Accepting My Voice

An empty classroom in Bibbins Hall, in the Oberlin Conservatory

When I was in the 6th grade, my dad signed me up for choir to “make me make friends.” I was surprised. I had never been in a choir before, and didn’t think I had that hard of a time making friends. Despite this suspicion, I agreed, and with that, the next 10 years of my life were changed.

It’s embarrassing to talk about at times, but my ability to sing is the number one driving force in my life. Every major decision I make is about my voice and how I can best grow and enhance it. I’m glad to have something so important to me, but it comes at a cost. Not only is singing my highest priority, it’s also the largest source of uncertainty and anguish in my life. 

It didn’t start out this way. After a couple years in middle school and a tumultuous voice change, things started to pick up in high school. Freshman year, I got my first taste of four-part harmony in my school’s introductory ensemble, and thus a hobby became a passion. 

The summer following that freshman year, I was doing a program in Japan when I ran into Professor Alan Mallock, an American transplant teaching English near Tokyo. During a dinner with him and two of his English students, I made a passing remark about how my peers were getting annoyed with my constant singing. Much to my surprise, it turned out that Professor Mallock himself was a classically trained opera singer.

Immediately entranced, I started asking for tips. That night, he would go on to tell me something that’s stuck with me ever since: 

“You have to be completely willing to succeed, and completely willing to fail.”

And so I was. 

Following that summer trip, a dynamic began to become clear to me. Having committed to both success and failure, I would consistently audition for solos, ensembles, and roles, often being met with rejection. Yet despite this, I was only more emboldened to keep trying and pushing, every dismissal becoming another voice to prove wrong someday. However, this determination was mirrored by pain. Everyone loves seeing somebody get back up, but rarely do they want to think about how it feels to get knocked down. 

Obviously, one of the largest motivators for me to go to Oberlin College was its proximity to the Conservatory. Although I hadn’t actually auditioned, I knew that being there might improve my chances of eventually being accepted to the Con. 

Once I was at Oberlin, music continued to shape my education. I was terrified walking into Dr. Ristow’s office for my College Choir audition, but still remember the excitement I felt when I was told I “had a good voice in there somewhere,” and that I could join. I began what ended up being a multi-year string of private lessons, first with students, and finally with voice professor member Timothy LeFebvre.  

My second year, I took matters into my own hands. A few truths got bent when I was asked if I was a double degree student, all in the name of being able to take Conservatory Music Theory. I prepared and submitted what ended up being a fruitless application for the Vocal Performance Program. In spite of this, I found a new home within the small, tan practice rooms of Robertson, and emulated what I thought the conservatory experience might be.

With all that practice, one might think that I would have made progress by leaps and bounds, but on my darker days, I worry that’s not the case. It’s easy to credit a lack of improvement to something out of my control, but I’ve spent enough time researching and monitoring myself to feel confident in my assessment that the problem is physical. 

There’s a knot within my chest. It feels like there’s a ball literally sitting near the bottom of my throat and between my collarbones, pulling in the muscles around it. It yanks downward on my neck and the base of my skull, while simultaneously drawing in my shoulder blades.

How this affects my voice is that anytime I vocalize, the air is restricted and it’s as if I’m pushing the sound through some kind of barrier. Like my neck and shoulders, the base and back of my tongue is yanked downwards, making specific vowels such as [i] (pronounced eee) and [u] come out closer to a flat [uhhh] sound. Projecting becomes more a matter of pushing rather than of using support, and instead of a relaxed, gentle tone, my voice is warped to a gravely croak. 

Some days are worse than others, usually the ones with more stress and less sleep, but it’s almost always there to some extent. In a couple extremely rare cases, there’ll be stretches where something inside releases, and the gate inside my throat opens, and my concerns are validated. 

I’m not just sitting pat though. After dealing with a myriad of doctors telling me to just breathe more or to do yoga, I’ve finally been able to start seeing some specialists within the Stanford University Healthcare system. While I still don’t know exactly what’s going on, I’m finally getting the help that might get me there. 

It’s hard to put into words what my voice means to me now, just as it would be hard to put into words what the sun means to the earth. It’s the star which everything else revolves around. It’s what makes me get up in the morning and spend hours staring at a mirror. The excitement of maybe being able to “figure it out” someday is as imposing as the fear that I may not. Either way though, just knowing that I have something I’m completely willing to succeed or fail at tells me I’m doing something right. There are times when I want to give up, or that I know it would be easier to stop caring and to accept that I’ll never reach the level of vocal freedom I dream of, but doing so would be a betrayal of myself. 

Whether or not I do make it, just knowing that I had the audacity to believe in myself when I was told by so many others that it wouldn’t happen gives me the strength to keep singing. 

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