In September 2019 I wrote about how scary it was to stand on a stage and sing the blues. In June 2020 I shared an essay about how beautifully mesmerizing it is to listen to the blues right now. Music is essential medicine for me these days – it heals and lifts my heart no matter what I’m facing.
Meanwhile, after I wrote here last September about singing, I turned it into a finished essay about confidence, vulnerability and the terror and magic of facing one’s deepest fears. We’re all facing scary new things these days, so here’s “Vivisection.”
I’m nineteen years old. I’m wearing a floral dress, singing How Beautiful Are the Feet from Handel’s Messiah for my Mormon church congregation in Los Angeles on Easter Sunday. This aria is high, it’s slow, it requires precision and purity. There’s no place to hide. I am terrified through every breath, but once the piano starts and everyone is looking at me there’s nothing to do but keep going until I finish. So I sing. And then I walk off of the dais, sit down in a pew at the side of the chapel and burst into surprised, uncontrollable tears.
I’m twenty-seven years old. I’m wearing a black turtleneck that isn’t cashmere, singing O Holy Night for our church Christmas program in New York City, where I’ve lived for six years. My feet start to quiver after the first few bars. Malevolent energy fills my legs like lava. Then it moves into my belly. I start sweating, and I stare at the clock at the back of the chapel to avoid seeing the faces in the congregation. I can no longer take a deep breath as the shaking takes over my lungs. Somehow I manage to scale that high note before my voice becomes gravelly. The last notes come out weak, diminished and crumbling. I sit down and wipe the sweat off of my neck, raw, deflated and trembling.
I’m forty-eight years old. I’m wearing a classically cut black knit dress, Tahitian pearls and crocodile Manolos at my PR agency’s executive leadership meeting. I watch with barely concealed delight as a pompous new colleague stumbles through harsh Q&A after his presentation. I’m up next. As I saunter up to present to our CEO and my colleagues I whisper to the douche who’s just sat down, “Let me show you how it’s done.”
I’m fifty-three years old: I’m wearing an oversized, well-worn San Francisco Giants sweatshirt, yoga pants and sneakers at my voice lesson. My voice teacher asks me to try a raw blues song. In a whisper, as tremulous as a baby frog, I start to sing. I am more scared than when I was singing Handel at church at nineteen. I push my shoulder and hip into the studio wall, hungry for its cool, chalky solidity. I lean my whole body against it, close my eyes, and force myself to sing.
I am two different people. Professionally, I am ferociously confident at a podium or on stage. A grizzled tech industry veteran, I was on the executive leadership team of one of the world’s largest PR agencies. My mind is nimble when I’m in front of a business audience. I’m as fearless as flinty-eyed Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan. My heart never flutters.
But singing happens to someone else — a passenger in an unmanned sled careening crazy fast down a hill. I can’t see where it’s going and I have no way to predict or modify its path. My body shakes, my heart pounds, sometimes I see spots. My professional confidence vanishes. Taking that mystery ride of pure transparency in real time, in front of other people, is torture.
People who’ve heard me sing have said that the hairs on the back of their necks stood on end. I think that’s because I’m so scared and raw that the wild kinetic energy floods out of me and into them. After every performance I’m wrung out. I’ll start to cry, or get a fierce stomach ache or a migraine. I say no almost every time someone asks me to sing, just to stay safe.
But a year after we first started to learn it, my voice teacher asked me to sing that blues song with a band. In a bar. In front of other people. And because I had left my badass career behind and needed a new kind of courage to build a deeper, truer life, I said yes.
I’m fifty-four years old: I’m wearing fancy earrings and the most comfortable black dress and sneakers I own, standing at the microphone at Bottom of the Hill, a mercifully nearly empty bar in San Francisco. I clench my fists into little balls and sing, closing my eyes and wailing out the biggest notes.
When I turn to walk off the stage, I have to grab the handrail, because my legs are Jell-o. My heart is beating fast, but this time the sensation is different – no migraine, no stomach ache, no tears. My breath is strong and my senses are sharpened. I can feel, like vapor from a pot of boiling water, a part of myself being unleashed. I feel a subtle but insistent energy seeping through my cells.
There has always been a bag of bees inside of me – I wanted to drown in sensation, to be exuberant and real, to make mistakes and to live. But a good Mormon girl locks that energy deep inside. Standing on that stage, pouring out the blues, pierced that lock.
It wasn’t until I stood and tolerated the public vivisection of performance that I could accept what singing reveals – the magic of my deepest, most sacred self and a beautiful way to express that energy.
I didn’t know that taking a Bobby Bland song into my soul and showing other people what I could do with it would begin to dissolve my carapace. I didn’t know I’d survive after revealing what I’d buried inside me. Singing at that bar started to knit me together – into one person with something sacred to say and both the courage and permission to say it. I turned to writing. Here, at the keyboard, I can sing my heart in a different way, and I can always breathe.