I want to sing

Periodically through my life, I have secretly wanted to sing. By that, I mean, really sing, as in not holding back, and doing it in the presence of other people, and longer than just a few seconds.

The funny thing is, when I was a child, I un-self-consciously sang all the time. I remember singing when I was three years old, singing along to TV commercials and sing-along books. My parents sang to me. That was my first experience of music. The famous Julie Andrews movie “The Sound of Music” has always been special to me (despite encountering a surprising amount of mockery of it later in life) because when I was three, and my parents watched in TV, they sang along and I did too, do-re-mi. I was so captivated that I even recorded it off the TV on audio cassette at that early age (and still have it, but it’s been years since it was playable).

So what happened? Why did I stop singing with other people around? Why did I even start feeling embarrassed singing just to myself? And what now?

Childhood and adolescence

I still have audio cassettes of myself singing at age ten, along with my younger sister. As late as ten I was still singing. Stealing tunes from TV or radio or just making stuff up. We also had old books of traditional American songs from library or garage sales that we’d flip through and try to sight read.

It was when I hit puberty that everything changed, and I clammed up. My voice was funny. I didn’t like talking or singing any more. Worse, I became aware of many things, such as who was “good” at singing, sports, math, or whatever. Life became very painful. The easy way out was that if I felt I was inferior at something, I would choose not to do it.

In the sixth grade, I took a required music class taught by Ms. Gates, whom I didn’t like at all. She was mean. I didn’t like her or our assignments. So I didn’t do my homework, and was about to flunk when my parents were called in. (My entire adolescence was a nightmare for my parents, who also had to deal with my almost flunking out of life science, starting to use four-letter words at home, growing my hair long and combing it funny, starting every argument with “this is a free country”, etc.) I made up the work, but with nothing other than resentment.

One thing I really hated about music class was being made to sing. Before ever taking a music class, I liked singing. Taking the music class made me hate singing. I felt like I was being judged, and I especially hated singing stuff I didn’t like at all. I eventually figured out that I could just lip-sync and pretend to sing and get by.

So after middle school, I went silent.

High school

Actually, in high school I secretly started singing again, but just to myself. Bizarrely, I found a loophole in my self-imposed silence. I was taking French and somehow discovered the light operetta music of Jacques Offenbach, who is famous for the can-can. I became utterly obsessed with his catchy music, and found by accident that although in non-singing life I was painfully self-conscious about pronouncing French, when I sang I was happy to speak French, so it was a good way to learn and practice French! Also, I found by accident that although I was no longer willing to sing anything in English, if I sang in French, that was a “different” activity and OK. Very strange, but in my own room, I was completely OK with singing French operetta to myself. It was as though I was not the one singing and making a fool of himself, but someone else, some French character. I would get into character and feel free of constraints (as long as I was alone).

I especially liked Offenbach’s “La Belle Hélène” and memorized entire arias of the shepherd-disguised Paris. More generally, I was happy to sing random French songs I came across, such as “Je te Veux”. More generally, sentimental waltzes were my favorite discoveries during my melancholy high school years.

College and beyond

In college, I discovered the entire classical music world. (Some of the story was told in my post about flute.

As far as singing was concerned: I made a new friend who was into all things German (literature, music), and listened to songs (Lieder) by Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, and others. I got into reading some stuff in translation and listening to instrumental music, but the language barrier prevented me from really enjoying listening to the songs. Eventually I took German to help me out, and so I finally started to sing along to Schubert, in particular.

Later I learned Italian as well, primarily to sing.

But all this in private.

Recent years

In recent years, I’ve started singing a little bit in other people’s presence. I think it all began because I got an office mate at work some years ago. Since it is actually my habit to hum or sing to myself every day, it was hard to contain myself in his presence. Eventually I hit upon a way to be OK with singing a little bit around him: if I sang in an parodistic way or substituted silly lyrics in place of the real lyrics, I would lose some of my self-consciousness.

Unfortunately, this has also been true at home, where I sing some of this nonsense to Abby, who is sometimes annoyed by how silly or disgusting the made-up lyrics are.


I have a plan. It is time to sing for real, without fear or embarrassment. Playing recorder (and now flute as well) this year has been a breakthrough for me, musically and physically. I feel that playing wind instruments has given me more confidence to sing with my own voice, and that singing to myself has been good for my instrumental play as well.

I told Abby that I would like for us to sing together. And I would like to sing for real in front of my office mate also, not just “sing” nonsense. And somehow I should find an outlet for singing even more publicly.

To do all that, I need to start learning and relearning lyrics. I have a rather poor memory for lyrics. That’s another reason I don’t sing out of the context of following some score on the computer or from a book. I don’t know exactly how to fix this problem, but maybe it’s just a matter of practice. I have started to make a list of songs whose melodies I know, but whose lyrics I don’t, so that I can start filling in the gaps.


Singing is too fun to be just outsourced to the professionals. It must become a real part of my life, not a secret part of it.

Recently I came across this passionate little speech by Brian Eno about the importance of singing. It inspired me to make a plan and write this blog post. May we all go forth and sing!

(Update of 2012-11-17)

Almost exactly a year later, I have made progress in getting up the courage to really start singing!

comments powered by Disqus