« My heart is like a glorious grand piano, but the lid is locked, and the key is lost. » The Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov
Let me tell you a story about a period of my life where I was in the grip of fear and felt unable to break free, and how I eventually did.
I love to sing, always have, and did musicals from a young age. Singing has always been a barometer of connectedness for me, and I often noticed that the quality of my voice and whether I was singing ‘well’ or not was always more related to how I was feeling as a person than how good my technique was. This always made me a little precarious with regard to performing as a singer, because inside I knew that if I was feeling unsure or insecure, it would affect my voice. But I started as a performer, and did a lot of musicals growing up and all the way through school.
Halfway through my time at graduate school at the Juilliard Drama Division, in New York, my wonderful, vibrant father, who had just turned 53, was killed in a biking accident while training for a triathlon. The shock waves from this sudden tragedy rocked our whole family and my entire world. A medical doctor and psychiatrist, my dad was a beloved, respected and trusted pillar of our community, professionally and spiritually.
My dad was a uniquely powerful, dynamic person with a keen insight into human nature and a child-like curiosity about the universe. He held a vitally important space for me when I was young; he held the energetic template for my future self, and could see my potential and who I could become, even if I could not. Throughout my college career, he wrote me wonderful letters filled with wisdom and metaphor whose central messages were rooted in universal law. His sudden disappearance ripped a hole in my psyche the size of which I was unable to fully fathom at the time. It was as if I no longer had access to that energetic matrix of my own becoming; I was unmoored, lost, and unable to find centre in me without the North Star of his magnetic presence.
Always a perfectionist and overachiever (back then), I soldiered on with the appearance of confidence and competence, but the barometer of my voice told the truth of what was actually going on in my heart. Over the next couple of years, I lost the ability to sing in front of other people, as well as the desire to sing on my own. Walking into an audition for a Broadway musical felt like standing in front of a firing squad, and I suffered one humiliation after another in front of bewildered casting directors and creative teams who couldn’t reconcile the neurotic mess in front of them with the talent they had heard about or seen in person in earlier years. I trembled, saw spots, felt faint, and despised myself as I let myself (and others) down time and time again, unable to control my nerves before what felt like a yawning chasm of terror and dread every time I was faced with the opportunity of a singing audition. One kindly casting director called me over to the table and asked a few probing questions, trying to understand the problem, encouraging me to take heart and trust myself, because ‘we need you’. In fact, my whole life as a performer I had received nothing but admiration, encouragement, and positive feedback; in the eyes of many I was the picture of promise. I hated myself all the more for being so weak, so undeserving, and I was completely unable to understand what was happening. This went on for several years.
I tried to help myself with singing lessons, bodywork, therapy, obsessing about it, forgetting about, even a glass of wine before an audition once hoping it would help me relax (it didn’t). Eventually I stopped accepting (and receiving) singing auditions, which shrank my possibilities as a performer, but my relief was greater than the pain I felt at playing small. I wouldn’t go see musicals, because anytime I heard other people singing I would feel a tidal wave of emotion I couldn’t handle. They were free to sing. I somehow wasn’t. My brother studied opera. I couldn’t make a peep. Not going to musicals became harder when I married a director of musical theatre. Avoiding my avoidance tied up a lot of energy and I hid my self-hatred and unresolved grief with false confidence and arrogance. The truth was I felt like a failure. But the sense of having failed was deeper than missing the career I thought I should have had; it was a failure of courage. A failure to live fully, to express fully, a betrayal of all the people who had believed in me and held a high vision for my life. A betrayal of my parents and their hopes for me. But most of all it was a betrayal of my own essence, because I had failed to open my heart to myself and to life.
A divorce and a re-marriage, a change of countries, and still I couldn’t outrun the feeling of wasted potential. I’d been on the spiritual path in one way or another from an early age, and finally the pain and dissatisfaction of the ego-personality drove me back inward to align with my soul, whatever it took. I let go of how I had always thought my life was supposed to look. An intense period of transformation began with my return to Kundalini Yoga and my decision to deepen my understanding of spiritual principles by direct experience. My heart started to open again, and after about 18 years of exile from my voice, I felt a desire to sing, like a tiny bird fluttering its wings inside my chest.
An angel in the form of a local composer marked the real turning point when he intuited the dormant singer in me and invited me to his house ‘just to play and sing for fun’. He actually told me that he specialized in reuniting people with their voices. When I finally got up the courage to take him up on his generous offer (a year after the original conversation), I pin balled around his living room looking for something to hold onto to calm my nerves, but he horse-whispered me to the piano and began to casually play some old tunes, and my love of music welled up. I sang a tremulous verse of Try to Remember (the universe is nothing if not direct), and he paused, looked up at me with great gentleness and said “You love to sing. You LOVE to sing.” I felt a rush of energy through my heart, and I remembered that that was true and had always been true, and I knew henceforth that I would never sing for any other reason than for love. Suddenly I felt joy.
As a young singer, I had rarely been happy with the sound of my voice. I was hyper-critical and sensitive to any wobble or blip or quality of sound that wasn’t ‘good enough’. I was strangled by fear and insecurity. I understand now that at the time, I simply didn’t feel safe or comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t know how to love myself, because I had always looked outside for approval, for permission, for reassurance that I was special, and therefore worthy of someone else’s love. This precariousness was compounded by the death of my father (whose approval, permission and reassurance I wanted most), and I wasn’t strong enough to withstand my own internal voice of judgment. The pain of exile from my voice, which is a vibration of the soul, taught me to sing for the right reason: because I’m alive, and that’s enough to celebrate. I’m worthy of love because I’m breathing. I could see how my soul had authored the whole experience to transform sadness and grief to joy, in an instant.
‘Sing from the heart’ became my mantra, and my reawakened joy was like a purifying fire that burned away all the old bullshit; I threw myself into singing, looking for every opportunity to put myself out there, not because I wanted to sing professionally (though I didn’t exclude it), but because I wanted to celebrate and express joy and gratitude for finding my voice again after so many years. I auditioned, triumphant at having had fun – fun!! – in the room, and full of delight for surprising people who didn’t know I could sing. I became a soloist for concerts large and small, recorded a demo, produced my own evening of song and celebration called The Metamorphosis Concert (joined by some of my favourite singers), and performed with a full orchestra for the first time. Eventually I was cast in a wonderful new musical project where I created a lead role and had beautiful music written just for me. And this was after I had supposedly ‘left the business’.
Last summer when I was in France at the ashram where I go to learn, teach, and be mentored by my spiritual teacher, I was on stage every day with the microphone, singing and leading music seva. I felt so happy just to be singing, and my voice had never felt freer. I had the oddest feeling of having come full circle. I only sing for love now, whatever form it takes, because I know that my voice is the expression of my soul’s joy at being alive, inside this chance, this opportunity to co-create with the Infinite. I’m not even the one doing the singing.