Another side effect of managing anxiety is that, apparently, I can also sing in front of people.
Actually I was singing for a little while before I learning about my anxieties, just not in front of people. When I was 19 I joined my local church choir, which had the benefits of having over 15 other people in it and being situated in a loft above the back of the church. We were the total opposite of ideal children: we were heard and not seen. My first Mass singing with them was Holy Thursday night in the year 2000, a Mass I had been going to with my grandmother since even before I became an altar server in the 4th grade. When I went up the stair to the loft that night she was so happy, and she was a one-man PR firm on my behalf for the next four years until she died. After I learned about my anxieties and started managing them, I started doing solo Masses and cantoring. And my confidence started building up, and then I started writing. My first original composition premiered – it sounds so weird to say that about church music – at the Easter Vigil in 2005. I now sing in two church choirs, and have written and arranged pieces for both, and am currently (perpetually, even) in the midst of writing my third Mass setting, which will also be part of a larger choral compendium of arranged standard hymns and prayers. I can tell you without a doubt that making music for the Church is the greatest thing I have done with my life…which is why it bums me out to no end to see shrinking choirs and tight-lipped congregations.
And I get it! I really do. Because, my fellow expert 20-somethings (or, like my mother, expert teenagers), one thing I have noticed over the last 14 years a common thread in people who don’t sing at Mass. I don’t mean people who can’t sing; there are some of those who just can’t seem to get it together as much as they’d like to. I mean those who don’t. I’ve been guilty of it myself, in fact, when I go traveling. There’s actually a joke that goes around Catholic social media circles any time there’s some sort of scandal involving singers lip-syncing to their own recordings during concerts or TV specials or outdoor performances. It usually goes something like this: “I don’t see what the big deal is about lip-syncing. We do it every Sunday.”
This common thread, by the way, is not lack of skill. I don’t want to hear about skill, or the lack thereof. I don’t care about skills. I’ve had a keyboard in my hands since I was 10 years old, I’ve been singing in church choirs since I was 19, I’ve been soloing since I was 22 (there’s that age again!), and I’ve been composing since I was 24, but I’ll be the first one (and maybe the last one) to tell you that I have no skill in music. I am so serious. To this day I never had voice training, I’ve never taken a music theory course, I’ve never formally studied an instrument. I didn’t even know until I was maybe 18 or 19 that there are people – forget schools and programs and places, but people – out there, and probably closer than you think, who offer to teach you or your children how to play musical instruments privately and relatively cheaply! I don’t know if my parents ever knew this, or if they did why I played basketball for two years – which I hated! – and then was handed a small electronic keyboard and silently wished the best of luck.
I say that, by the way, not to blame my parents for my (on-going) failure to learn how to play the piano. Because that would be stupid. Even if it was true, it would still be stupid. There is no stupider thing in living – and I am convinced of this! – than a grudge, and I try to hold them as infrequently as possible.
…Well, no, that’s not a true statement. I do bear all sorts of grudges. I just don’t bear normal grudges. I know some people think I hold grudges that I actually don’t, and others think I don’t hold any grudges at all (and as a result both parties are completely surprised whenever I do get upset about something). But no, I do bear grudges; I am just not a normal grudge-bearing person. It’s one of my many abnormalities. Here is the difference. Normal grudge-bearing people bear grudges against other people because of events that may or may not have happened. I, on the other hand, bear grudges against events that may or may not have happened because of other people.
Case in point: every year in grammar school, which I attended from grade one through grade eight, there was an art fair. Students made art, usually a picture, and there were 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes given out in each grade. There were very few things I wanted more back then than a prize in the art fair. Every year I’d agonize over what to draw, then agonize over drawing it. And every year I’d come away empty handed. Nothing was ever good enough, it seemed, be it the Statue of Liberty, a school of seahorses (thank you, Dad), Mount Olympus, a unicorn, a representation of the Trinity (yeah, that’s right, I drew a picture of God in a Catholic school art fair and still didn’t win) – nothing. And it really became a sore spot with me: not that other people didn’t deserve to win (they did), or that the judges didn’t know what they were doing (I have no idea), but that I wasn’t winning.
In the eighth grade I took mental stock of other things that had won when mine had lost – because now I was 6 years old with 7 years experience – and I realized that this art fair had somehow turned into a craft fair, because the things that were winning – like, for example, cardboard shaped into a house with candy glued all over it so it looked like a gingerbread house – weren’t art so much as craft. So if I wanted a chance at winning in this last year, I was going to have to be crafty. And I made the entry that, of all eight, I was and still am least proud of. I made the Pyramids – or rather, I cut and folded poster board into the shape of pyramids, glued those to another piece of poster board and covered that piece of poster board with glue and sand. Then, because I still wanted to draw something, I drew the Sphinx and taped it to the wall behind the display. I hated it. I won 2nd place. I finally had my ribbon, and yet won it with something I hated because, to my mind, it wasn’t art.
Flash forward many years later. In my office at work we used to have a baking competition around the Christmas holiday, which was always won by my coworker Maryanne. And this was a running gag that had gone on for a few years, and the fact that Maryanne is an absolutely beautiful sweetheart of a person made it even funnier. I’m not going to say she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but you would probably have to do some work to find it. Anyway, I entered the competition a few times, but not to win it. Because Mayanne always won it. And the things she made were fabulous. Lemon blueberry pie. Pumpkin trifle. Apple cheesecake. F A B U L O U S. So I was in it for a little no-pressure holiday fun.
One year Maryanne got another job and she was leaving the week after the bake-off. So the powers-that-be, unbeknownst to us, decided that the time had come for Maryanne to lose. The entrants were me, Maryanne, and a woman who made cupcakes decorated with handmade snowflakes. And the judges decided to declare this other woman the winner because the handmade snowflakes were so clever and impressive. Maryanne took it in good humor. I was livid – because now, in my mind, I’m back in my grammar school art fair, which has now become a craft show. And so I took it upon myself to avenge this miscarriage of justice at the next year’s bake-off – not just for Maryanne, but for those eight years of art fair ribbons too! (You know, to this day, I still don’t know if those snowflakes were edible.)
This time I made something I could be proud of. I made something very simple: cookies and milk – or rather, peanut butter cookies with cinnamon and nutmeg, and honey-sweetened milk. I set it up on the table for the judging in the manner of cookies and milk left out for Santa, complete with a “Dear Santa” letter which itemized the ingredients. Both tasty and clever, I thought! But the prize that year went to another woman who made two desserts. Yes, it seems the first thing she made tasted great but didn’t look great, so she made another thing that looked great but didn’t taste as great as she wanted, and being unable to decide between the two she entered them both. The judges took both desserts and combined the scores, giving her an almost perfect 10. She was horrified. And I, again, was livid.
So really, holding a grudge against events rather than persons is just another way of saying that the only person I hold a grudge against is myself. For not being good enough to learn the piano. For not understanding enough how to win a ribbon at an art fair, or first prize in a shady bake-off. For just not being worthy enough.
Interesting word, “worthy.” We use it in the Mass, don’t we? Right before Holy Communion, we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” Because what if all this really is, in fact, true? What if Jesus really is God? What if that really is Him in the Eucharist? What if I really am taking Him “under my roof” when I eat the bread and drink the cup? “Gosh, I might actually have to prepare my body and soul to come to Mass! Even worse: I might have to sing! Wouldn’t that be adding insult to injury?”
That’s the common thread: fear. We can say it’s time, commitment, skill sets, level of either engagement or boredom, or whatever, but at the end of the day if we weren’t afraid of it, we’d open our mouths in public and give it a try. But what if I get lost trying to follow it? What if I don’t sing as well as the person next to me? What if I sing louder and it sounds awful? What if I sing louder and someone hears it and looks at me strangely? What if this is, in fact, all real and I screw it up?
Take it from someone who fights the demon anxiety on a daily basis: there are worse things to be afraid of than singing to God.
Next Time: Heights, Depths, and Everything in Between