With Paul, On the Road to Damascus

This story is true. It is offered to voice teachers in the hopes that it may help them. If the title offends, skip it, but read the story anyway.  It isn’t a religious story, but it is a deeply spiritual one. The title just had to be, because the story asked me to call it that. It is a story of a teacher and a student…or perhaps, of a student and a teacher. It is called:

With Paul, On the Road to Damascus

It was to be a working vacation. I arrived at a rustic hot spring resort in the middle of nowhere tired, stressed, angry, and fearful. Tired, because I had worked straight through from Thanksgiving to New Year’s without a break. Stressed, because my work never leaves me — there’s always more to do — and I’ve never made less money in my life. Angry, because I felt misunderstood and disrespected by someone I myself respect deeply. Fearful, because in my clearest, most honest moments, I was terrified that the not-for-profit school I had founded would not survive – a victim of the recession, singers’ own terror at the screaming of their Inner Critic telling them how unworthy they were, and the enormous change facing everyone, everywhere, but especially in the arts. Fearful too, because if the school failed, and if I somehow couldn’t teach voice until the day I drop dead, I really didn’t know what else I’d do.  I am a voice teacher, and this is all I do. If I couldn’t teach voice, I’d starve.

Yes indeed, I was having a real pity party, going down fast.

It was freezing outside, but I went to the rock-lined pool of mineral water around 9:00 pm. I was alone under a canopy of magnificence – stars, planets, meteors, and a full moon rising on the horizon, barely visible through the tall grass surrounding the pool. My thoughts drifted, and I was enjoying the serenity.

There are some experiences that one cannot put a price on. This was one of them! How could it be that there weren’t people lined up for this pool, like at Disneyland or a Vegas show? Disneyland and Vegas make lots of money but this little hot spring resort was empty. Are the owners suffering too? Never mind, I was just really glad to be here – ALONE!

A high and melodious male voice spoke through the darkness. “Good evening, Ma’am! Will it bother you if I join you?” What appeared to be a mountain man with a long beard appeared at the side of the pool. Irritated at being interrupted, I of course lied, and said “No problem…come on in!”

The mountain man began some chit-chat about the beauty of the stars, asking where I was from, and what I did. “From Portland, and I’m a voice teacher” I said. “No kidding!” he said.

Mountain Man:  “What do you think about American Idol?”

Me:  “Hate it.”

Mountain Man: “Me too. But why do you hate it?

Me: “Because it demeans what is sacred.”

Lots of silence, while he pondered my answer.

Mountain Man: “Do the big name singers just have it? I mean, do they just sing that way from the beginning? If so, why do so many of them have such unhappy lives and get themselves so screwed up?”

Me: “I suspect its because they lose sight of who they really are, and why they ever sang in the first place.  They start morphing to please, and pretty soon they’ve lost themselves to a business that eats them up and spits them out.”

Mountain Man: “Could I ask you a very, very important question? I’ve actually waited my entire life to find someone to answer these questions. I’m not bothering you, am I?”

Me: “Of course you can ask, and no you’re not bothering me.” I noticed that I was speaking truthfully. I was really enjoying this conversation, and was starting to feel much better!

Mountain Man: “Can anybody who loves music sing? Do some people just have ugly voices, like a curse or something? I mean, if I really tried, could I learn to at least not be laughed at?”

I was stunned at the implication of his words, but I gave him my usual answers:  anyone can sing at least decently, but one must be willing to face down one’s fear of shaming; one has to face one’s stuff and learn to breathe consciously, all the while feeling the fear, etc. etc.

What seemed like several hours of conversation ensued, as we went deeper into these subjects. He got everything I offered, and asked deep and intelligent questions. Finally, he got around to his story.

When he was seven, he was singing in the shower, and when he got out, his mother was laughing at him and told him his voice was ugly and didn’t he know he should never, ever sing. A year later, undaunted, he attempted to sing in his parochial school’s choir. The nun stopped the choir, singling him out, and told him he couldn’t sing so he should just go sit in the corner while everyone else made music. As a teenager, still undaunted, he joined a friend’s band for an evening. When he started to sing, his friend laughed and told him he was singing in the wrong octave.

Now that one really peaked my interest! The wrong octave? Then it occurred to me that this man’s speaking voice was very high, and he was probably singing in his natural range, or perhaps in his head voice, an octave higher than his friend, who potentially could have been a baritone or bass. I shared this with the Mountain Man, telling him that possibly there was nothing wrong other than he and his friend had different voice types, and that voice types were hard-wired by physiology.

Mountain Man: “Oh God, don’t tell me my voice is high. I HATE MY HIGH VOICE. Now you’ve really got to it! I sound like a woman, for God’s sake. Once someone called the house and when I answered, they thought I was my mother.”

Me:  “Really. Did your mother smoke?”

Lots of silence here.

Mountain Man: “Yes, her entire life. Her voice was lower than mine.”

Me: “Did it ever occur to you that your mother was the one with the problem, having artificially lowered and in fact destroyed her voice by smoking? That you don’t sound like a woman at all? Are you aware that our entire culture seems to worship artificially low voices as some sort of power trip? Do you know that Hispanic culture is the opposite, where the men are practically competing with each other for who has the highest voice, as a sign of their masculinity? This is completely a cultural issue! From my perspective, as a voice teacher, I’d say your voice is melodious, beautiful, authentic and very male sounding. There’s nothing wrong with you at all! From the beauty of your speaking voice, I can practically guarantee that you could sing – just turn your speaking voice into singing by sustaining it with your breath! I repeat – there’s nothing wrong with you — except, perhaps, you’ve been surrounded by damaged, mean, or ignorant people.”

Several minutes went by, while we both absorbed the silence, and continued gazing at the night sky.

Mountain Man: “OK, damn it. I’m going to study voice. How would I find a voice teacher? What do I look for? You guys are in Portland, and I live in Coos Bay.”

Me: “What a great question! Number one:  never study with someone who doesn’t think you’re terrific, who doesn’t know you can do it, and who doesn’t really, really enjoy teaching.  Number two: look for a teacher who will teach you solid skills, but who will also encourage you constantly. Nothing else matters!”

A good five minutes went by.

Mountain Man: “I’m going to have to go, but I need to tell you something.  Tonight, you saved my life. I’m not the same person. Somehow, I’m feeling more confident and alive. I’ve found my voice, and I think I’m going to try to stop being ashamed and frightened. If I’ve found my voice I can do anything. I’m going to try to sing, and I’m going to do it because I want to. Thank you so much because honestly I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again.”

Me (tearing up): “Thank you so much for telling me that.”

I was feeling terrific, awestruck, all of my doom and gloom banished into the void. It was beginning to dawn on me what had occurred. Every word spoken had been for my own healing.

Me: “What is your name, and what do you do?”

Mountain Man: “My name is Paul, and I’m a caregiver.”

Yes indeed, for I too had reclaimed my voice and my true purpose.  Paul the Mountain Man/Caregiver then left.

There was one last conversation I needed to have.

I gazed up at the night sky, sobbing, not with grief or sadness, but in awe. Left to myself in the hot spring pool, I confessed to the Great Mystery that pity-partying me had finally gotten it.  I gave thanks for the teacher’s appearance when the student was obviously ready.  I gave thanks for the work, and the incredible honor it is to do that work, which is about saving lives – my own, perhaps, even more than others.

The work pursues me wherever I go, wherever I am, forever, and it doesn’t matter a damn if I make a dime from it or not. It is what I do, and perhaps it is what you do as well. It is sacred, and we are humbled by the power of what can flow through us when we are right with ourselves.

I imagine that I won’t starve either. But if I do, I’ll be sharing how finding our authentic voice liberates the human soul and connects us with the Divine, while standing in line with the homeless, waiting for a meal.