I'm a good singer filled with self-doubt

Am I too old and ugly to give it a go in jazz?

Published November 14, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           (<a href='http://www.zachtrenholm.com'>Zach Trenholm</a>/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am a singer. I've always been a singer. When I sing, my world is right. And I'm really good. But, I didn't go into singing.

I went into graphic design because that was a business, not strictly an art form. More secure. Also, I thought I was too ugly to make it as a singer. I took my amazing voice for granted.

Since college, I've been a graphic designer and have been successful. I've been both full-time and freelance. My art has supported me for 28 years.  

Now I work in the marketing department of a midsize bank. It pays pretty well. The benefits are good. And it's really dead-end. They don't reward brilliance or ambition. I live in a little cube thinking up ideas to get people to use credit cards.

I'm 50 years old and two years ago I started to seriously study jazz singing. Even after a lifetime of singing, jazz was really hard, but I worked like I never worked before and got good fast.

With not a lot of effort at promotion, I've gotten some pretty big gigs. Audience response has been amazing and I have the respect of some pretty heavy-hitters.

Now I'm considering quitting the bank. I'm pretty sure I could make another go at freelance design and get clients. But, the most important thing is that I'd have the flexibility to promote and pursue my jazz career.

My husband is totally supportive and makes enough for us to live well, if not lavishly. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Here's my problem: I still devalue my natural talent and think that now (while I can sometimes admit I'm actually a hot number) I might be too old. I started too late.

What is this about, this holding myself back from the one thing I ever dreamed of being and loved the most? Why do I forget the great reviews and let the smallest impediment stop me from proceeding?

Cary, when I am singing, I am a natural conduit of love. I am a vessel for God's power to change. People are moved and tell me they are inspired. I believe it's what I was put on earth here to do (crying as I write), so why do I want to sabotage it and make it small and inconsequential?

Frustrated in Western New York

Dear Frustrated,

Musicians are crazy.

If you want to sabotage your talent and make it small and inconsequential that's probably because you're a real musician and musicians are crazy.

Whatever you do that is crazy, it's because you're a musician. If you're torturing yourself, it's because you're a musician and you're crazy.

I mean that in a good way. We're crazy. We're sensitive and illogical and insecure and needy and full of internal conflict and doubt and we act out and mess up our lives. We're a little more emotional than other people and that's just the way it is.

So you hear these voices in your head telling you you're no good.

When do you not hear them? When you're singing. So you need to be singing to shut up these voices. So sing. Use it to motivate yourself to sing more, because singing shuts up these other voices.

That's what I do. That's why I play the guitar and write songs and sing. Because when I'm doing that, I'm not so crazy. It's been that way since I was a kid.

Somewhere along the way I forgot.

Somewhere along the way to being an adult I got the idea that playing music was about demonstrating personal proficiency and excellence. It became about ego and judgment. Will they see how hard I have worked and how much I know about the intricacies and theory? Will they think highly of me?

I let fear and self-consciousness stop me from playing. That started a self-reinforcing cascade of events. Since I stopped playing, I got worse. When I would try to play I couldn't because I hadn't been playing. So I lost that crucial ability to connect with music, which means to connect with soul and honesty and emotion. This went on for years.

Finally at a deeply dark low point emotionally I picked up the guitar. I could hardly play, but every note I played sounded beautiful and warm. I played very simply, just a few notes, a few chords. I just strummed the chords and listened to them. It started to come back. I remembered that the reason I played was that it quieted the voices and made me feel happy and lighthearted and real. So then I just started doing it again as therapy. As a way to feel OK. And then the more I did it the more OK I felt and then the better I got the more I did it. Then I started writing songs again. It's coming along. It's slow but I'm OK with that. So that's how it works.  Now I just play to be real. Finally I don't care if people think highly of me. I want to have a good time. There's not much about me that I haven't shared. So there are no surprises. I'm not hiding anything. I'm just an average guy with a guitar, trying to lighten the load.

You play to make yourself feel better. The more you play, the better you feel, and the better you get at playing the better you sound. It's a motivation feedback loop.

So when you hear that shit, just sing. When you feel like you can't sing, just sing. When you feel like you're no good, just sing. Keep doing it. It'll keep you sane.

By Cary Tennis

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