Warming Up My Pipes

I’ve decided to take a cruise in the next few months–of course I’m not telling you when!–and I’m already engaging in my favorite pre-cruise form of daydreaming: selecting my karaoke song list.

I know: nerdy, right?

Photo by Blazej Pachut

It gets a bad rap, but I admit it: I love karaoke. I’ve always loved to sing. When I’m healthy and hitting my notes, there is almost nothing more enjoyable. When I was a kid, I used to get a lot of praise for my singing and feature prominently in school choruses and such. Then I had the misfortune to spend six years in an ├╝berconservative all-boys school with absolutely zero arts program. No visual arts, no creative writing, no band, no chorus, and no drama apart from a single semester course that finally attracted enough of an enrollment to actually be offered my senior year. While there, I got the message loud and clear that singing was a good way to contract Teh Gay, and that this was a bad thing, and I was effectively silenced. I think anybody who knew me as a fifth- or sixth-grader would be stunned to learn that I virtually never sang where anybody could hear me from seventh grade through well into my twenties.

Somewhere along the way I forgot that I’d actually been good at singing once. I have this memory from college that still makes me cringe with how pathetically afraid I’d become. I went to Memphis, Tennessee with my school’s HSA for a conference, and a bunch of us went to Graceland and toured Elvis’s home. There, one of us–not me!–thought it would be a good idea to get several of us guys in one of those touristy recording booth things to record a rendition of some Elvis song–I can’t remember which. One of the guys was quite confident in his singing; I actually can’t say if it was deserved confidence or not. Anyway, I was so terrified of singing that I silently lip-synched while we all murdered this poor song. And at one point the leader of this escapade complained that one of us was singing off-key in his ear, and I was so certain of my lack of singing ability that I was sure he would think it was me somehow, even though I wasn’t actually singing at all!

I never actually stopped loving to sing, though. I just got in the habit of doing it in the car, or along in my apartment, or anywhere I could sing without being heard.

I think one of the clearest signs to me that my wife and I were meant to be together was that I was comfortable enough around her to let her hear me singing, even pretty early on in our courtship. It wasn’t something I ever though about consciously. I just felt so un-self-conscious that my usual inclination to repress my tendency to sing never came up.

My wife had a background in music, having majored for a time in voice and having sung opera. She could have destroyed what little confidence I had by confirming my worst fears, by laughing at me or saying I was terrible. But instead I heard her tell a mutual friend that I was actually a damn good singer.

My wife’s not the sort of person to give insincere praise; when she tells you something is good, you absolutely know she means it. So gradually I began to regain some of my lost confidence and take chances singing in front of people. I had my first taste of karaoke–without the lip-synching–on our honeymoon cruise. It wasn’t an altogether perfect experience; there were a couple of jackasses in the audience with a laser pointer who thought it’d be fun to harrass the singers–the last thing I needed. Still, I didn’t embarrass myself, and I didn’t walk away too terrified to repeat the experience.

As the years passed I tested myself on stage again and again, with slightly less trepidation and slightly more success each time. I began to learn that there were some songs an audience would simply listen politely to, and there were others that they would applaud enthusiastically for. And bit by bit, success begat more success. The times when the audience would react enthusiastically began to outnumber the times when they were quieter, and I even got that ultimate of all karaoke compliments a few times: being asked to sing by a total stranger, or being surprised with a request to join somebody in a duet. I began to feel like I was actually good at singing in front of a crowd, and I began to crave that experience more and more.

I don’t really have stage fright anymore. Or, perhaps more accurately, I have just the right amount of stage fright: enough so that the adrenaline flows, enough so that I feel excited and alive, but not enough to paralyze me. It’s my own self-produced drug-cocktail and high.

For a few years–until petty interpersonal politics and infighting ruined a good thing–I got my fix pretty regularly by singing in musicals for my local community theater. I think I still like karaoke better, though. I don’t look like anybody’s idea of a leading man, but in karaoke everybody who wants to can get their solos, their moments in the spotlight. I especially like it on a cruise ship, where each trip I get to unleash my repertoire on people who haven’t already heard me sing the same tunes over and over again.

I wonder what connection this has to the other passions in my life. I think singing in front of people makes you vulnerable in a way that few other activities in our society do. Writing makes you vulnerable too, though. People will look at your writing and judge your intelligence, sophistication, and creativity; they’ll look at the things your characters say and do and the message they believe they see and judge your moral fiber. Early in my attempts to find publication, there’s no doubt I gave up too quickly. Did learning to stand up and face scrutiny on stage make facing rejection on paper easier?

Coming at this from another angle, there’s no doubt that the more I felt like I was good at something, the better I got. Does this apply to teaching maybe? Or to writing? Success breeds success, no doubt. But what constitutes success, anyway? How much comes from without, and how much from within?

No lofty answers here; just legitimate questions. In the meantime, I have a few new songs to try out.

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One Response to Warming Up My Pipes

  1. Tom Emmons says:

    I’ve heard that karaoke can be quite cathartic as well, belting out your emotions and such. Certainly there’s some value in that.

    My voice is fair enough, and no one tells me to shut the hell up, but I’ve never been able to do karaoke. It’s not logical reasoning, though. It’s the performance anxiety. Only recently have I been able to play in front of a small audience, but I don’t possess the talent to play and sing together, so I concentrate on what I feel most competent in, playing keys.

    Great post. I should really try this. Now if I can only find a song that I would feel comfortable singing.

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