This cold and rainy evening I was in the art museum at my alma mater, talking to current students about careers in the arts. There is nothing like being asked “how did you get to where you are?” over and over to get me thinking about that question: How did I get here? And being there with fellow alums – a few of whom I knew as an undergrad – had me thinking the whole way home about how different things were when I was a big musical fish in the wonderful humanistic pond of Boston College.
I have vague recollections of a time before my voice was a commodity. I hadn’t invested a ton of money in it, it wasn’t making me very much money, and I was still getting to know it. People told me my voice was beautiful and I believed them, and it was true. I enjoyed my beautiful voice and used it as often as I could.
If that romantically Edenic memory sounds ridiculous, there’s a reason for that. My relationship with my voice in late adolescence was not pure or innocent. Burdened with deep insecurity, part of me believed that people would only admire or want to be around me if they knew I could sing, and I saw that as the only way of drawing people to me. At the same time, though, I could see through the illusion that there is anything virtuous about having a gift I never asked for, and felt shamed for using a false virtue in hope of attracting people.
I still try to take time to just enjoy my voice, even though using my voice is work for me now. It’s a source of income and a big investment. I have been told a million things about it, and often spent more time picking it apart than celebrating it. I listen to my recordings so many times that I have no idea what they sound like anymore. In order to improve (and to appropriately market myself) I need to think about the things my voice doesn’t do well, and sometimes it causes more anxiety than joy.
At the same time that I have this preoccupation, I feel paradoxically free because I know that it is not what makes me who I am. My voice does not make me holy or lovable. It is an unexplainable blessing that I can never earn but that I do my best to serve. I don’t need to have people hear me or know that I have this particular skill because I know that at the most fundamental level it’s nothing special.
When I was an undergrad there was so much I didn’t know, for better and for worse. Because everyone’s journey is different, it doesn’t make much sense to share all of that at a career night. What I was able to share was that I wake up every day and do what I love. That I’ve never had a thing planned for my future and have just made the best decisions I can, day by day. That you need to work your tail off to make it, and you had better find other things that can give you joy because a career is never going to love you back.
My voice is who I am, and at the same time it’s not, and I can live with that.