hint of stage fright. In fact I have absolutely every quality needed to make me a great vocal performer except one: I can’t sing.
This is not any kind of a statement of false modesty. It’s a simple fact, easily verifiable by almost anyone who knows me. I find it hard to get on key and even harder to stay there, I have about a four-note range, and the tonal quality of my voice is not particularly pleasant to listen to.
I know that if I took voice lessons I could probably improve my singing marginally, perhaps to the point where I could join a community choir and not get kicked out as long as I didn’t sing too loudly and brought homemade cookies to every practice. But no amount of training on God’s green earth will ever get me within a million miles of being a Heather Bambrick. You just can’t get from here to there, and obviously I haven’t wasted any effort trying: I just sit back and enjoy the vocal stylings of people who can actually do it.
If, as a child or young person, I had shown even a shred of singing talent, would I have devoted as much effort and energy to becoming a professional singer as I have to becoming a professional writer and sharpening my skills in that area? You betcha. Maybe more. There is no doubt in my mind that if I could carry a tune and make it sound OK, I’d be on stage singing my heart out every chance I get.
This calls into question the inspiring slogans we always feed to children: “You can do it! Go for it! With enough effort and courage and faith in yourself, you can do ANYTHING!!”
No, you really can’t. All the effort, courage and faith in the world, even starting when I was four years old, would not have made a great singer out of me. Or a ballet dancer, or a professional athlete, I’m pretty sure. We all have stuff we can do, and stuff we can’t do. While I encourage my kids to try lots of different things that interest them, I don’t genuinely believe they can become good and skilful at whatever they set their minds to. We limit ourselves but our lack of effort and faith sometimes, it’s true, but Nature also limits us to a certain extent. Natural talent does play into it somewhere, and our talents are not always an exact match for our interests — I’m living proof of that. If sheer desire and love could make someone a great singer, I’d have been onstage with the NSO last night.
When I hear a great singer, my inward reaction is: “How beautiful! I wish I could do that — too bad I can’t.” When I read a great writer, my reaction is, “How beautiful! I wish I could do that — and I know I can’t do exactly that, but if I keep trying I can get a little closer to it.” Good writing gives me a goal to shoot for; good singing simply points out my deficiencies to me.
What interests me is: how did I learn that I couldn’t sing? As a child, I presumably did what my own children and what all self-confident and securely loved children do: I tried everything that interested me. I drew pictures, I wrote stories, I danced, I sang songs. I learned what I was good at by the reactions of others. People — parents, teachers, other adults — liked what I wrote and encouraged me to do more. Apparently my singing didn’t get the same reaction, although I can’t recall too many stinging blows. Once, in Grade Seven, an optimistic teacher assembled a group of four or five of us girls to sing a song in church. During the performance, a lady in church had to leave because she was laughing so hard. I am not even kidding.
Quite often, when we’re encouraging people — kids or adults — to do something like writing, we say things like, “Don’t rely on other people’s opinions — your self-esteem will be all over the map if you listen to what other people say about your work. Trust your inner voice; have faith in your own work.” And yeah, there’s a kind of truth to that, but there’s a lie in it too. I’ve met writers who keep plugging away churning out amazingly bad pieces of writing because they’re true to their inner vision and won’t let anyone — publishers, editors, critique group members — discourage them. Which is fine if they’re just writing to exorcise their inner demons or amuse themselves, but that’s the literary equivalent of me singing in the shower (where, I’m happy to tell you, I really belt it out and I sound just like Heather Bambrick).
If you want to exercise your talents on a bigger playing field than your shower, then yes, you do need to listen to the critiques of others. If you have that nugget of talent, then those critiques will help you hone it and make it better and better. If you don’t — well, maybe it’s better to find that out sooner rather than later.
The trick is to somehow unhook your self-esteem from your talent, so that you can believe (as I do) that you’re still a valuable and good person even if you cannot carry a tune in the proverbial bucket; that critiques of your ability are not critiques of you as a human being. I can do it with singing because I’ve long ago accepted that’s not my field, so if someone says, “Wow, you are a really terrible singer!” (or moves away from me during congregational singing in church because they have perfect pitch and standing next to me is painful for them — which has happened) it doesn’t affect my view of who I am. But when someone critiques my writing — well, my writing has gotten pretty bound up with my view of who I am, so it’s harder to separate that, to keep from taking that personally. That’s the challenge, for me — to learn from critique and let it make me better without taking it too much to heart.
One more thing: in heaven, I am going to have a GREAT voice. God totally owes me.