When I was eight years old, my third grade class attended a musical at the local theater. I don’t remember the name of the production, but I do remember watching actors and actresses, dressed in ordinary street clothes, singing their hearts out on a stage set up to look like an ordinary town. Gathered in front of make-shift houses and under temporary lamplights, they joined with one another in exuberant song. I enjoyed the performance, but what I really wanted to know was this: Why don’t we always sing on street corners? Where has the wild exuberance gone? Why am I watching this on a stage? This was the world I wanted to live in all the time.
Of course, music can be heard in the background of daily life—cafes, elevators, cars, television programs and commercials, health care practitioners, movies, and grocery stores play music almost non-stop to excite, elevate, calm or soothe us. And every city offers a wide variety of musical performances for our listening pleasure. But these are nearly always passive experiences. With the exception of the occasional rally or march, we do not sing as a public. The free, exuberant, spontaneous, joyful shared song that we witness in musicals does not happen in modern life. Music is kept under wraps. For most of us, the joy of self-expression in the musical realm is something we do privately in the shower. Why?
Perhaps one reason is because it’s not “OK” to express yourself musically unless you have a certain level of skill and proficiency. I’ll never forget a Christmas Eve church service I attended several years ago. The pastor (a woman) played Silent Night for the audience on her harp. Before she began, she spent a few moments preparing us—she was learning how to play the harp, she explained. She was not a skilled musician. And sure enough, as soon as she started playing, it was clear she was a beginner. I will never forget her profound vulnerability, risking our snooty judgment and ridicule. In my mind, that tender moment will be forever etched in my mind.
For whatever reason, when I hear someone put down a person’s singing or musical performance, it always feels like a dagger in my heart. I had a friend several years ago who regularly scorned Garrison Keillor’s voice on his NPR program A Prairie Home Companion. “He shouldn’t be singing,” he chided, “he can’t sing.” Perhaps I am not well-educated enough to make an accurate assessment, but what I experience when someone sings is beauty. I love the vulnerability–the willingness to put oneself on the line and share one’s soul with us. The more timid the voice, the more captivated I am. I want to hear it.
The effect of this cultural ridicule toward inexperienced musicians and singers is to make sure that the rest of us stay quiet. We don’t dare share ourselves musically. Of course, any mode of creative work is subject to criticism and ridicule, but for whatever reason, the musical realm holds a much higher level of snootiness. A common reaction to someone singing in a ‘non-professional’ way is to put our hands over our ears as if we are in pain. Singing has become a performance for only a chosen few.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes, “To put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation—that’s vulnerability…..I define vulnerability as exposure, uncertainty, and emotional risk.”