When I was about five years old, for a birthday I seem to recall, I received the best present ever: a bright red portable record player with a microphone attached. I was in love right away! I could play all of my 45s on it, and sing along in the microphone – it was a dream come true. It was set up by the back door at my grandparents’ house, and I loved to pull the curtain closed in front of the sliding glass door, and pretend it was my stage. I would stand there and sing for ages, and occasionally I would have someone sit down in the room – the den – and listen to my concerts, but not nearly as often as I would have liked.
A few years passed, and my grandmother became unwell. Just before Christmas that year, she passed from a heart attack. I was devastated, as she had been a very strong presence in my young life. As a nine year old child, I tried to work through my understanding of death as best I could. By the following spring, my processing of her death had begun to include singing. I still remember sitting on the screened-in front porch in the big, cushy rocking chair, writing a song for my grandmother. “You were there by my side, now you’re gone…” I hadn’t ever written a song before, but I was really pleased with the one that was coming out in celebration and mourning of my grandmother’s death, and in a flurry of excitement, I rushed into the house to show my mother. I probably said something like “Mom, look, I wrote a song!” And I remember her response being something like, “what the hell do you know about writing a song, I’m busy, go away.”
Slam went the door to my heart’s song. I was crushed, but being a strong child, I didn’t want to show it. I continued to write some more songs, and sang them to myself, but never again felt safe or comfortable enough to share them again. Eventually, I gave up writing them altogether. Later that year, I began to play the flute in the school band, and I was very good from the beginning. The flute quickly took the place of my earlier love of singing, and though I joined the school chorus for a while, I let go of singing altogether by the time I went to middle school. Locked away, my heart’s true desire was deeply buried, and I almost completely forgot that my first love, musically speaking, was singing.
I excelled wildly as a flutist. I was best in my school year after year, then began to compete in more far-reaching competitions. I was honored in festival bands and orchestras, invited to play as soloist, given scholarships, asked to teach, and paid as a professional musician, all before reaching the age of eighteen. By that time, I had been accepted with scholarship to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music, an open door to pursuing my life’s dream of being a professional musician. Even during my years at Peabody, I found myself excelling in every endeavor. Upon graduation, I fell into teaching studios, and had ample freelance gigs to easily support myself as a full time professional musician. Opportunities came, I embraced them, I enjoyed my path. But slowly, a sense of dread and boredom began to creep into my mind. I did my best to ignore it, but I would find myself in the middle of a concert pondering things far removed from the music I was playing: soup recipes, and quick routes home, and movies. I began to look deeper into my heart to explore what was happening. I was surprised by what I found.
I had done what I had set out to do. I had proven my mother wrong. Looking back into that fated day when my mother didn’t have time for me to share a song with her, I found that some little fragmented part of my child’s mind had determined to prove to my mother that not only could I play music (which was pretty much the same as writing a song to me as a child), but I could be the best at it, I could achieve great things, and carry that on and on and on. I could make a career, and make money, and make a life. And indeed, all of those things had come true. I had come to the end of what I set out to do. But what remained was the hidden and stifled voice of a little girl who just wanted to sing a song from her heart. And that little girl was standing there, waiting.
Years passed, and I began to travel. Early in 2008, I found myself in a sacred ceremony in Peru, and in the midst of it, people began to sing. All at once, I became aware that I had been following a musical career from the neck up! In this ceremony, I felt myself singing with everyone else, and the music was coming from a much deeper place in my being – from my heart. These weren’t the songs of high art music, but spiritually touching songs about love and beauty and nature. I fell completely in love with singing and music all over again, and knew that once I returned to the US, my music career would need to change. Over the following year, I let go of my freelance gigs, and began to sing a lot in community song gatherings, called kirtans. In these gatherings, people would chant sacred words and names from the yoga tradition in Sanskrit, and I could just sit there in the back and sing along, and no one would notice. I would always carry my flute along, and people enjoyed it very much when I would improvise at the kirtan circles, but my heart just wanted to sing. The flute was simply my security blanket – when things would feel too scary for me to relax and enjoy singing, I could hold on to the familiarity of the flute and feel okay.
Gradually my courage grew stronger. I would venture into singing harmony in the kirtan circles, and I eventually gathered enough courage to lead a song. The response to my voice was so positive, and I was quite surprised! After having spent over twenty years cultivating my craft as a flutist, I imagined that I would be a terrible singer – after all, I had never had voice lessons. Occasional opportunities to sing began to surface, and though I did embrace them, it was not without tremendous fear. I learned two or three songs that could be offered in sacred ceremonies and kirtans, and when the chances came, I would sing them. As I released most of my work as a flutist, I had no idea where my path was going to lead me. I didn’t even consider that I would one day be following a musical path with singing at the center!
My doubt in my path and my life began to increase, and in 2010, I found myself in the depths of a personal crisis. I spent much of my energy praying to know my life’s purpose, my dharma, my gifts, and my reason for living. I felt tremendous fear that I would die before having learned why I was here in the first place, and that fear was all-consuming. I went on a retreat that summer, and entered into a series of sacred ceremonies with prayers to learn what my life’s purpose was. By the end of the retreat, I had my answer: I was here to be a Songkeeper. To sing sacred songs, to offer sacred songs of other people, and to create my own. My heart’s truest voice came through with this message, telling me to release the fear, and prepare for my next steps. I was ecstatic, and knew that this was a true homecoming – for I had known this back when I was five years old singing with my little red record player.
I sang in a public performance three months later. Within a year, I had begun to sing backup with some local kirtan musicians. Within another six months, I had connected with the amazing souls that were to become the band Bhakti Tree, of which I am a co-lead kirtan musician. Now, just 2 ½ years from the time I was told that I am here to be a Songkeeper, my life has unfolded in magical ways! I have created an abundance of original music, and sing every week in a variety of settings, including kirtans, sacred music concerts, and sacred ceremonies. My heart is bursting all the time, as it is an amazing gift to be walking my path in surrender to my heart’s truth. I still play the flute very regularly as well, and am deeply grateful for the tens of thousands of hours I have invested in my path in becoming a master level musician. It is a wonderful thing that the human voice and the flute are so closely connected in matters of expression, and much of my skill as a flutist has seamlessly shifted into my work as a singer. It certainly does make things much easier than having to learn a discipline from the beginning!
I have the distinct blessing of standing on two sides of a very real life dilemma that most people never get dual perspective with. On one side, I stand as a professional musician who has mastered her art form, and who is highly sought after for her gift as an artist and teacher. On the other side, I stand as a woman who as a child was told not to sing, and whose creative expression was completely shut down as a result. I realize that this is a blessing in my work, as it has given me many gifts as a teacher. While I hold a full command of musical understanding, knowledge, and artistic capacity that anyone would seek out in a teacher, I also have a deep sense of empathy and understanding for those who yearn to express creatively through music but who have been judged, criticized, and shut down to a point of being frozen and stuck. I know how it feels to trust my creativity and feel free as a bird in expressing it, fearless and joyful. And I know how it feels to have that little voice inside just begging to have a chance to express, and the heaviness of fear keeping that from being a possibility.
The little voice that wants to sing? It never dies. It is always there. No matter how harsh the judgmental voices are, how critical teachers or parents or friends may have been, and how suffocating the fear, where there is a spark of desire, there can be a wild river of possibility. That is the most exciting thing in the world. Even if you have dreamed of singing for twenty, thirty, forty, or more years, and have felt like you just couldn’t do it, I am here to tell you that you can. You simply need a safe container, a loving mentor, and the determination to face your fears with persistence. You can sing, that I promise you.
If my story here resonates with you, I invite you to sign up for my intro workshop – Heart Song: Free Your Voice. In this workshop, I will guide participants through some inner discovery work to name fear and obstacles surrounding the voice and expression. We will sing together, and explore sound and breathing using some techniques from the yoga tradition. In a safe and playful space, we will contact our fears around the voice and move into a healing space of sharing songs with each other. By the end of this workshop, participants will have grown in leaps and bounds in the direction of facing their fears of singing, and will leave with a new sense of courage and trust in themselves and their own voices. All participants will also receive a discounted rate on private voice coaching and lessons, available only to people who have completed this workshop. For more information on workshops and online classes, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.