If you could choose any profession and know you would be successful, what would it be?
Me? There are a few off the wall things floating around my head from childhood, like being an astronaut or a marine biologist. One dream was abandoned watching the Challenger explode on TV and the other I gave up because it required too much math. [I know both of those would have required a lot of math.] I want to write a book, and I’m working on that. I want to live like a grown up, and not just like a tall five year old who knows how to pretend she’s a grown up when she has to. Those would be nice. But, one of the abandoned dreams that still haunts me is music. If I could do anything and not fail, I would sing.
Most people in my life now met me after college and don’t even know I sing.
I started singing, as my mom likes to say, before I could talk. If I had a piano to play and someone to sing with, I was in heaven. I can remember singing for hours, until I got hoarse, and then being sad I couldn’t sing more. I used to spend hours creating melodies and writing songs, often with a tiny keyboard and headphones sitting in my bed into the early morning hours. It was probably my favorite thing to do, and up until college, the one thing I was most confident about. I didn’t know what else I would do, but I knew I would never stop singing.
It’s funny though, that by nature I’m shy. Asking me to say my name and something about myself in a small group setting would send me into a panic, but asking me to sing on stage with a microphone was exciting. I sang my first solo when I was 6. I forgot the words and sang the same verse 3 times. Even though I messed up the song, I had discovered the joy of being on stage, and I began to crave it.
Someone told me later, everyone gets nervous, but some people are able to channel that nervousness into positive energy and use it to perform. Others allow the nervousness to paralyze them. I guess I can channel one kind of nervousness but freeze with the other.
Most of my life, I heard only praise for my voice. Things to improve, things to work on, but never really bad things. Most of the time I heard how amazing my voice was. I had family and friends that used to tell me they couldn’t wait until they were listening to my voice on the radio. Up until my freshman year of college, I couldn’t imagine a time in my life that I would quit singing. I wanted to improve and learn, and as time passed, I could only see myself loving it more.
I was one of those kids torn between all of my loves: animals, music, and art. When I was planning college, I decided to major in art and minor in music or try to double major, but there was a mix up with my admissions paperwork, actually a mix up in the admissions department explaining to me how those two majors worked. When I arrived on campus, they had me majoring in art, specifically graphic design which required a minor in advertising. So, music wasn’t even in the mix basically because at that school, you didn’t combine those two things. When I met with my admissions counselor (the future Dean of Communicative Arts, and the most influential professor of all my time in undergrad), he encouraged me to stick with everything the way it was and take music classes offered to non-music majors.
I decided to listen to him. Here’s where we get to the part of the story I don’t tell often. Usually I’ll say the rest is history. Cut to that professor and a few other’s unparalleled influence on my life, me finishing my undergrad never having changed my ‘mistaken’ major, getting married then starting my graduate degree, ultimately ending up where I am now.
I love design and art. I’m good at it. At least I was before I quit to take care of my kids and became a full time special needs parent, but I had quit singing back in college except for the shower, some choir and specials at my home church. I refocused myself on my major classes and left music behind.
The reason for the switch in focus and the loss of something so very precious to me came down to one teacher, one phrase, and one moment I just couldn’t overcome.
During my freshman year, I took a piano class and a voice class. The piano class was amazing. I learned so much, I left class every day wanting to practice and get better, and I did. The voice class, though, was a struggle.
The first couple of class periods were used for a kind of audition, a chance for the instructor to hear everyone’s voice so he knew what he was working with. I was more nervous than usual because it was a small class in a small room, queue shy girl panic. I was shaky and pitchy, I knew that, but I was not expecting to hear what he said. He told me, while shaking his head, I sounded like a bad country music singer, but maybe he could fix that. While I tried to process what he said, he then began a monologue about how so many of us must have sang for small home churches or schools and were told we were good singers pretty much just because there wasn’t much else to choose from. He intended to help us either improve or give up singing. I struggled with every assignment. He was teaching classical method, and I didn’t like the changes he was making. With shaken confidence and a lack of desire to sing the way he wanted me to sing, I dreaded the class and by the end gave up singing almost entirely.
This post isn’t about my voice or whether or not I could have ‘made it.’ It’s about the fact that I never tried to pursue music in any way going forward because I believed him. That one sentence. The words that followed. I believed him over every other positive word, every other person telling me I should sing. I decided my voice wasn’t anything special, that I had just been a big fish in a small pond, and that I didn’t have what it took to keep singing outside of my little pond. No more auditions. No more volunteering to sing every opportunity I had. I only sang with friends for fun, in the shower, and in my home church choir and a few specials when I was asked. It was so rare, I can still remember my oldest son, at least ten at the time, walking into the kitchen while I was singing, and with a surprised look on his face said, “Mom, you can sing.”
As a juxtaposition, the admissions counselor I spoke of earlier, he was my freshman drawing instructor. He’s one of those people whose gift for teaching is evident the moment you meet him. He could essentially tell you your work was garbage (although he would never actually say that) in a way that encouraged you to learn from it and inspired you to to work harder and do better. No unnecessary flattery. Just positive instruction that lead all of his students to be better artists. I don’t think I ever heard any of his students say they didn’t love him as their professor. I left music behind to continue improving in art and design. Looking back, I believe it all boiled down to the one dream crushing instructor and the one dream building instructor.
During a time when my support system was changing, when I was having to grow away from my family and friends, when I had to begin to build my own internal support system, truly believe in my own abilities and base my confidence on that belief, there was a voice that shook that unstable foundation and changed the course of my life.
I don’t know if anything would have been different for me had I chosen a different school, a different major, had different instructors, or hadn’t taken what he said to heart. There would have been other discouraging people along that road for sure, and I don’t know that I would have been strong enough to withstand their discouragement either. There’s a pattern in my life of confidence lost, faith shaken, and life altered, and to follow a dream and truly succeed, you have to be able to push through the negative voices and trust your own. The purpose of this post, though, is to share just how big an influence our words can have.
I don’t know where that instructor is now. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember me or what he said to me. I can guarantee it doesn’t keep him up at night. But, it is still with me. I can still hear his words as if he had spoken them yesterday.
I gave up something I had loved doing for most of my life because one man told me I wasn’t good enough. One man.
Discouragement far out weighs encouragement. Out of all the positive I heard, that one negative influence impacted me so much more.
Teachers, instructors, coaches, these people we trust to help us grow and learn, these people we show our weaknesses to in hopes they can help us grow stronger, their words have the power to change the course of our lives.
If you are one of those people, a teacher, instructor or coach, please be aware of the power you hold and strive to be the voice that encourages your students or athletes to reach deeper inside themselves and work harder to develop their abilities even if those talents and abilities lie in another arena. Speak life. Try to be the voice that still inspires them 20 years later rather than the voice that crushed their dream and haunts them decades down the road.
I won’t be attempting to break into the music industry in my old age. I won’t be studying or teaching music. Closing in on my fourth decade of life, I’m good singing in my kitchen and Sunday School classroom, and I look forward to holding grand babies and singing the lullabies I wrote when my babies were small. Maybe I’ll go back to singing in church when my kids’ schedules no longer make it impossible to make practices, that is if I decide to stop teaching Sunday school (which I can’t imagine quitting right now).
Even though, I’m ok now, in those moments when I allow my mind to wander “what if?” I can still hear his words, and I wish so much I could have withstood his judgment. I wish I was writing a whole other story today, maybe one of failure, but one where at least I tried and failed rather than gave up without a fight.