I’ve always loved singing. My Mom wrote a cantata when I was an infant, something she worked on for a few years, about the life of Jesus Christ. When I grew older, she told me the story of how she was rocking me to sleep one night and the melody for a lullaby came into her mind. She pictured Mary rocking the Christ-child, and the ways in which a mother watches a son grow over the years.
Rock your little son, Mary. Kiss your precious one, Mary. Hold him closely now, Mary, Mary, mother of a King.
Watch him grow now, Mary. Let him go now, Mary. He must know now, Mary, what it means to be a King.
Written for a high soprano with a beautiful piano arrangement behind it, I grew up believing this was my song, Mary’s Lullaby, the one written for me. And though I am no longer Christian, still I sang this sang this song to my sons as I rocked them to sleep in their early years, and still I sing it to them now when, at ages six and four, the climb on top of me, cuddling tight as they prepare for bed, one of my three favorite songs to sing to them. (Note: I am definitely not a high soprano).
My sons are the only ones who hear me sing nowadays. Maybe an occasional friend as I sing along with the lyrics of the song on the radio, oblivious to botched lyrics and harmonizing, something I’ve done with music since I was a child. I have a jukebox of a brain. An errant word, a feeling, a scent memory, and suddenly a song is playing in my brain, often exiting my lips unbidden. Back in college, when I did improv comedy, we played a warm up game called Hot Box; someone would begin singing a song, any song, in the center of the circle, and someone else would tag them out and begin singing another song that was inspired by the first one, and on and on until the game was over; we could begin with Battle Hymn of the Republic and end with Macy Grey. This is how my brain processes music most of the time.
I’m not much of a shower singer. In the car, that’s another story. I can blast an old familiar CD from my book, songs filled with nostalgia and memory, and sing every word and every tune. I harmonize with the vocalists, drum my fingers on the steering wheel, and bop my head back and forth to Gorillaz; I sit and soak in my own feelings, tearing up or clenching my teeth to Damien Rice; I ululate and syncopate with Tori Amos.
But it has been a long time since I have sung in a crowd, loving it, feeling confident and inspiring emotion. I was 7 the first time I sang a solo in church, a small little number for the people in my congregation, and I remember the feeling of pride I got when I got the words right and saw the people smiling back at me. At age 11, I tried out for the community production of Oliver, hoping for a supporting chorus role, and got the lead; I sang in front of hundreds during performances, my pure soprano voice asking Where is Love over and over again. After the awkward years of voice changes, I dropped to a high tenor, then a low tenor, and eventually a baritone, but I kept my pitch and I loved music.
I sang all through high school, in the choirs at school and church. I tried out for several plays, in the school and in the community, and had chances to sing as characters, loving the experience every time. In college, I sang my heart out. I joined the Mens’ Choir, traveling the region to sing in performances; I sang on stage in musical theater productions; I even started an A cappella group and made a little CD.
Around the time I turned 23, something changed. I threw myself into school, then work, then my marriage, all in efforts to implement major changes in my life, and I lost my voice along the way.
And now I’m 36, and it’s a Sunday night, and I’m out in a club with my best friend, Cole. We’ve both had a drink and decided to go out to the local club, and I’m determined to sing a karaoke song tonight because it has been far too long since I have sang in front of people, far too long since I have had anyone to sing for.
There are only ten people in the club, and no one is looking at anyone else. The karaoke man sings a song, then the bartender. I try convincing a few folks to sing with me, but no one wants to, and I’m determined to do it. I screw my courage to the sticking place, choose a song, and put my name on the list. This is it.
Except they call an older man up next, and his rendition of Honestly I Love You, a sad downer of a song by Olivia Newton John, in a bar on a Sunday night, as he moves his left foot out a step then back, then his right foot and back, and his off-key flat monotone and I drift off.
I will myself awake as they call out the next performer, who sits on the stage to perform Jewel’s You Were Meant For Me, her ballcap pulled down over her eyes, her voice a strange feminine baritone, off-key. She seems to be singing to her girlfriend at the table, who I gather dated the karaoke guy a few months before based on the errant glances he keeps stealing.
And finally it’s my turn. I’m confident, with butterflies, as I walk to the stage, prepared to sing a song I can rock out in my car like nobody’s business. I take a seat on the stage and survey my crowd: the karaoke guy, the bartender, the two lesbians, and Kole, who is looking up at me encouragingly like a best friend should. The music starts, and it is about four keys lower than my recorded version is. The irony that I’m singing Uninvited by Alanis Morissette dons on me now.
Like anyone would be, I am flattered by your fascination with me.
I’m out of my range. No one is looking up. And I suddenly want nothing more than to be making my exit from the stage.
The song blissfully ends after three gruelingly long minutes, and the karaoke guy callously thanks me before walking up to do another number himself, because ain’t nobody else there.
As I leave, I think how much I want to be performing again, and then think maybe it is just a matter of having the right audience as I picture a night a few months ago when my six year old gave me a huge hug on his way to bed.
“Thanks, daddy, for singing to us tonight. I love your voice. Good night.”