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    Sing!

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    “I sing because I’m happy … .”

    That was probably part of the first song I learned as a toddler. First songs are important. They will be with you for your entire life. Many of you who grew up in a Christian denomination may remember that phrase from the old gospel song, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” My Mother learned that song from the legendary Mahalia Jackson, recorded it on her first album and sang it often at Billy Graham crusades around the world. “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free.” Those words were never truer than when I came out at the age of 35. They took on a completely different meaning. I was free. And, yes, I look like my Mother when in drag!

    I spent my early years listening to my Mom sing on the stage. I also spent countless hours hiding behind the living room sofa so I could be near her as she taught voice. It’s no wonder that I’ve been singing since I was three. Of course, I was often encouraged (required) to stand on the piano bench and perform when friends or relatives came over! Sound familiar? Raise your hand if that happened to you. For me, that piano bench led to the opera stage to a podium waving my arms at others!

    What was the first song that you remember singing? Pause. Seriously, take a moment and sing it! It might have been about a little teapot, or a row boat, a twinkling star, an itsy-bitsy spider or even three blind mice. Innocent enough. And so precious.

    But put them together and they traumatize children. Set adrift in a row boat, it’s dark because the light comes from only one star in the sky, your passenger is a blind rat or three and there is a huge spider climbing up your water spout. (Children have no idea what that is!) Scarred.

    I ask that same question in workshops all over the country. The answer varies geographically. On the West Coast it’s most often non-sectarian stemming from hippie days. Anything by Peter, Paul and Mary, especially “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” On the East Coast, it might be “Yankee Doodle.” In the South, it’s either “Jesus Loves Me” or “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” or both in a mashup! As a very young child, in the Southern Baptist tradition, we learned a precious “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”

    As a bit of a rebel at four years old, I was already having fun and being a little irreverent. When the Sunday School teacher was out of the room, I taught my friends new words and we sang in a little 4-year-old’s refrain, “Jesus Wants Me for a Green Bean.”

    Even before we could sing a whole song, we learned rhythm. Oh, yes. Perhaps even before we sang, we were working on the beat that would set the tone. How many of you have been annoyed by a child beating on a high chair tray in a restaurant? You know why the parents don’t even seem to notice? They were there for the many rehearsals at home—leading up to the performance you now get to share while trying to enjoy your own drumsticks (wings).

    Do you remember singing and dancing and playing as a young child? We did it with reckless abandon. And so did our friends. We only had one level on our volume knob.

    That’s right. Fortissississimo. Loud, loud and louder. There was never a time that called for pianissississimo. Why would you sing or play softly when you could let ‘er rip? After all, I sing because I’m happy! And happy obviously equals loud. Duh.

    Then something happened that literally changed our lives forever. We learned a new gesture and noise that most often accompanied it.

    Someone said, “Shhhh, don’t sing so loud!” Another said, “Shhhh, your father is sleeping.” Another said, “Shhhhh, you don’t know the words.” And finally, someone along the way may have said, “Shhhh, you can’t sing.” That sticks in a child’s head. Sometimes forever.

    For the first time, a volume knob was inserted in our brain. These were the very same people who stood you on the piano bench to sing for everyone. They had now changed their mind and were shushing you. What? Sadly, it wasn’t just applied to the volume of your singing. It began to appear in our lives.

    We heard Shhhh. But we also heard:

    Hold your fork this way.
    Sit still in your chair.
    Line up single file.
    Raise your hand if you have something to say.
    Walk this way, Hold your books this way. Cross your legs this way.
    Don’t be flamboyant.
    Color the leaves green and the flower red.

    Surprise!!! Look at what the gays can do to a rose!

    How did we become timid and worry about what people thought? Why do we not sing anymore? Well, polls list the thing people fear most in life is public speaking. I think that is because singing in public is not on the list! It is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. If you play piano or flute or guitar, you can always blame a less than stellar performance on the instrument. If your singing doesn’t sound good, it’s just you. Your voice is your voice.

    Author Brenda Ueland, in her book If You Want to Write, explains that creative imagination is drummed out of people early in life by teasing, jeering, rules, prissy teachers and critics. Families are the great murderers of the creative impulse. Older siblings sneer and kill it. There is that American pastime known as “kidding” with the result that everyone is ashamed of showing the slightest enthusiasm or passion or sincere feeling about anything. We are put in straitjackets of hesitance and self-consciousness. “Because the most modest and sensitive people are the most talented, having the most imagination and sympathy, these are the very first ones to get killed off.”

    Breathe. How do we reverse this and find the volume knob and turn it back up? In order to find your life-volume knob, it would help if you could go back and figure out who turned it down in the first place. Were they doing it for you or for them? My advice? Step outside of your comfort zone. Try something new. Skip down the road. Sing at Karaoke. Join a group or a club. Learn to paint or sky dive!

    Not too long ago, I asked my granddaughter, Clara, if she liked to sing. She said, “Only in my room and only when I am sad.” I followed up with a question, “Have you been practicing your piano?” She emphatically announced, “I’m more of a composer than a pianist.” Obvious answer was “No.” So we’ve moved on to ukulele! Bop Bop is not giving up on cramming music down her throat one way or the other. Just kidding (ish). My other granddaughter, Eden, is immune from my pressure. She is 4 and still hasn’t found the volume knob and will crawl up on the piano bench on her own. And if no one is listening, she climbs up on the kitchen counter until everyone in the room is paying proper attention. I have no idea where she got that!

    Think about that first song. Sing it. Sing all of them! It’s a great ice-breaker at awkward family reunions. (You’re welcome.) This article was about singing because that’s what I chose to soothe and fill my soul. But it’s about so much more. It’s about finding your passion. Taking a risk. If you don’t have one, try a bunch. Get back up on the piano bench and start from scratch! Find something you did once upon a time and someone shushed you or made fun of you. Pick it up again! Careful standing on piano benches. Find other groups who are doing great work and offer to help. They will welcome you with open arms.

    Chicken or the egg? I sing because I’m happy. But I am also happy because I sing. I also sing because I have stories to share and music is the best to do that. There are countless serious research articles that support the fact that people are happier when they sing. And, people sing their entire lives. You can visit a geriatric facility where many of the residents can’t remember their family members’ names or how to tie their shoes. Begin to sing: “You are my sunshine. My only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray.” They perk up. The sparkle returns to their eyes and they join in, remembering all of the words! That is the power of music.

    And that makes me happy that I sing!

    P.S. There are lots of choruses in the Bay Area. Now is the time to find one.

    P.P.S. The graphics appear in a DVD titled The Music Within. They were created by Shawn Northcutt. The DVD is available through my publisher, Hal Leonard Corporation.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.