“Just move your lips.”
No one ever told me that. But I figured it out for myself, sometime in elementary school. That’s how I lost my voice.
I wish I could pinpoint the precise moment. Maybe it was enough that our school music teacher was grim and intimidating.
The little girl who used to sing out so freely disappeared. No more Christmas carols, Happy Birthday serenades, lusty Girl Scout camp songs.
I perfected the art of singing under my breath. It became second nature, to keep my voice submerged beneath the sounds of the others. Since I never heard the sound of my own voice, I had no reason to question my growing belief that I couldn’t carry a tune. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!
By the time I reached adulthood, I had become one of those people who gets a “deer-in-the-headlights” look when the possibility of singing comes up. Me? Sing? It was about as likely—and appealing—as running down the street naked. Or taking up bull fighting. The mere thought made me hyperventilate.
Then something happened. At the age of forty, I fell in love with Cajun music. With much struggle, I learned to play the accordion, the first musical instrument I had every mastered. Music opened up my life in ways I would never have expected.
But I still wouldn’t sing. It was a shame, because I loved the French language and could memorize song lyrics with ease. In my imagination, I began to sing along with the accordion. But I remained convinced that I couldn’t carry a tune. Singing remained my last musical frontier.
Fortunately, my voice had a mind of its own. Four years into my love affair with Cajun music, my singing voice started to slip back into my life. It seemed to arrive on its own, without much choice or decision on my part—and just like that, a silence of thirty years ended.
I’m still not certain how and why those layers of inhibition melted away. Partly it was the French language, always a liberating force in my life.
There was another thing, too. We had recently joined a synagogue. I had been moved by the haunting, unfamiliar melodies and the Hebrew words. The distinction between word and chant, prayer and song started to blur. I let my voice begin to merge with the rest of the congregation, rising upward, many voices becoming one. There was no room for self-consciousness.
Cajun singing began slowly. A word or phrase here and there. First, just for myself. Then, in front of my ever-supportive husband, who reminded me that he had always loved the sound of my voice.
Finally, I took the terrifying step. I decided to sing at a jam session, at a party in Chicago, when my turn to play the accordion arrived.
I tried to ignore the looks of surprise when I announced that I just might sing this next tune. We all knew I was a confirmed non-singer.
The moment came. I took a deep breath. It felt like stepping off a cliff.
I sang into the silence. My voice sounded a little faint, but not terrible. Tentative, a little girlish. Coming from inside and outside. Who was that?
I felt like I was floating in the air, rising up and up.
I had found it. My voice, restored at last.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders