Lifting my Voice

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I don’t have a lot of memories of worship, but the ones I do linger indelibly, like scars that never fade: I was maybe 14. For some reason I’d joined the youth choir: I don’t know why, I hated singing, everything always seemed to be too high or too low, and I’d wind up screeching like a wounded bird or bellowing like cattle. Not only this, but I was painfully shy. I hated drawing attention to myself, and as an only child, I was often put on the spot to perform for friends and relatives, to be impressive. Singing was the absolute worst.

My mother and I were in church together, my father was somewhere, working. The pastor got up to speak, and before he did, he asked if the youth choir would get up and sing something.

Never have I wished so fervently for a trap door to open and swallow me up. Horror seized me, clamping its fist around my stomach. I darted my eyes around the sanctuary: there weren’t many of us “youth” there, so I could tell that my thin, scared voice would not be well-masked, but that people would be able to hear me.

I turned to my mother. “Don’t make me go,” I whispered as she poked my leg.

“Go on, Jessica, you’re part of the youth choir,” she whispered back.

“Please, I don’t want to, please, please don’t make me go,” I grabbed her hand, my eyes begging.

She likely hissed at me that I was embarrassing her—my representing well was of crucial importance because my behavior was always a reflection on her—and I reluctantly stepped out of our pew and plodded up to the front of our small sanctuary.

I don’t remember what we sang, but I remember that it felt like it would never end. I’m sure the anguish of singing, and the fear of being heard, was written all over my face.

When I returned to my seat, she let me have it, her face a contorted mask of rage, her voice a laser-like, acidic whisper: what a disappointment I was, why I couldn’t just act right, how humiliated she was by me. I sat beside her, weeping silently, furious with her that she would make me put myself in such a difficult position so she could feel good about herself, and even more angry that she didn’t understand how scary it was for me to open up my mouth and sing anything. I knew I hadn’t done well, she shouldn’t have made me go in the first place because it was clear I was going to suck out loud—and I had!—and somehow that was my fault too.

Just another worship experience.

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As a yoga teacher, I have to use my voice all the time: it’s easier now to project around the room when I need to so that folks can hear me as I remind them to use their breath; I don’t even mind finding a note to let OM begin to ring through me, hopeful (but not demanding) that others join me in the sound. I’ve been able to overcome my shyness—or maybe the desire to teach and hold space for other people is stronger than the desire to be swallowed up by burnt orange Berber carpet—so that speaking up is easier to do. Chanting is the easiest part of class, both as a student and a teacher. My teacher practices a chant at the start of every class he teaches. He says he does it to center himself, to ask for guidance and clarity, wisdom and light, in the endeavor he’s about to make in teaching, and that even if no one else joined him, he’d still belt it out full force. When I started training with both my senior teachers, they taught me a mantra that I try to practice every day. The first time I heard it, I got chills: not sure if it was the circle-as-container, the deep vibration of their voices together, or just the intersection of Sanskrit, my body, and my heart. But whatever it was, it landed on me in a big way.

In class as a practitioner whenever I open my mouth, I work to listen to the voice of my teacher, and the voices of the others around me, in pursuit of a kind of blending of vibrations. When I’m teaching, I make sound that I hope will seal and affirm the energy of the room, and give the students a foundation on which they can allow their own voices to be raised, trembling or clear, flat pitch or true.

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My friend Allegra, who’s the executive director of Sharing Notes invited me to take part in something called the #MusicMakesItBetter challenge: you record an image or video of yourself singing or playing an instrument, as a way to shine a light on how music is a tool for healing, and deepening experiences. This morning I sat with my shruthi box, which many of you have asked about, and chanted a few verses of the Sri Sukta on camera. This was not easy. I know what it is to chant, and still, there was no small amount of anxiety as I sat down in front of my phone.

Singing worship music (with the exception of some sacred Christmas carols) still doesn’t make me feel much of anything except dread. But now, learning Sanskrit and using it as a tool for physical and spiritual practice is lovely. It’s powerful. My body, being made of so much water, and other, stronger, denser tissues and open spaces, vibrates beautifully when I open my mouth and let Sanskrit prayer come out of it. Unlike when I was a girl, I worry less about how I sound, or what others will think of me, and I let my body make the sound; and when I want to be silent, I keep my mouth closed allow the inner voice to make the sound that communes with the divine. What a great gift.

I can’t say anything magical to 14-year-old me that makes that painful memory of singing in public any easier. I can only say that more than twenty years later, I feel grateful to engage in a worship experience on my own terms, and excited that even though my voice isn’t really any better, I’m at least able to use it as an instrument for divine connection. You can check it out here. Hope you’ll share your #MusicMakesItBetter experiences too.