Finding My Voice

Oklahoma-logo

High school was not my favorite time of life.  It would have been difficult enough, but I moved 80 miles away from all of my friends and had to start over in Woodbury, New Jersey.  The church helped a lot.  The congregation included me in their warm welcome of me and helped me adjust by introducing me to some kids my age.  But I was shy, I struggled with anxiety and depression, and I was anything but “cool.”  I also had no interest in partying.  First of all, there was nothing I hated more than throwing up, and I didn’t get the appeal of getting so drunk you were ill and hungover the next day.  Nothing about that appealed to me.  I didn’t smoke at all because of my Aunt Julia, who had emphysema and looked like (as my mother would say) “death warmed over.”  I never even tried it.  As far as sex, well, my mother had told me if I ever had sex before marriage, she’d be able to tell, and I believed her.  On top of that, I was very naive, knew nothing about contraceptives, and therefore I would not have known how not to get pregnant.  So I was a goody-two-shoes all around.

I did have a couple of close friends in high school.  Some did party on the weekend and others did not.  I managed to survive high school without too much drama, but I always felt like the only one who didn’t fit in.

Music has been my lifelong therapy, in many forms.  Singing in the adult choir at church was a gift.  I did feel a part of that group, and it was a fun bunch of people.  I finally made it into the high school choir in my junior year.  Before that, I was so nervous at the auditions that my throat closed up and I blew it.  But my junior year I triumphed!

Mr. Snodgrass was the choir director at high school, and was very popular with the kids.  I adored him, but was much too shy to go anywhere near him or to hang out in the choir room during study hall like the cool kids did.  Choir was 7th period every day, and at the end of rehearsal, he always stopped about ten minutes or so before the bell rang.  He pulled up a stool and talked to us;  about life, relationships, God, and love.  He spoke much along the lines of Leo Buscaglia, encouraging us to appreciate the goodness of life.  To know that we were valuable, lovable human beings with a purpose.  He inspired us to Carpe Diem!  He told us to get out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves, to always seek to grow and love and serve.  I looked forward to 7th period every day and soaked up every word he said.  I ached to be able to just hang out in his office with the others, to be near him, and to soak up his positive presence. But when I passed him in the hallway, my mouth went dry.

In accordance with his own reaching-for-the-stars philosophy, he had us perform Carmina Burana by Carl Orff during my junior year.  None of it was in English but in German and Latin.  We were accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It was a daunting piece for an 80-member high school choir, but we worked hard.  It was an exhilarating experience!

I was so anxious all the time, however, still carrying my Maalox tablets and Donnatol.  For every concert we performed, I always made sure I could see my getaway behind the bleachers, just in case I needed to faint or throw up.  I needed assurance I’d be able to get out as discretely as possible.  Once we got singing, however, the anxiety was temporarily forgotten and I was caught up in the high of the music; the energy, the power, the heights of emotion.

During my senior year of high school, a new couple joined our adult choir at church.  Georgi was a soprano, so she sat next to me that first night when she and her partner Bruce showed up.  Georgi had a beautiful voice, and had been a choir director in her previous church before her divorce.  She was a tall, pretty woman with flaming red hair.  She and Bruce seemed very comfortable in their new surroundings, kidding and joking with all of us.  I’d heard that she taught piano and voice lessons in addition to her day job.

After a couple of months listening to her powerful soprano voice next to me each Thursday night and Sunday morning, I pleaded with my mother to pay for voice lessons.  I loved to sing.  I had no aspirations to sing any solos, but I wanted to improve my voice, to strengthen it.  I also wanted a chance to get to know Georgi.

Looking back, I was so hungry for closeness and love, for emotional intimacy, that I gravitated toward adults who seemed able to give it.  I felt so awkward and shy most of the time.  That and my depression kept me from seeing at the time that God seemed to bring many loving adults across my path to offer their own contributions to my unfolding story.  They loved me into myself.

I went to another parishioner’s house for my voice lessons since we didn’t have a piano.  My lessons with Georgi were another highlight of my week. Most of the time I asked my Mom to just drop me off rather than lend me the car so that Georgi could give me a lift home.

Georgi let me know early on that she didn’t believe in someone singing just for themselves.  “If you have a gift, God wants you to share it!” she assured me.  I didn’t want to do that, and at first she didn’t push it.  She patiently pulled my voice out of me.  She made me work hard, as if she knew there was more inside of me than I knew.

She gave me a ride home from my lessons, and when we arrived at my house, she’d turn off the car and we’d sit and talk for a while.  She introduced me to Amy Grant music, and other Contemporary Christian music.  More music to feed my soul, strengthen my spirit and give me the fuel to go on.   I found I could talk to her easily, there in the darkness of her car.  After a while, she’d lean over and kiss me on the cheek.

“C’mon, Peggy Sue, get out.  I gotta go home.  I love you,” she always said.  Sometimes it took a lot of prodding for her to get rid of me.  I drank up her presence and friendship and just wanted to be near her.

After a few months, she signed us up to sing duets in church.  I didn’t feel good enough to sing with her, but she gave me confidence.  Bruce would be there for our rehearsals and adjust the sound in the sanctuary for us.  Bruce was an odd partner for her, I always thought.  He was much older than her, a bit cantankerous and cynical.  But there were moments I got glimpses of the warm heart underneath the crusty exterior.

“Why don’t you like me?” I protested to Bruce once, pretending to kid, but really meaning it.  He teased me a lot and I knew he asked Georgi why she spent so much time with a 17 year-old girl.   I spent time hanging around their apartment on weekends, tagging along to flea markets with them, baking cookies with Georgi at her apartment, or just watching TV, hugging one of her stuffed dogs.

The question seemed to catch him off guard, and his face softened.  “I… um.. I like you!  I wouldn’t kid with you if I didn’t like you.  I’d just ignore you,” he chuckled self-consciously.  I hugged him.

After the Christmas holidays, Mr. Snodgrass announced the plans for the Spring Concert.  It would be a musical revue of various Broadway show tunes, that would conclude with several songs from Oklahoma!  There would be auditions for various parts.  Of course, there were always some students who got parts without having to audition, as they were experienced soloists.  And favorites. One of those was Andy, one of the most popular boys in our class and the class clown.  He would be Curley in Oklahoma!  The part of Laurey was up for auditions.

I happened to mention this to Georgi, with no intention of trying out.  I had tried out for solos before in school concerts and was once again stifled by my own anxiety.  It would be my last concert in high school, and I just wanted to enjoy singing with the group.

“Oh no, Peggy Sue, you’re going to try out for Laurey.”

“But….!”

“No arguing.  It’s time to try for something big.  You can do it.  I’ll help you,” and the discussion was closed.

The audition piece was People Will Say We’re in Love.  She and I worked on it for weeks.  She helped me to imagine doing it in character, to add inflections and emotion.  I thought she was wasting her time, but she believed I could do it.  I didn’t want to let her down, but everything in me said there was absolutely no way I’d win the part over the top four sopranos in the choir.  All of them were very experienced at solos, and this was a coveted part.  It was also the last high school concert for all of us before graduation.

Georgi and I rehearsed at the church the night before the auditions at school.  When she was satisfied that I was ready, she drove me home.  I was already shaking and feeling nauseous.  I didn’t want to leave her car.

“Peggy Sue, I gotta go home.  You need to go get some rest.  You can do this.  I know you can.  I’ll be praying for you, now get out,” she said playfully, leaning in to kiss my cheek.  When I got out, I stood in the driveway as she started to drive off.

She rolled down the window.  “I love you, Peggy Sue.  I’ll see you tomorrow night at choir.  I don’t want you telling me you didn’t get it!”  And with that, she rolled up her window and drove away.

What??  I stood alone in the driveway for a while, looking off into the night.  There was a lake across from our house where the geese always landed and gathered.  It was peaceful and beautiful.  I looked at the water in the moonlight.  How would I face Georgi if I didn’t get the part?  At the time I kept telling myself there was no way at all that I’d get it.  How would I look at her tomorrow night?

I went to my room, took Donnatol, chewed up some Maalox tablets, drank Chamomile tea and paced my room.  I tried going to bed but every muscle in my body was tensed.  My heart was pounding and I was out of breath.  I could not sleep.

The next day, I went to school after taking another Donnatol and chewing more Maalox pills.  I ate only dry toast for breakfast as my stomach was doing flip-flops.  My anxiety level was at an all time high.  The auditions were 7th period so I had all day to worry.  Which I did.  During study hall in 2nd period, a friend of mine suggested I go to the choir room and practice with Mr. Snodgrass.  Maybe that would help.  So I did.  Several popular kids were hanging out there, some rehearsing, some just being social.  I shyly asked Mr. Snodgrass if we could rehearse.

Debbie, who ranked 2nd in our section of 20 sopranos, looked on.  She was fairly certain she’d get the part, someone else told me.  I tried not to look at her as “Snod” played the introduction to the song.

I sang, trying so hard to tune out everyone in the room.  I imagined Georgi sitting in a corner.  I tried to shut out the voices that asked how I dared to reach beyond my place.

When I was done, Mr Snodgrass smiled.  “Good job, Sue, I don’t think you need to go over it again, you know it!”  I smiled shyly, hoping he was being sincere.  I glanced over at Debbie, and I couldn’t read her face.

But before I looked away and hurried out of the room, she said to me, “Hey.  I didn’t know you could sing like that. Good job.”  I nodded.  I was shaking too much to open my mouth.

But I smiled on my way back to class.

Still, when 7th period came I hadn’t eaten all day and I still thought I was going to have to run to the bathroom.  The entire 80 member choir was present for the auditions, huddled in cliques and chatting in corners.  There were five of us auditioning– as predicted, the other four were the top four sopranos in the choir.  All soloists.  All confidant.

And then there was shy, trembling, nauseous, heart-pounding me.  I could not go to church choir that night if I didn’t get the part, I’d already decided.

After each singing some phrases from the song more than once, it was down to Debbie and me.  “I want you each to do it in character.  Be Laurey.  Use expression in your singing, imagine yourself in the role.”  Debbie went first.  She was very good.  It was my turn.  I thought of Georgi, pictured her face and how she coached me to express myself in the song.  Don’t come to choir tomorrow and tell me you didn’t get the part.  

I did my best.

Mr. Snodgrass leaned back a little on his stool and looked at us, his hand holding his chin.  He looked at each of us, back and forth, for what seemed eons.

“Sue.”  There was a mixture of clapping and boos.  I heard later that Debbie’s popular friends Mr. Snodgrass gave it to me out of pity.  I thought they were right.  But still. I got it.  I concentrated on keeping my knees from giving out and walking out of the room with my friends, who congratulated me and gave me hugs.

That night, Georgi was at practice early, sitting in her usual seat.  As I watched the back of her head, I savored the moment.  She turned around and saw me, looked at me expectantly.  I smiled and nodded.

She let out a sigh and jumped up and hugged me.  “Oh, thank God!  I felt so bad telling you not to come and tell me you didn’t get it!  I worried about you all day!”  She laughed and hugged me again.  I don’t think I sang much that night, I just savored the feeling.

On the night of the concert, I thought I was going to die.  I had to get through most of the concert before the Oklahoma! segment came up.  I’d taken my pills and was pacing back and forth backstage, looking around for my escape routes if needed.  I kept swallowing so I wouldn’t throw up.  My throat stuck together and I wanted a drink of water so badly, but it was getting close to the moment when I had to sing the opening lines to Oh, What a Beautiful Morning  before bursting through the front door of the makeshift stage house.

I was inside the little house, which was open in the back, pacing the tiny space.  Andy, who I sat next to in Honors English and who never gave me the time of day normally, approached me.  “Hey, you’re going to be fine.”  He took my hands in both of his.  “Just breathe!  You’re going to be great.  And when we sing People… just hold onto my hands and look me in the eye. Forget about the audience.”  He let go of my hands and nodded.  The opening notes of the song played in the distance.  I took a deep breath, and belted the words out…

First line, out onto the stage.  Curtain closed.  Pause.  Time for our duet.  The curtain opened, and Andy was holding my hands again.  We sang.  It wasn’t worthy of Carnegie Hall, but I did it.  I got the song out.  My voice was shaky, but I got through it.  By the time of the closing reprise of Oklahoma! with the whole group, I was breathless, exhilarated, and so glad it was over.

Offstage, Mr. Snodgrass pulled me into a hug.  “You did it!  You stepped out of your comfort zone and you did it!  I’m so proud of you!”  My face burned with both shyness and delight.

In the hallway, I found Georgi and Bruce with my parents.  Georgi had roses in her hands and her face looked like she’d been crying.  “You did it, Peggy Sue!  You did it!  I’m so proud of you!”  She pulled me into a bear hug before giving me the roses and squeezed me tight.  “I love you, kiddo!” she said into my neck.

“You did alright,” Bruce said, giving me an awkward hug.

Georgi and I sang many more duets in church and sang at my brother Stan’s wedding just weeks after the concert.  My voice gained in confidence with each performance and got stronger each time.  I savored those moments with Georgi, singing next to her.  She believed in me.  She thought I had a gift.  She loved me.  She wanted me around.

Andy and I didn’t become friends but went back to our separate school lives with no evidence of sharing a moment onstage.  At graduation, Mr. Snodgrass hugged me and told me again that I’d done something big that spring.  “You wanted something, you didn’t give up and you reached for it.  Don’t forget that.  I’m proud of you.”  I carried those words with me for a long time into the future.

Sandie and her family came down from New York for my graduation and stayed the weekend.  Ed drove down from Freehold after church to be there.  I couldn’t believe either of them had gone so much out of their ways to be there for me.  They made an effort.  Ed had to leave right after preaching that morning, on Father’s Day, to be there for my graduation.   Sandie made a big fuss over me all weekend.  At graduation, each time they called my name– once for a Spanish award, once for a scholarship through the AAUW, and finally for my diploma– Sandie stood up and screamed from the bleachers, “Yay, Peggy Sue!” and pumped her fists in the air.  Georgi and Bruce sat with her and Chet and the kids.  Back at the house afterward, all of my favorite people got to know each other.  They’d all heard about each other through me.

It was a very good day.

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