When my voice teacher Whitney Nichole asked me to make a list of songs I was sure I could never sing, I gave her a list of raw blues vocals by Beth Hart and Ettta James and soul anthems by the great master Aretha Franklin – songs I knew I couldn’t access with my classically trained voice. Whitney’s immediate response was, “OK, choose one and let’s sing it.” Damn it. I walked right into that one.
“Wha??,” I said, stuttering. My whole spine, every organ in my body and even the hairs on my head were all screaming NO! I looked at Whitney, sitting at her keyboard in that sunny studio, smiling her sly smile, eyeing me in an unbreakable gaze.
I gulped. “OK, I’ll try the Beth Hart song.”
Whitney pulled up Beth Hart’s cover of Bobby Bland’s I’ll Take Care of You and asked me to just sing along. In a whisper, I started, as tremulous as a baby frog. I pushed my shoulder and hip into the wall, so hungry for its cool, chalky solidity. If I could have climbed into that wall I would have. Instead, I just leaned my whole body against it, closed my eyes, and sang. When I finished, I sang it again. And again. We kept working at it. It took me a year to make that song my own.
Then Whitney asked me to take an even bigger step out of my comfort zone. She asked me to sing that song onstage at her student showcase. Sing live? With a band? At a microphone? I had no idea how to do this – a Bach aria at church maybe, but blues? In a bar?
When I sing in front of other people, it feels like I’m in an unmanned sled careening down a hill. The sled is going crazy fast, and I can’t see where it’s going. It’s as if the singing is happening to me. I have no way to filter or modify what occurs. My body shakes, my heart pounds, sometimes I see spots. Taking that mystery ride in real time, in front of other people, is terrifying. 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 so raw that the wild kinetic energy floods out of me and into them. After every performance I’m wrung out. I often start to cry, or get a fierce stomach ache or a migraine.
But I said yes to singing with the band, because Whitney had helped me take the first step outside my comfort zone to try the song at all. Shouldn’t I trust her to help me take another? When the day came, vibrating with fear, I faced the microphone and sang like I’d never sung before.
When I walked off the stage, I had to grab the handrail, because my legs were Jell-O. My heart was beating fast, but my breath was strong and my senses were sharpened. I could feel, like vapor from a pot of boiling water, a part of myself being unleashed. I felt its subtle but insistent energy seeping through my cells. I could almost hear this unlocked part of me expanding my identity.
That was August 2017. Just a few weeks later I started to write the first draft of Good Enough?, my memoir of grief, isolation and triumph.
Standing on that stage, pouring out the blues from somewhere deep in my guts, opened something in me that would not close. I could feel my story demanding to be released, and I was finally ready to tell it.
Daniela Province wrote about my experience and the power of singing in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 20. Now you know the backstory!
Photo: Niall David Photography