"He won't sing, Mrs. T. He's shy and he never talks, so he'll never sing."
At least once a year this statement is proudly hurled in my direction as a new kindergarten or 1st grade class sits down to sing the customary "hello teacher" used by Kodaly practitioners all over the world.
It's a way for me to check in with my kids. I sing to them - I sing their name and then they sing mine back. It's a very important moment of recognition - both of us looking each other in the eye, and that one child knowing right then that this adult is focused only on them and what they have to say (or sing). Sometimes I sing, "How are you today?" and they answer back, singing, "I'm great, thank you!" or, "I had a bad morning." They generally tell me the truth after they've gotten to know me and feel comfortable in my classroom.
But this problem of declaring that someone else doesn't have a voice comes back over and over. It's a human problem. Kids are honest about it. Grown ups are a little more underhanded . . .
Think about it. We get jealous or suspicious and we want to freeze somebody else out. So we say, "No need to even ask them about that - they won't be interested in that promotion. But I'm interested! I'd be happy to do it." or, "I heard her say she hated that kind of music. Best not to approach her about it. She's into other stuff right now."
I have examples from my own life - confessions, really. You probably have them, too.
We like to be "in the know" and sometimes we let this turn us into adult tattlers. We want to be the first to dispense the information. I have a good friend in the ministry who has a distaste for public prayer requests because they often morph into a twisted up way for people to gossip about each other, "Bless their heart!"
It used to bother me in a vague way when kids would point out the shyness of their classmates. I would sort of brush it off and move on. Something about it irked me, but I was busy and it didn't look like it bugged the "shy" students. Why correct something so small?
Last year it began to sink in . . . Oh. These kids are hearing from their friends and peers that they are excused and excluded from participation in an activity that builds human connection, and my silence looks like agreement.
My silence looks like agreement.
Not so long ago I was struggling through my early twenties as an almost professional musician. Musicians tend to be a sensitive lot. And many of us have extremely active "inner" lives. We live in our own heads a lot of the time. It's both good and bad for us. And those of us who write music go through seasons of doubt with our work like most other creative or faithful people. We require a certain amount of encouragement - from somewhere . . . anywhere . . .
From age 21-25 I feel like I just floated through one big season of doubt. Nobody was going to tell me what to be. I had to choose. And every time I declared that I was going to do something, I'd end up moving in a different direction. Everything was related and connected, and in hindsight I see that the way was much less crooked than it pretended to be. But it always seemed like I was telling people something different.
"I'm going to be a recitalist. I'll keep studying voice and give professional recitals of great art literature."
"I'm going to be a music minister. I'll practice music ministry full time."
"I'm going to get serious about opera singing. I'm going to be an opera singer."
"I'm going to arrange music for children's choirs. That's what I love. I'm going to do it."
"I'm gonna get better at the guitar and be a folk musician."
In all of that, I felt the depth of the silence around me. Or at least, I perceived it as silence.
Like the boy who cried "wolf!" - who on earth was going to believe me when I finally found my niche for the next season? And was it even right? Was I even allowed? - we expect a great "someone" to declare for us what we should be. And while God might call us (and he is a GREAT Someone), God might not give us a cleanly cut ordination - God might give us an ambiguous question . . . and our life will be spent searching and making meaning. We might be like Moses and never see what it was for.
A long time ago I heard some well meaning women try to badger my mother into singing with the church choir. She has an unforgettable, beautiful voice. And they told her that because she had a voice, she had to use it. Sometimes it's not healthy for us to use our voices even though we have them. And sometimes it is absolutely necessary for us to use our voices - even though we weren't born with any great talent.
We live in a world full of powerful opposites - so when we see that someone "has a voice" we say that they MUST sing in the choir. When we think that someone "doesn't have a voice" we say that they MUST NOT sing in the choir.
It was my pleasure to know a lady who loved music and loved to sing, but had never nurtured a great talent for it. She fought through cancer not once, but twice, and both times returned to the choir loft with the lingering effects of chemo and radiation hanging around her neck. But she couldn't be stopped. She sang in the choir loft until she couldn't stand up, and then she sang at home . . . and the choir went to her. She had no talent for music. But her great love of it was magnetic, and it pulled people close - brought the music right into her living room.
So I no longer allow absolute statements about other people's ability to sing out loud in my classroom.
Because one day after church when I was feeling self conscious and lonely, having played one of my original songs in front of a big congregation for the first time, somebody came up to me and said, "That was unique and it has a place in the world. I hope you keep doing that. And I hope you record it to share with other people someday."
After a lot of silence . . . one little bit of encouragement. And one little bit was enough.
I want my students to learn how to dole out creative words rather than destructive words. Destructive words are sneaky - we tell ourselves that we are being helpful when very often we know that what we're saying will knock somebody down for good.
I say this multiple times a day now: "It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to 'be.' Don't let 'perfect' keep you away from something that will bring you joy."
I don't know about you, but I want to spend my time doing . . . not thinking about doing. And I'm able to "do" in large part because during my searching years a few well placed people spoke creative words into my heart. They gave me a voice.
Don't you want to give somebody the gift of a voice rather than taking it away? Sometimes that'll mean going against the current of your social circle, but the result will be full of life. When we are creative, we give something back to the Creator. Isn't that beautiful?
Now listen to this delightful song and have a great day!