"I used to sing"

"I used to sing"

Mark Wilkinson
In a pandemic-ridden world, this is my call for kindness, patience, and compassion. It all begins with schmoozing.

Schmoozing is a funny word. It brings up endless memories for singers of hobnobbing at parties, receiving the congratulations of audience members after performances, and the thought of quite possibly ingratiating oneself with a rich patron (and fellow singers know I’m only half-joking).

It also brings up a dreaded moment for many. It’s that moment when someone with a degree in singing finds themselves in front of a singer-colleague and utters that humbling phrase: “Oh, I used to sing.”

It happens for a number of reasons: building a family took precedence; a long-standing health issue; a natural saturation point within a sea of fantastic singers; an even deeper passion elsewhere was found; a misalignment with one’s personality; or, more importantly, something that’s none of my business.

Those all sound like reasonable, healthy reasons to pursue things outside of music (yes, dear colleagues, there’s a whole world out there). So why, then, is that phrase so darn hard to say aloud?

It’s because, whether we like it or not, we feel like the colleague looking back at us might be thinking,

“Ah, you just weren’t good enough, eh?”

(Side note: the only reason we think a colleague would say that is because we’ve heard colleagues say it. Or, even worse, we’ve said it. Can we all agree to stop that and be kinder to each other? Cool. Thanks.)

The only thing people will remember about you is how you treated them, how you made them feel.

It’s a hang-up from our time spent with non-musicians and non-actors. When Joe Public finds out you act and sing, one of their first questions is, “Oh, would we have seen you in anything?”

This is the age-old question that stems from our society’s belief that success must be grand, tangible, and attached to extensive visibility. In no way does it take into account personal success, triumph over hardship, or the sheer fact that some of the happiest singers I’ve met are the ones who “only” sing in their church choir.

So, we unwittingly begin to judge our voices by our external success and our human worth by our voices. It’s a vicious cycle that affects many performing artists, and SARS-CoV-2 is only going to exacerbate it if we’re not mindful. This pandemic may force us all, in one big voice (pun intended), to say:

“Oh, we used to sing.”

Depending on your definition of success and how you measure your worth, we may, none of us, be singers for at least another two years. Until then, the gigs will be few and far between, only allowing a certain number of household names to present the occasional virtual recital. We all know about the opera houses closing and the orchestra seasons dwindling long before the pandemic. This won’t make matters any easier.

Who are you when you aren’t singing?

My plea to you, my friends, is to be gentle with yourselves and your self-worth. You may feel like you are becoming the person who used to perform. Whether it’s because you found another passion or because of the pandemic, we will always be colleagues.

That’s because the only thing we’ve ever been and will ever be is ourselves. The only thing people will remember about you is how you treated them, how you made them feel. Knowing how magnificent you ridiculously talented people are, I will also remember your beautiful voices, of course. The point is that you don’t have to sing with Chicago Lyric or the Toronto Symphony to be worthwhile as artists. If you value your artistry, no one [and no pandemic] can take that away from you.

Just as I hope you didn’t judge our colleague with whom you were schmoozing at the beginning of our conversation, I hope you won’t judge yourself if you are currently making ends meet as someone’s administrative assistant. I’ll be blunt: this pandemic sucks. You, however, are amazing.

I’ll start to sign off with a final question for you to ponder. Who are you when you aren’t singing?

No matter your answer, I hope you will find self-worth not from the sound of your or anyone else’s voice, but from the way you treat people, the way you say thank you, the way you check in with a friend who might be struggling, or the way you apologize when you’re wrong.

I don’t care if you used to sing; I care that you care about others and, yes, yourself.

We’ll schmooze again in person… one day. I just know it.

Be well. xo

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