Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Beauty of the Background

Photo Credit: Into the Blue - created by planetshu

We live in a society that is obsessed with fame and recognition. People work so hard to be front and center. -- to be seen and noticed. To feel like they matter. That they have accomplished something significant. That they will be remembered when they're gone.

We celebrate great talent. We admire top atheletes, musicians, actors and singers. We watch reality shows that wittle down the best to the very best of the best and then we hold them aloft as demi-gods of art.

But what happens when you're not a star and you're not front and center. What if you are not even among the "best." What if you are merely "talented," but not "extremely gifted." What then?  Is there even a place for someone who is good, but maybe not great?

These are questions I've wrestled with my entire life -- in many areas, but most of all, with singing.

There has never been a time in my life that I cannot remember singing. One of my first clear memories was singing along with Sesame Street in our little house in Pasadena, CA. My most prized possession at age five was a Donny and Marie (Osmond) record player that I would sit in front and play with for hours at a time. Music was a living breathing thing to me. It was my language. I understood it. I felt it understood me.

As a preacher's kid, there were many opportunities to sing. Every Sunday, Wednesday night and special services heralded the "song service" which started out being mostly hymns with a few choruses, and gradually edging out the hymns to more contemporary sounding songs. I loved it all. I couldn't wait for "Family Song Night" when my dad would ask people to call out their favorite page number in the hymnal and we'd all sing the song together. I learned so much about timing, pitch, phrasing and harmonies -- really through osmosis.

Road trips weren't fun unless my parents popped an 8-track into our station wagon, and the ride home on the school bus was barely tolerable unless the driver heeded our cries to "turn on the radio" so we could sing "I Love Rock n' Roll" at the top of our lungs (which, by the way was expressly forbidden by our parents at home.) Music was something I shared with others. But it was also just for me.

One of my first performances that I can remember was around age seven or so. I sang a duet with my mom for some women's meeting. She played the guitar and sang that great haunting 70's Jesus Movement song, I Wish We'd All Been Ready. I got to sing harmony and I might have sang a phrase or two in the verses. But I mostly remember singing sorrowfully, "there's no time to change your mind...the Son has come, and you've been left behind."

I loved the feeling I had when I would pitch my voice to compliment my mother's. I felt free and uninhibited. It felt as natural as breathing. The other women in the room smiled and nodded along. After we were done, they showered me with their kudos and wondered over my ability to grasp the harmony part at my young age. I was hooked.

I continued to sing -- every day, all the time. To myself. In the car. Occasionally in church. Anyone out there remember "The Special" that evangelical churches often had in the 80s/90s? It was my sincere wish to one day be allowed to sing one. I was on top of the world.

Until Heather moved to town.

More precisely...started attending our church. I can almost fully insert myself into the moment that I first heard her sing that first note. We were messing around doing something and all of a sudden, she let loose with this jaw-droppingly gorgeous, mature, wide-ranged voice. And I knew....my ability paled in comparison. There was no denying. She was the best vocalist I had ever heard (she was 12) and maybe still one of the best I've ever heard throughout the rest of my life.

I had a crisis of vocality. Suddenly what had been fun and natural felt old, tired, weak....and lame. I still loved singing, but being confronted with my obvious lack of skill and ability stung. Several of us signed up for the regional talent competiton through our church denomination. Those who placed highest would go to nationals later that summer. I carefully selected a song that I believed would best showcase what I could do.  But, when I heard Heather's selection, I was blown away. It was a little known song (to me) called, The Perfect Rose by Dottie Rambo. Granted, I'd heard her rehearse it a ton of times (a bit jealously because she did it so effortlessly and with such power), but I was blown away just like everyone else when she performed it at the competition. She received a thunderous standing ovation (and rightly so) and received her 'Superior' rating and a trip to nationals.

The funny thing is that my rendition of Shepherd of My Heart by Sandi Patti earned me an 'Excellent' -- something that I didn't exactly scorn, but didn't heartily embrace either. I was too focused on what I didn't have, then what I did.

This was the start of my "career" as a background vocalist. Although I did continue to sing in the choir and yes, even the "Sunday special" every now and then, I lost my confidence. The next nail in the coffin was trying out for a well-known traveling singing group and not making it. So, I stayed in the choir and I performed a solo here and there. I sang them well and pleasantly -- but I never felt like I was that good.

I tried out for the elite singing group at college and was invited to sing....you guessed it, in the choir. I figured it was time to face the fact that I didn't really have what it took after all. I wasn't anything that special. I accepted it.

Then came the "worship team" -- in conjunction with and later, in place of the traditional choir. An small ensemble of singers would back up the worship leader, forming a band of sorts. It was heaven. The songs were contemporary and so filled with passion and God's spirit. My love of singing harmony and ability to mimic various singers and styles came into play. I was a worship leader's dream backup singer. I could sing alto. I could sing soprano. I could find both parts easily and without help. I could anticipate where he/she was going to go with the song.

There were also opportunities for us BGVs to lead a song from time to time. However, once again, I was surrounded by stellar talent. Singers that were invited to travel with renowned singing groups.Singers that made it into elite singing groups. And rightly so.

Have you ever stood there agape at the raw talent that some people possess? You literally cannot get over how effortlessly it seems to flow.  I felt like I was on an island of average surrounded by oceans of greatness. Yes, I would be given a song to lead now and then. My family would tell me that I did a good job. But, I never really believed them. I knew better.

But, then something happened. I'm not sure that I can pinpoint it's origion. I stopped yearning for the gift that someone else had. I just sang -- because I loved it. And because I loved the One I was singing about. And that was really all that mattered at this point...30+ years later.

And tonight, after leading a song that expresses all the passion I feel for God and for the ability to honor him with my voice, I realized something.

All those years of feeling mediocre...just average really...were good for me. I have learned so much from all the great talent that I have been blessed to be surrounded by over all these years. The phrasing I sang tonight was inspired by Suzanne. The ad lib at the end of a chorus was from Kevin. The passion that came through my voice came from Sarah.

I wouldn't be the singer I am today at age 37 without all the inspiration I've been able to listen and learn from. I'm evolving as an "artist." I'm no prodigy. But, for me, I kinda like it this way. I've had to work hard for what I have -- practicing, singing on my own in the privacy of my shower and really -- just singing and singing and singing.

Being in the background has been good for me -- in more ways than just singing. It's helped me develop my character. To learn not to quit even when I don't feel like I measure up. And to take that and turn it into a drive to be better.

How many times in our lives have we been tempted to give up on something we thoroughly enjoy -- yes even love -- just because we weren't "The Best," and yes, maybe just "average." And, what does that even matter anyway? If you love it...if it's in your blood, then you should do it. Maybe you need the discipline and practice to get better. And, yes, maybe you'll always be average -- a solid talent -- neither great nor terrible. But, I don't really think that's the issue. It's the character building that we experience when we push through our comparisons of others and the value we place upon ourselves when we rank ourselves in that mix.

After all these years, I'm fine with singing backup vocals. I'm fine with leading a song and performing a solo. I'm happy just singing to myself and to God when I'm out watering in the gardening. And, actually I am finding that I actually enjoy the latter the most.

I just want to sing -- wherever and whenever. For the pure enjoyment of it. I've come full circle really.

Let's face it. Most of us will never be the one in the forefront. Prodigies are few and far between. However, I believe that true greatness is found in our attitude and enjoyment of the reality of our talent -- instead of yearning for that spotlight or for a gifting that belongs to someone else.

For me, the lyrics of His Eye is On the Sparrow have never rung more true:
I sing because I'm happy,
I sing because I'm free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know He watches me.
And for me, at long last, that's more than enough.