I've always had a rocky relationship with my singing voice. As a kid, I’d sing with my Dad at the bar, happily oblivious to my clearly sub-par vocal range. (Get it together, 5-year old, Colleen!).
Dad was a classically trained opera singer, and his voice was incredible. I never received any formal training. I learned to sing by watching Dad and listening to the combined record collections of my parents and my older siblings.
I was a total ham.
Kim actually played the guitar. I did NOT play the piano, but that didn’t stop me.
As I got a little older, and became aware that not only did I sound like Froggy from the Li’l Rascals, but I had started an awkward phase that would last for 20 years, I became resistant and shy.
But, Dad would always say “Sing out, kid. Sing out.”
And so I sang out. Sometimes reluctantly, I but I sang out.
Through high school and college, I’d try out for musicals and almost always get cast in the chorus where I could be counted on to smile big, sing loud, and hold down those low harmonies.
Leader of the Pack, 1988. I'm the one in the middle rocking a purple satin top.
I was rarely in contention for a lead role and I always told myself it was because I was vocally feral and too fat. I don’t know why I always conflated being fat with being “not good at singing.”
It makes no sense. I mean, the Fat Lady singing is literally a thing we say. It’s not over until she does- which means she’s the finale, the big finish, saving the best for last.
What can I say? This shit goes way back and deep.
My Dad lost his voice due to radiation treatments for the lung cancer that eventually killed him. But, he wasn't as worried about dying as he was with living without his voice. During that time, I was so caught up in my own insecurity and perfectionism that I couldn’t bring myself to sing for him and pluck out a tune on the guitar. After he died, it took me years to sing again and to try plucking out tunes on that old guitar.
One of the last times we ever sang together.
This year, I’ve made a commitment to myself to show up for my creativity, and say yes to creative things that scare me. So far, I’ve written a song, applied for and booked 4 Fringe Festivals for this summer, and started this blog.
And, last month, I sang in a room full of voice specialists, voice teachers, and fully-trained singers.
GULP. (Sing out, Kid. Sing out.)
Joanna Lott, one of my closest friends and 2-time roommate on 106th street, has one of the best singing voices I’ve ever heard. She grew up singing, dancing, and acting her way through plays and musicals in Pittsburgh and even toured Europe in a choir. Joanna is the girl who always got cast as the ingenue - big blue eyes, porcelain skin, voice like a skybird. I’d hate her on principle, but she’s also kind, funny, a great writer, and almost as crazy as I am. So, it’s hard not to love her.
There is so much going on in this picture. I don't know where to start.
When we were roommates in NYC, we'd camp out in our living room, covered in cats, and practice duets inspired by Shawn Colvin and the Indigo Girls.
Sometimes we’d have a friend or two over. I remember one time I sang a Jewel song and another singer friend said my voice sounded like a loaded gun. She said it like it was a compliment, but i turned that over and over in my head. Loaded guns are dangerous, unpredictable.
Now, Joanna is a is a singer, a voice teacher and a real-deal Speech Language Pathologist down in Charlottesville. She gets to do all kinds of wild medical stuff like putting camera scopes down people’s throats so she can see the state of their vocal folds, which she loves but really freaks me out.
One time, I went to the doctor, sure I had a brain tumor, and they told me to stay perfectly still while they threaded a camera up my schnozz. It made think of that scene in The Abyss where Ed Harris is exposed to “liquid ventilation.”
Nightmares for weeks.
And it wasn’t a brain tumor. It was a sinus infection.
I planned a visit to see Jo over Easter this year which also happened to be the same weekend as her biggest professional event of the year: World Voice Day.
The mission of World Voice Day is to increase public awareness of the importance of vocal health and bring attention to the solutions the UVA Voice Team can provide when problems do arise.
Joanna has been running the show for the last few years. She gathers local singers, most of whom are patients who have been helped by the professionals at the Voice Clinic, to come and tell their stories and perform for the community.
Joanna often sings at the event, too, which is a treat for everyone. Last year, she killed it with her version of Chandelier by Sia.
This year she texted me: I’m going to do “Shallow” from A Star Is Born. Will you sing the Bradley Cooper part?
Singing the dude’s part in any song is squarely in my wheelhouse, so I agreed.
I’m thinking of singing “The Rose” too. Can you harmonize with that?
A few days later, another text:
While you’re down here, why don’t you tell a story and sing that song you did in your show?
Um. Sure. I could do that. I’ve done it a bunch of times. It’s far from perfect, but that’s sort of the point of it. So, sure. Yes.
But, on the drive to C-Ville it occurred to me that I was going to have to sing in a room full of trained singers and voice teachers. I don’t even really know how to warm up.
I started to get nervous. So I crammed for hours in the car – singing those harmonies and memorizing the weird Gaga/Bradley tongue twister “sha – ha – sha ha low. In the sha la sha la sha ha low. In the sha ha sha ha low. We’re far from the shallow now.”
I listened but didn’t sing along as Gaga belted that big, gutsy pre-chorus: “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in. I’ll never meet the ground.”
And I thought, "Maybe if I took some voice lessons I could hit THOSE notes.”
The day of the event, Jo and I drove around C-ville, harmonizing together and running last-minute errands for WVD. After buying 6 cases of water and 200 plastic cups, we ran through Shallow a couple of times while parked in front of the Dollar store. She looked at me and said, “You know, I think you should take the first pre-chorus and I’ll do the second one.”
GULP. (Sing out, Kid. Sing out.)
Overall, the event was a raging success. There was such a huge turnout that people were spilling out into the street. There were groups, duos, trios and solo artists performing throughout the night, including an up-and-coming singer about to cut her first album, a “song circle” led by three women who trained under Bobby McFarrin, and the incomparable, you must look her up now or we can’t be friends, Erin Lunsford.
Erin Lunsford. Seriously, I could listen to this angel for days.
Instead of telling a traditional story, Jo and I decided to have a conversation before I sang and played my solo number. Secretly, I hoped that priming the audience with my “I’m not a trained singer!” sob story would soften them towards me and lessen then impact of every flat or sharp note. That’s totally my MO. I try to lower expectations to the point where people will then say, “hey, not bad!” [Note to self: Please stop doing that.]
My section of the show went well. The audience was so generous and responsive. There was an actual sound engineer at WVD. The last time I did this act, I had to bring my own chair. (NOT A JOKE. I literally had to bring my own chair.)
So the whole thing felt very professional.
Credit: Tunisa Douglas
Then it was time for Shallow. I don’t know what it is, but as nervous as I get before I perform, something takes over when it’s actually time. (Sing out, Kid. Sing out.) I just took a deep breath, and went for it. In the moment, it felt pretty good. Of course, I listened back to the bootleg audio I took and heard every mistake. But I did it. We did it.
Jo sounded beautiful, of course. She sang this Sara Bareilles cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that I’d never heard before.
She killed it.
Then we sang “The Rose.”
Harmonizing with Joanna again was such a beautiful experience. It brought me back to those nights in our living room, when we were young and had no idea that we were beautiful and powerful.
And this whole experience has made me curious. What else can I do with my voice? I’m thinking about voice lessons. Not from a place “not good enough” but from a place of “what’s possible?”
Do you do things that scare you? How do you show up for your creativity? LMK in the comments (if you’re on desktop) or on FB/IG!