This is going to be long. You have been warned.
Recently God dropped a book in my lap entitled, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, by Brene Brown. You may have heard of Brown from her famous TED Talks or other books she’s written. You want to know how I knew God is the one who dropped it in my lap?
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists–it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”
Freshman year I started to learn German and Italian arias and began challenging myself with solos and competitions. My parents realized how serious I was and sought out a voice teacher who could truly help bring out the best in me. I began studying under Dr. Thelma Merrick, a studious and dignified 78-year-old master vocal teacher. I had to audition to even be considered as one of her students, but she saw something in me and agreed to take me under her wing. No other vocal coach, not even in my short time as a music major in college, would ever compare to the training I received with Dr. Merrick. We would spend hour after hour reviewing the exact meaning of every word in an aria I was learning, whether it be in German, Italian or French. We’d spend multiple visits meticulously going over the diction of every word, making sure I pronounced them the correct way. She introduced me to the perfection of Joan Sutherland, Renee Fleming and Maria Callas, among many others. She taught me how to control my breathing by lying on the floor with a stack of books on my stomach and how to help seam the line between my head and chest voice. Most people have no understanding of how much intense training goes into classical singing. I actually had someone say to me once, “Why do you have to go to school to learn about singing? I mean, you just do it.” Just a word of advice: don’t ever say that to a vocalist, k? EVER. If you don’t know what the terms arpeggio and oratorio mean, then just don’t even bother opening your mouth.
Toward the end of my time with Dr. Merrick I began exploring opera with Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro and Un Bel Di. I wish I would’ve had more time with her, as that opened up an entirely different world to me that I wanted to explore more of. Dr. Merrick taught me much more than I could’ve ever imagined about the world of voice. It’s a small world that many will never know, but I had the privilege of learning from one of the best. I will always hold her in high regard and remember her with a softness in my heart.
And let me tell you, the music was magnificent. Although I internally struggled with various things that I’ll get into in a bit, the music….y’all, there are not adequate words to describe it. The music made in that room was enough to bring you to tears. As soon as we started singing, any doubts or negative thoughts faded away. I never wanted that part to end, and I clung onto it for as long as I possibly could. My director, Stephen Holcomb, will forever hold my reverence and full respect. He is one of the very best directors out there, in my humble opinion.
The video below is of DBU’s Chorale from 2011 under director Stephen Holcomb. This was not during my years as a member, but it gives you an idea of the quality of music we made.
And another from 2007. I miss this so much it hurts.
Respect the perfection.
If there is one word I would use to describe my first semester of college it would be struggle. Up until that point I had been blessed to have not known the slightest meaning of that word. I had no perspective on it whatsoever (and again, in the grand scheme of things, I still don’t). But I got a quick first taste of it at the beginning of that year. This will sound somewhat dramatic (after all, I was a very naive 18), but I felt as though every area of my life was crumbling like a sandcastle. My parents moved from where I grew up and were no longer a 15 minute drive away to escape to (a positive and necessary thing, but at the time it sure didn’t feel that way). My serious boyfriend of four years had enlisted in the military and was stationed a state away. And, of course, most of my friends had also gone off to start their own college careers. I tried to open myself up to others and find people I connected with, but I had trouble. First admittance of shame: I had trouble finding friends. Me!!! It sounds so pathetic, but it’s the truth. Up until that point I had never had problems in the epic friendship department. I was a social butterfly and made friends with everyone. But after much pondering over the years I have realized that I had been with my friends in high school since we had played with Barbies and wore stick-on earrings. They were my people. My crew. I trusted them, and it takes me a long time to trust people. But some of those friendships started to fade as their college experiences became shiny and bright. Starting from scratch was something I really didn’t remember how to do. Man, if you know me you know that I need friends in my life. Honest, solid, real, true friendships. I had trouble finding that in my new music world, and it killed me. It absolutely tore me to pieces. No one realized that, though; I had perfected the act of hiding my shame and putting on a mask when things got stormy inside. I can count on one hand the people I truly confided in, one of whom I considered very close. But even that relationship broke apart the following year. I felt very lonely during what is supposed to be one of the most exciting times in a person’s life.
And then there’s the part that really sucked the life out of me, the main source of my shame: theory. Effing college music theory. Before entering DBU’s school of music, you have to take a theory entrance exam. I passed enough to get into the normal level class, but eventually transferred to the remedial class because it was just moving too quickly for me. Instead of embracing that move as an opportunity to get better, I took at as a complete failure. I’ve never been a mathematical thinker. In fact, I have never thought of myself as “smart”, especially not in math. I thrive with art and words and creativity. But math is a huge part of music, way more than people realize. Now, I can sight-read ‘till the cows come home. And I have excellent pitch. At one point early in the semester my instructor, Dr. Wallace, played some music on the piano and we had to notate exactly what was played on a staff. I got it 100% correct, and I remember her looking at me curiously and saying that I had a remarkably good ear. I wasn’t an idiot, but I was struggling nonetheless, and it knocked me to the ground. I got a tutor, but he happened to have been in high school choir with me, and I hated that he saw that I was struggling. My ego had been served a big slice of shut the hell up, and at the end of the semester I gave up.
God let me hit rock bottom so I could hear him clearly. I know without a doubt that if things had not gotten to that place, I would have never taken the road he wanted me to. The dream I had for myself was not what he had planned. I had no idea that one day he would call me to be a safe haven for some neglected and abused children. I had no idea that one day I was to become a source of love for some very unloved little souls. I had no idea that I would move around every few years and live in two foreign countries, which would make it almost impossible to find a job as a vocalist. I had no idea of the potential I had with anything but music, and as much fun as singing was for me, I was needed for something different. I didn’t understand, but I did trust my God with my whole heart. So, the next semester I surrendered my scholarship and switched majors. It shocked everyone, including myself. I know there are people who thought I took an easy out and later resented the fact that I got into the concert chorus after quitting as a music major. And although I knew in my heart of hearts I was doing the right thing, the reality that my own dream was not to become a reality kept my heart broken for a long while.
On the weekends I would hang out with my friend who I lived with, drive to my parents’ house or spend time with my sister and brother-in-law, or my boyfriend, if he was around, but even they had no clue what was going on because I packed all of that shame so well into little boxes. I was the person who was supposed to have things figured out. I was the friend people turned to when they needed help, but I was so unwilling to expose my vulnerabilities.
Right before my junior year they split the chorus in two, one smaller concert choir that you had to audition for and a larger grand chorus. I auditioned and made it into the concert group, which was an unforgettable time of making absolute perfect music. I felt so thankful and honored to be a part of that group that year. I have never sung with that caliber of vocalists since then.
And the dream sequence, which includes the best Fruma Sarah you will ever see (4:38).
Everything turned around for me that year. I got an apartment with one of my very best friends and my relationship with her grew exponentially. Over the course of my junior and senior year I gained another best friend who I consider a sister. We had all been through our own share of struggles up until that point, although we all went to separate schools. It’s amazing how God can take broken situations and use them to bring other people closer together (or even back together).
I also started taking care of my baby nephew on the days I didn’t have class, which I am so grateful for. Little did I know that I’d move all over the world after that, so I’m so thankful I got to bond with him during his first year. Many days I’d stick around and would hang out with my sister and brother-in-law until the evening. They were always always always there for me. My sister has always been my rock. She always believed in me when I didn’t.
Despite the difficulty I had those first two years with music theory that caused me to feel so much shame, I ended up graduating Cum Laude from Dallas Baptist University with a B.S. in Education. The education department at DBU is as stellar as the music department, in my opinion. They gave me the absolute best training and support I could ever receive, and I am thankful to have been a part of it. I made friends with my fellow education majors, many of whom I still keep in touch with today.
This post is my swan song to all of the shame I’ve held onto for so long regarding this tiny part of my life. I’m choosing now to own it instead of suffer in it. As Brene Brown says,
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”