Bubble

Long ago, before I got all fancy and went to graduate school, I never missed open mic night. It was at a gay bar on Halsted Street in Chicago, a bar that has changed names several times. I learned more there than I can express. These open mics were (are) state of the art as far as I'm concerned. There were two in Chicago then, hosted by well-loved and talented pianists who hosted the evening with grace and humor, and enforced a surprisingly high level of courtesy and respect in the room. They are still going on today.

Open mic night was frequented by a lot of us in various stages of aspiration and success. The talent level was pretty high, partly because this is a piano open mike, and we had a lot of trained theater singers and actors. I loved singing and making it all about me and showing off my new songs, and all that. But I loved listening too. I learned so much, and I was surprised by who I learned from.

Jacob rarely missed a Tuesday open mic. I didn't get much in the way of personal conversation with him but I thought he might have had some kind of "developmental delay" or something. He was childlike. Jacob was not a good singer, and while there are many ways to sing badly, his bad singing was common; he did not hear pitches well, and so he sang off-key.

There seem to be two kinds of singers in the world. Those who are off-key and don't know it, and those who are basically fine. Guess who worries more about it? From a physiological point of view, this makes sense. Being able to hear and sing pitches is about memory. Some of us hear pitches and remember them forever, and some of us hear a pitch and can't remember it long enough for our vocal folds to make that pitch. Some in that latter category are probably not even distinguishing among the pitches when they hear them, in the same way that more musical people do.

The singer who is singing away with all his heart, not knowing that he sounds dreadful, is iconic. It's a person with a "kick me" sign on his back, it's the cheated-on but unsuspecting spouse, the emperor with no clothes. We love to watch that guy, because then we know we aren't that guy. We're in the know, and he isn't, and we add "make sure I'm on key" to our list of ways to make sure we never look foolish.

Jacob looked foolish, and this was long before "American Idol" or Youtube. We had to catch foolishness live back then, and it was more memorable. Jacob was serious about his singing and performing and you could tell he worked hard at it. I am always proud of us, the community, when I remember Jacob, because he was treated kindly in our open mic. People laughed at him and talked about him behind his back, but he had his two songs like everyone else and he sang them to a reasonably quiet and respectful room.

I knew I was supposed to pity Jacob, but I didn't. Jacob was a bad singer, but he didn't know it and he never will, because Jacob had a bubble. When people were less than complimentary, or got sloppy and let him see their giggles and their rolled eyes, he didn't see them. Obviously Jacob's affliction - he can't hear pitches well enough to know he doesn't sound good - is also his bubble. He literally cannot hear how bad he sounds. What was my excuse?

Oh heck yeah. When I was in my thirties, I had a bubble too. It wasn't as strong as Jacob's, and at the time I didn't think I had one. I just thought I was very good at singing, and that other people sometimes weren't as good, and that occasionally people were better. So I'm looking back ten years later, and putting myself on the inside of that bubble, and remembering what it felt like.

I was always concerned with who was "good" at singing. There were three categories back then. "Not as good as I am", "about as good as I am," and "better than I am." I gave myself a little more latitude to judge singers who were just plain different - men, usually - and I remember them more as individuals with different gifts. But looking back I cringe at how black and white I was in my judgments, and how self-focused.

There were people who I didn't think were great singers but they were puzzling. They weren't brassy and belty and loud, like I like to be. Many were women with voices that seemed softer, and I pitied them, that they apparently couldn't summon an ear-splitting high note when they needed one. One was a girl-next-door type, a pretty but genuine girl who didn't get highlights or wear tons of makeup and everybody thought she was "really sweet." I liked her, you couldn't not like her, but I didn't think she was a great singer because... well, she didn't sing like I sang.

Apparently that was what passed for discernment for me back then.

I ran into this young woman and she was harried and busy and she said she was singing at her 10th wedding, and some were people she hardly knew, and it was only June; there were many more to go. I was surprised. I sang at weddings now and then, but usually it was close friends who asked. I felt jealous immediately, because I felt jealous a lot back then. Jealousy is incredibly illuminating and useful, by the way, and that's another conversation. Anyway, I scratched my head. Why did so many more people, apparently, like her voice than mine? I was a professional, I gigged, I wrote songs, I was funny, I could belt a B, what was up with that?

I had a bubble, and I think on the inside it was mirrored, and all I saw was myself and how I sang, and that seemed like all there was in the world. Fortunately for me, God allowed me to see out of my bubble. I started to notice others like this woman whose beauty was not turned up to 11, but had a persistent warmth and glow that could not be ignored. Even by me.

Because I started seeing out of my bubble, I finally started thinking that I'd like to get better as a singer. No, that's really not true. After I abused it, my voice started to feel tense and sore, and I wanted to make it stronger because I couldn't live without singing and the accolades it brought.

Hmm. Turns out I can live without it. That, too, is another conversation.

I started trying to go to graduate school. I could hardly fit my bubble through the door, but when I did, the teachers lined up with big giant straight pins and popped it. Over and over.

It sucked. It hurt. It hurt too much, because I needed my bubble too much, because I needed being a "good singer" too much to make up for all the parts of me that I thought were bad. But the only reason they were able to pop my bubble is because I was willing to let them, and deep down I think I wanted out.

I see bubble, now, in others (and I'm not sure I'm completely rid of my own, either). It usually goes with not just bad singing, but bad behavior. What I mean by "bubble," in essence, is being unable or unwilling to hear anything negative about our abilities. Staying naive or untrained, because we know more than experts, and we think training might take away our identity.

Nobody takes your identity unless you give it to them, and we usually don't give it away, anyway. We sell it, like Esau sold his birthright, in a moment of greed or pride or some other hunger. I could be a work-in-progress, willing to learn - but I'm starving for validation. So I'm going to sell that version of myself and instead we'll decide that I'm a star, but no one understands me. I'm a raw, native talent, and I don't need training. I'm an American original, and the rules of music or vocal health don't apply to me.

It starts out as a good idea, doesn't it? We don't need negativity, we say. We're going to think positive and only allow "safe" people into our dream. I agree. Dreams and hopes and aspirations should be God-sized and kept in a safe place. But then there are people who don't think we're stars. People who don't do things our way, but are successful. Sometimes people offer criticism, and it's mean; sometimes people offer comments meant to help. It's hard to sort it out and sometimes it all hurts. So we start actively screening out all things negative, all things that don't support every choice 100%, and then we don't have any objective criteria to know how we're doing. Except ourselves.

We start being ruled by rank - who's better? who is worse? than me - then we've got bubble. Bubble is safe. Bubble lets the hurtful things bounce off. Well, the hurtful things done to us, anyway; bubble lets me hurt others while staying safe.

Ever since I knew Jacob, and especially during the hard hard years of graduate school, I wished I could just have a little bit of my bubble back. I wished for a magic shield that only let the helpful comments through. A smart shield that knew who was right and who was full of it.

I didn't get that, and obviously I needed to develop discernment on my own, and it's been hard. The horror and shame that I felt (feel) about those years is still fresh. I was Jacob, only worse. I was up on stage showing not my talented, polished self, but a loud, sad, angry woman who really needed to be better than you, and really needed you to know it. Cringecringecringe

I miss my bubble sometimes because I have no choice but to hear everything, from the well-phrased constructive comment to the assassin who insists that I don't have a "solo voice." But without the bubble I've had to grow like crazy. I've considered every comment and suggestion and cut. I can't help it. I don't want to be Jacob. I'm working on the weaknesses of my singing, or my character, when the comments are true, and I'm contemplating the weaknesses of my heart when the comments are false, and I am still trying to figure out the magic shield that will help me know the difference.

The thing about bubble is, it looks like protection from the outside, but like so many safe places, it turns into a prison.

Next: Spot the Bubble

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