When I was small, I used to like to sing. It was a natural part of me, and I threw myself into it without artifice or
self-consciousness. I distinctly remember my first-grade Christmas program. Our class's contribution was
"Jingle Bells." I stood right at the front of the group and sang that song at the top of my lungs. I
don't remember another thing about that program, so the singing made an impression on me, if on no one else.
At age 12, I was singing songs into a reel-to-reel tape recorder I'd received as a present. It was the latest thing back
then before cassette tapes, and I thought it was really cool. I'd sing into it and then play it back to hear how I
So why was it that, only a few years later when I had the opportunity to join choirs in high school and college, I never
even tried out because I thought I couldn't sing?
I regret this now. I think of all the singing opportunities I missed. But somehow, in the time after I was singing
into that tape recorder, and in the time after I sang so loudly at the very front of my group for the Christmas program, I had
acquired a fear of singing in front of people, especially alone as I would have to do in an audition. And I really thought
that my voice wasn't good. I had gone from just reveling in the joy of singing -- not caring how I sounded -- to worrying
what other people would think of me when they heard my voice.
It seems as if this is not an isolated phenomenon. I've heard many people, all adults, say that they can't sing.
Where on earth did they get that idea? In my case, it was probably adolescent anxiety that stole my confidence; but I've
heard other people say that this choir director, or that teacher, said or did something that shamed them in front of everyone
into thinking that their voice, and therefore their very self, was inferior. That caused a wound so deep that many of
these people are still silent 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years later. That's a terrible shame.
Except in rare cases of tone deafness, everyone has a singing voice and is able to use it. It's a God-given part of us,
unique and therefore special. No one should be able to take that away from us. All that's required is practice
and instruction. And yet, so often, people have the idea that singing is only for performance, and that you have to be
"really good" to perform for others. Singing just to sing, and to be with others, and to share with others
things that can't be shared in words, is something they can't grasp. It used to be part of the general culture, but now is
foreign to most people.
When I found Sacred Harp (or maybe it found me), what kept me coming back in those early days was that I could just go, with my
inferior (I thought) voice, and sing in harmony with others for the fun of it. No choir director to stop me or criticize,
and no audition. No one around me paid attention to what I sounded like. I could hardly even hear myself because of
the volume! Gradually, over a period of years, Sacred Harp helped me find my voice, and with it, that part of me that I
had lost. As I found that, I began to listen to others' unique voices and appreciate each voice, and the soul of person
behind it. From there, the path led onward to higher things.
I discovered what an integral part of me my singing had become when I caught a cold. One day, feeling particularly down, I
tried to sing a song with words that fit what I was feeling and a melody that went straight to my heart. But all that came
out of my mouth was an airy squeak. Laryngitis had stolen my voice and, with it, a part of my spirit. Though I could
still speak, an essential part of me was missing. I was cut off from my soul, and that which needed to be expressed -- and
could be expressed only with song -- was stuck inside of me.
Others have had similar experiences. One singer who had to take blood-pressure medication found that it affected his voice
such that, though it sounded just as good to others, it didn't feel right to him. Because his voice had changed,
his whole self felt out of kilter. An important piece of his identity was missing.
Another singer from our group was out of singing for a long time because of illness. When she finally managed to
make it to singing at our February convention, she said to me afterwards, "I feel like my soul has been through a car
I think we all take singing for granted because we are there all the time. But singing is not a given. Any one of us
could be gone at any time, or unable to attend because of illness. Singing is, instead, a precious gift, and while we are
granted the grace to be able to sing with others, we should spend our time there in wonder and gratitude that we were given
voices to sing with, and given love as well, to share in a way that we can only do through singing. Let's pay
attention, and appreciate what we have while we have it. For, as the poem says, "I shall not pass this way