Tango dancers & subway buskers & gospel choirs: What happens when you say yes to showing up and using your voice
A few weeks ago I was changing up some of the art displayed in our living room (translation: I was dusting and thought wow, these things have been sitting here a while) and pulled out something I’d created a few years ago in a wonderful online class taught by artist Lynn Whipple. As I recall, the assignment had been to grab an old book, pick a book page, and create on it a list of things you love and then play with it. I used as my canvas a page in a book about classical dances and costumes of India (because duh, very cool illustrations) and created a list I called The Sixteen Reasons to be Glad for Right Now.
Anyway, I rediscover this thing I’d created and forgotten, read it again for the first time in a couple of years and decide to set it on the shelf, where it can actually be seen. See Exhibit A, my list on the bookshelf.
The Sixteen Reasons to be Glad for Right Now
1. Thunder claps during naps
2. A kiss on the back of the neck
3. Sighs of contentment
4. The color of caramel
5. Tango dancers & subway buskers & gospel choirs
6. Soulful conversations
7. The moment before the movie starts
8. Being seen by another
9. Bangle bracelets
10. A cork popping
11. A new pen
12. An old soul
13. A tidy drawer
14. Feeding friends you love
15. Adoring whispers in your ear
16. A sense of possibility
You see item #5 on there? That’s relevant, remember #5, the one about tango dancers & subway buskers & gospel choirs.
So fast forward to this past weekend. I’m with my boyfriend, Chris, at his family’s annual reunion, an intimate little 3-day gathering of more than 300 people from around the country with a nonstop itinerary of picnics, parties, and oh, what’s this I see here? Choir practice on Saturday morning?
That’s for everyone participating in the family choir, boyfriend says. Because on Sunday morning, the family choir takes over the local church (it’s a friendly takeover) and sings for all the other visiting family members and the local congregation who come out in droves, because the Malone Family is singing this weekend.
He was thinking about singing this year. I could come to the rehearsal. Or even sing with them, if I wanted.
Oh let’s see, did I want to sing with an amazing gospel choir? When that music has been one of the go-to staples in my rather eclectic music collection for years? My daughters grew up listening to a quirky soundtrack that included the likes of Sam Cook, Pancho Sanchez, Howlin’ Wolf, J.S. Bach, Ravi Shankar, and the late great Mahalia Jackson, known as The Queen of Gospel. I’m not a churchy gal, but when it comes to revving up some tunes to lift the mood and stir your soul, it’s hard to beat some good gospel.
When I made that list some years ago of things that make me happy, gospel choirs showed up. But I never even thought to wish for a chance to sing with a gospel choir. Gospel choir music has been, for me, strictly a spectator sport.
And yet, here I was being invited to be a part of this one. All I had to do was say yes and show up, and I’d be in. I had an opportunity to sing (at karaoke bars my mantra is Love music, I’m just not a singer!) with this African-American choir (I’m not African-American) made up of family members (I’m not a family member) singing in a Baptist church (I’m not Baptist).
What could possibly go wrong?
I said yes.
At the rehearsal Saturday morning, I took my place amidst the altos after my boyfriend’s mother gently noted that we don’t bring beverages into a church. Duly noted, goodbye latte. And then I asked if there was music for those of us unfamiliar with the songs. No, no music. Ah, okay, no problem. A handout with lyrics, perhaps? Nope.
This was an unanticipated wrinkle. My moment of “yes” had evolved into “Yes, you have officially lost your mind.”
But then the magic happened.
Someone said here, give me your phone – and during the rehearsal created a custom YouTube playlist for me with some of the songs we were singing. Watch this a couple times between now and tomorrow morning, and you’ll be fine, she said.
Another woman gave me a comforting squeeze and a smile and said you got this, girl. If you get lost, just keep your mouth moving, and no one will know.
As we rehearsed and moved through some of the call and response sections, I started to get into it. Then the lady to my right turned and said baby, you’re not an alto, you’re a tenor—you need to go sit over there.
A tenor, wow. This was calling for me to adjust my sense of self. Okay, though, I’m game. So I got up and moved to sit next to Chris, right on the alto-tenor border.
A bit of reality to share with you: On a scale of 1 to 10, as a singer, I’m probably a solid 3. I’ve got a good ear, but in terms of technique, forget about it. And I was sitting in a group heavily populated with 8s, 9s, and even some have-you-released-your-next-CD-yet 10s. Oh, and did I mention that the boyfriend’s mama is one of those featured soprano soloists whose voice will pull your heart right out of your chest and then hand it back to you topped with goosebumps before she even gets to the second verse?
I decided to just go with being the best 3 I could be.
And I cannot tell you how much sheer joy it brought me.
First of all, it’d been so long since I’d created music with a group of people – I was a music major for a minute in college – I hadn’t realized how much I miss that rush of collective creation. To be sitting in the midst of all that heart and beauty was a gift, and to be adding my own voice to the mix, however unschooled…priceless. The best part, though, was the unexpected bonus of all the support, generosity and love that came flowing my way once I said yes to the unexpected opportunity to join them.
Part of the time I was singing with the altos, sometimes I chimed in with the tenors, and other times I just kind of did my own thing. (“You were awesome,” said my ever-supportive and kind-hearted guy later.) Most importantly, I opened up my heart and added my voice to the mix and let Chris’s mother’s words to the entire choir guide me: Don’t be up in your head trying to get it right, that never works—you have to feel it with your whole body, with your heart, and it’ll just come out. It’s not about you, it’s about that person who’s going to be out there listening, the person who needs to hear your message. Sing from there.
And the price of admission for this moment? All I had to do was say yes to showing up and using my voice.
I had a few folks sidle up to me after my gospel choir debut and say I didn’t know you were a singer! I’m not, I said – but I did it anyway. Well you looked like you were having fun, they said. Oh yeah, I was having fun…Fun. On. Steroids.
Here’s another cool thing about saying yes to showing up and using your voice: It’s contagious.
Your willingness to risk something, to be seen and heard exactly as you are and as you are not, gives others permission to do the same rather than waiting to be enough…or waiting for the right time…or waiting for it to “feel right.” When you take a risk and open your heart, when you say yes to using your voice regardless of your own opinion of that voice, it makes a difference for you and others.
I’m not naming names, but a little birdie told me that out of seeing the white girl with the almost-average voice thoroughly enjoying her gospel choir debut, there just might be some new faces in the choir at next year’s reunion.
So here’s the deal. If you’ve been thinking about saying yes to showing up and using your voice, I invite you to take the plunge and just jump in. What inspires you enough to have you want to share it with others? I invite you to ask yourself what the song is you’re longing to sing.
If you’re an 8, 9 or 10, what the heck are you waiting for?
If, on the other hand, you’re a 3 like me, ROCK it as a 3. Go out and be a full-throated, badass 3 and have a blast with it. You’ll not only survive, you’ll learn and grow as a human being.
And when you’re not sure you should do it, when you wobble or forget the words or don’t quite hit the note you were reaching for, remember the wise words I leaned on:
“It’s not about you, it’s about that person who’s going to be out there listening, the person who needs to hear your message. Sing from there.”
Amen to that.
Deb Beroset, founder of Moxie Creative + Consulting, Inc., is The Influence Stylist and specializes in helping people consciously create how they show up in the world. She is an award-winning international journalist, the former head of Hallmark’s innovation think tank, a certified Neurotransformational Coach, and has relationships with the media worldwide.