I drove ten minutes to Sara’s house for my first voice lesson. I carried my guitar up the old wooden stairs to her third floor unit into the living room and set it down next to me. We talked about goals and about Sara’s history in singing: she sang professionally in an opera. She knew her stuff. My goal was to be able to sing songs that I’ve written and to have them sound good. My real goal was to sing “Hello from the other side” at karaoke and move the audience to tears. (And to clarify, they’d be tears of beauty and gratitude and not because it sounded like a seagull defending Doritos.)

She sat at the piano and I stood about five feet away, and we did a few stretches and then she told me that it’s a good idea to record the lesson so I can practice in the car or at home or in a padded room where no one could ever hear me. Practice in a place where not even a passing bee could hear me. If voice lessons were available in an airtight capsule underwater in the middle of the Atlantic, I would have started taking voice lessons a long time ago.

And that’s what this whole thing is about.

I realized quickly into this that my problem is not with singing; it’s with singing in front of people, or in close proximity to people, or on the same planet as people. Sara asked me to sing a few things and then the sweating began. Me? The guy here for the voice lesson? You want me to sing? I picked up my guitar and I began to run through the talking points in The Conversation of Self Doubt (A Memoir) that happens before sharing anything creative.

  1. Don’t do it.
  2. If you do this, they will know how bad you are.
  3. You’ll never be as good as the best person doing this.
  4. Make fun of yourself and lower everyone’s expectations so that maybe they’ll be surprised.

I played my song for her and it went fine.

And then we did voice lesson stuff. She played five notes on the piano, and I sang, “YAA YAA YAA YAA YAAAAAA” five times. And we went higher and higher and it got louder and louder and I was really feelin’ it, and then my voice broke and I could only think of the neighbors. “Shut that guy up! Somebody shut him up! No more Ya ya ya yas!” I wanted to make sure all the windows were closed and that there was good insulation between the floors and walls and that there were ear plugs available to passing pedestrians. Instead of asking about the insulation, I pretended that I’m not the kind of guy who cares what other people think.

And then we did another exercise that really put that last sentence to the test. “To warm up, what I like to do is make weird yawning noises that sometimes sound like fire engines.” She demonstrated this action, and she sounded exactly like a fire engine siren. She told me that her neighbors once, literally thought there was a fire engine outside. “So can you make some fire engine noises for me and see what happens?”

Oh boy.

I went for it, and sounded like a French detective had just learned a new clue. A really big new clue. Awwwww-uuuuuuuu! Or like someone taking a breath between the heaves of throwing up. Sara was very gracious about this noise.

We went through some other exercises and I played my song again and I killed it and the lesson ended.

I learned that singing is hard, but only because I’m afraid that other people will hear me singing—this seems to defeat the purpose of singing. If a Bart sings in the woods and no one hears him, does he make a sound? I find that if I’m joking, or singing in an accent, the stakes are lower and I can hit higher notes and I can do more with my voice, but that’s because it’s someone else. Because I’m being someone else.

Enter my least favorite pop cultural commandment: Be Yourself.

What a stressful imperative. Be yourself! Immediately! Do it now! Am I…being myself yet? Am I doing it? When I’m self-conscious am I still myself? I think so.

I’m afraid that, like with comedy, in singing I haven’t found “my voice” yet. That I’ve been dabbling in other people’s voices and styles, trying them on to see if I like the fit. I’ll try a Lumineers song, and mimic the intonations in Gun Song, I’ll sing a Zac Brown song and really go for the Colder Weather southern accent bit, but it’s not me. Not real me. I try my own singing voice at church and it sounds too serious or too much like the dude next to me. But we don’t grow up in isolation and we don’t learn from ourselves, so you have to start out sounding like someone else.

You pick writers and singers and performers you like, and try them on like clothes. This woman’s opening stage presence—put it on. That man’s voice—try it out. You wear all these influences until you break them in, until they’ve melded into a suit and suddenly, you’ve found your voice. Breaking them in means practicing, though, and practicing is the exact opposite of instant gratification. So be yourself, eventually.

Bart Tocci
Bart Tocci (’11) lives in Boston where he write essays, performs at open mics, and threatens to start taco restaurants. He’s been told that he looks like the kind of guy who stands up for what’s right. And who goes to the store before the party. Read more here: barttocci.wordpress.com

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