Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Why I Sing", an essay for The Utah Chamber Artists

(Originally written for The Utah Chamber Artists newsletter and website in September 2015)
I have a confession. For years, I’ve been hanging on to a secret that has been the source of shame. Now is the time to let it out: I dropped out of piano lessons at the age of 9.
Yes, friends, it’s true. But it doesn’t stop there. I used to hate singing because of a traumatic experience I endured at the hands of my piano teacher. Let’s go back in time.
My earliest music-related memory was when I inadvertently played a chord on my grandmother’s piano at the age of 5. With excitement, she ran over to me and said, “Nathan, do you know what that is? It’s a chord!” I loved the reaction and validation my musical mistake elicited from a woman who could ragtime rattle those ivory keys like a rattlesnake can rattle…well…you get the point.
As the youngest of 8 eight kids, and being a triplet on top of that, I saw the piano as my chance to step out and do my own thing. From that time on, I would play piano on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of my 6 brothers who wanted to watch TV without my childhood compositions coming into creation in the background. After all, the one TV we had and the piano were in the same room.
A few years later, I would begin taking piano lessons from Denese Webster across the street. She was a fantastic teacher and I was scheduled to play two songs at a recital within a few months of starting my lessons. That’s when the proverbial crap hit the fan.
“Nathan, let’s have you do the Beethoven for your first piece. For your second piece, I’d like you to do something more upbeat and fun. How do you feel about singing and playing at the same time?” It was the first time in my life that I was challenged to actually sing in front of people.
So, there I was, at my recital. The Beethoven went perfectly, but it didn’t matter. My second piece, “The Boogie-Woogie Goose”, was coming up and I knew my brothers would give me a hard time. I was encouraged to sing it with conviction and pep. The main note from Mrs. Webster was “Louder, Nathan. LOUDER!”
As I assured the audience through my performance that Aunt Rhody’s old gray goose was, in fact, not dead, but was busy being a dancing fool, my faced flushed with embarrassment. My brothers meant no harm, but I remember seeing them laugh throughout the song. The lyrics were fun and silly, but I took their laughter as feedback. Ever since then, I still have insecurities about my singing voice. I can take a compliment on my piano playing or songwriting, but I somehow don’t think I’m as deserving when it comes to singing. Darn, that silly goose.
Mrs. Webster turned me on to a new possibility, however. The idea of singing and playing piano at the same time led to a love of songwriting and arranging. Throughout junior high and high school, I was much more comfortable being the accompanist than the singing soloist, but I kept trying to find my voice. There was the time my voice cracked on my “Bein’ Green” solo in 8th grade and the entire choir chuckled behind me. But, in a bigger victory, there was the time I wrote a song and performed it at my high school graduation, backed by the choir and followed by a standing ovation from my graduating class. To this day, it’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
Since college, I developed more of a singer-songwriter style. It was perfect. I could hide behind the piano and sing in a quiet, comfortable style that perfectly suited my range. But this style did not bode well for my first audition for The Utah Chamber Artists. While I was told I had a lovely voice, I had much to learn. Phrasing, diction, shaping my vowels, etc. Since then, as a member of this lovely group, I’ve had to step out of my comfort zone and learn to use my voice in a new way. A collaborative way. A beautiful way. No more hiding behind the piano for this guy. “Louder, Nathan. LOUDER!”
I’ll end on a personal note. As a 38 year-old member of the LDS church who happens to be gay, I’ve only recently decided that it might be okay to date and eventually find companionship. My personal journey to find balance, acceptance and peace began in a similar way to my singing career. The once trembling, nervous boy who had to sing about that stupid goose has evolved into a man who is comfortable singing a solo or blending beautifully with the most talented group of musicians around.
Similarly, I’m no longer afraid to use my voice in other ways. I use my voice to speak out, to ask for kindness and understanding, to challenge the status quo, to encourage acceptance and change. I use my voice to express myself, to offer advice to a friend in need, to make people laugh, to agree and to disagree. But perhaps the most beautiful thing I do with the voice I’ve been given, as imperfect as it may be, is touching lives through music.
Joining my UCA friends in song is one of the most thrilling and joyful experiences I’ve ever had. Being part of something like this has not only built my confidence with my own songs, it has also affected my approach to life. My personal song is sweeter and fuller as a result. 
Guess I have Mrs. Webster to thank. I’ll admit, I’m glad that goose isn’t dead.

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