For the Love of Singing: On Joining the Agape International Choir

Did you have something you loved doing as a child that you gave up because either you felt like you had to grow up and get serious, or it was taken away by life’s circumstances? For me, that thing is singing.

I have always loved to sing. I joined the youth choir at my church as soon as I was old enough to attend rehearsals. I spent hours each week squirreled away in my room during high school singing along to recordings of musicals—Ain’t Misbehaving, Jesus Christ Superstar, Dreamgirls. I began voice lessons at sixteen. My teacher noticed that I would get upset if I hit one wrong note and said, If you spend your life focusing on the notes you hit wrong instead of the overall phrases you sing well you will never be happy.

In a theater program the summer between my junior and senior year, I sang a solo in The Me Nobody Knows, a song so moving and sad that it made a teenage boy in the audience cry in front of his mom. In that moment, I saw that music accesses a deep place that can crack us out of our little constructed selves into an ocean of feeling and perspective that has the potential to transform our lives. I wanted to live in that ocean as much as possible and bring others there with me.

I sang in a vocal jazz ensemble in college and solo with a piano player at our local coffee house. After college, as I got into yoga and spiritual practices, I fell in love with kirtan, devotional call-and-response chants in Sanskrit. For a decade I played harmonium and sang kirtan with others, relishing the moment when my little sense of self would drop away and something larger would sing through us and draw us into an altered, joyful state.

I kept a framed card on my desk that said, God respects me when I work but God loves me when I sing.

The desire arose to lead kirtan on a larger scale. Krishna Das was getting popular, traveling to yoga centers and retreats to lead kirtan and I wanted to do that, too. I recorded a CD, and with the support of a prominent yoga teacher, started leading kirtan at retreats and yoga centers.

Almost immediately the problems started. The mood was off, my confidence tanked, my voice became unreliable. I started to panic, the very act of singing a reminder of what I was losing: that ecstatic, empty-vessel experience of letting something larger come through me. I couldn’t get out of myself, too afraid to sing flat. I believed that my ego hijacked my voice with its lust for fame so my voice got taken away. It felt like a punishment from God.

Vocal cords are like any other muscle in the body. They stiffen with injury and atrophy with disuse and need slow warm-ups and exercise to get strong and supple again. Like an athlete after a devastating injury, I had a choice: to put time and energy into rehab for the pure love of movement, not knowing if full mobility would ever return, or put that part of my life (and soul) away forever. I couldn’t face the loss of my voice, so I locked both the gift and the pain away and stopped singing altogether, even in the shower. I became a poet and learned to access that deep inner place through poetry instead of music.

In January 2015, I went to a service at the Agape International Spiritual Center while visiting L.A.. The music started and I sang full out for the first time in over a decade without caring that people would hear me and judge my terrible voice. Shortly after, I decided to move to Santa Monica, clear that I wanted to join a spiritual community that had music powerful enough to break through my shame. In the last two years at Agape, I’ve let go of my old concept of a judgmental God who would take away my voice as punishment and now experience God as a loving power that supports me in freeing myself from conditioning and limiting beliefs.

When the annual choir auditions began last week, I figured I’d wait until next year. But my friend’s invitation to audition with her yesterday was so infectious I decided to go for it. This would be the first time I revealed my voice in public since I gave up singing over a decade ago. I had no idea what would come out of my mouth when I got up to the mic.

A professional singer went first, blew everyone away, and was invited to audition later in the week as a soloist instead of joining the choir. I almost walked out, but it was my turn. Facing the choir, including several of my favorite soloists, I couldn’t find a good key at first, starting way too low. I shook as I sang, ironically, I release and I let go, I let the spirit run my life, in a couple of different keys for Rickie, the choir director, to determine where to place me. I apologized for being a little pitchy from vocal damage. She said she thinks I can sing second soprano but would place me in alto for now to let my voice heal. I cried in the car on the way home.

I woke up today with a desire to dig out my old recordings of vocal exercises and begin to stretch this muscle again. I want to get curious about what my voice can and can’t do, and gently challenge it to open up without spiraling into shame when I can’t hold the pitch. I want to enjoy singing the whole phrase instead of pouncing on each imperfect note as evidence of my unworthiness to open my mouth. I no longer want to pretend that I’m okay with only reading poems out loud for the rest of my life. I also want to sing for the love of it, surrounded by a kickass choir.