I sang in the choir in high school. I have an alto-almost-tenor voice (I could hit a low C). As part of our warm-up, we’d turn to the person next to us and form a shoulder rub line. My voice works well in a choir—I can hit notes and have a good ear from playing piano, but it’s not a particularly strong or unique voice. Not a soloist’s voice. I don’t mean that to be disparaging, it’s just what I have and never trained it to be otherwise.
Every year, there was a state-wide day of contests, where we’d bus to another school and hang out in its cafeteria and atrium and wait for our turn to perform in whatever category we’d signed up for. I’m sure I did this multiple times (although, perhaps I’m conflating this with the very similar contest we did for French, reciting a poem or doing extemporaneous reading), but the one I most clearly remember is the year my two friends and I—altos all—decided to enter as a trio. We sang an arrangement of, “My True Love Hath My Heart.” I remember the first line where my part danced down the scale on the word “heart,” held the final note while the first soprano continued with “and I have,” and then rejoined together on the final “his.”
I don’t remember if this was before or after I sang a duet with a friend who was in the town’s youth choir, and her director helped us practice and chided me for not knowing how to read music. I don’t think we ended up performing that one.
I also remember in fifth grade, auditioning for some talent show singing the Bette Midler song “Day and Night” with a friend, and we had to wait around forever for our turn and my lips were so chapped they’d turned black and we sang so softly it was hard to hear us.
Anyway, the three of us practiced individually and together, and on the day of the contest, I didn’t feel ready at all. Suddenly, I was aware that our voices wouldn’t be hidden among ten others singing the same part, that we’d be in front of people, that we’d look like fools, that we weren’t nearly as good as all the other people we’d listened to all day.
So, somewhere between fifth grade and sophomore year, I’d developed the part of my brain that convinces me I suck and everyone will think I’m a failure and that there are things to be embarrassed about and I shouldn’t do.
We stood by the piano at the front of a large room, we sang our song, which is a blur in my memory. What stands out in my memory is when one of the judges asked me to sing a note, which our accompanist played on the piano, and me totally missing it and my voice croaking like a prepubescent boy. I faked a cough to recover, and then was able to sing the phrase asked of me. I remember being so embarrassed that classmates were in the room watching, sure that they were laughing at me.
The thing is, forty-year-old me looks at that girl, and wants to remind her that her classmates didn’t have to be in the room, they were there to support, and they were classmates she didn’t even have strong friendships with, but they were there nodding with encouragement. Not laughing. And they didn’t treat her any differently after missing that one note. And she didn’t get kicked out of choir or lose her friendship with the trio and it in no way affected her life other than shuddering when she thinks about it more than twenty years later so maybe, just maybe, I can tell her she doesn’t have to shudder any more.
I have her heart.