God rest ye, merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy;
Comfort and joy
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.
My first paid singing gig ever is a month away. I’ve been hired to sing a dozen Christmas songs arranged especially for me by Jimmy Mac (who is the best ever) at my uncle’s church in Palm Desert. I will be, essentially, a headliner. Three hundred people will have nothing to watch or listen to but me… for forty-five minutes.
I’m just the tiniest little bit… terrified.
Don’t get me wrong. Performing is nothing new to me. I started singing in the eighth grade when, for no reason except that it sounded fun to me, I joined the school choir and went out for the spring musical. What I found out years after the fact was that this caused something of a stir with my family, who had no idea that I had a voice. But they never said anything until long afterwards, and the question of whether or not I could sing was not on my mind when I signed up.
That year I was voted choir president and got a lead in the musical, and I’ve been studying voice privately ever since (with a few breaks between teachers). I learned to bend my knees and elongate my neck and never move my shoulders when I breathe. I’ve played Fantine in a youth production of Les Miserablés, a nun in The Sound of Music in college, and, this past year, was a Narrator in a community theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I sang second alto in college choir and first soprano in church choir. I’ve sung in churches, schools, and theatres, as well as at weddings, memorial services, and once even a naval pinning ceremony.
All this to say: this isn’t my first rodeo, but I’ve never had to hold an audience’s interest on my own for this long. I’ve never had to come up with clever and engaging things to say between songs before. And I don’t have the kind of gregarious, larger-than-life, rock star personality that thrives in that kind of an environment.
After I agreed to do the Palm Desert gig—and after Jimmy agreed to play with me—the whole thing snowballed. What started out as “show up at our church and sing for us” quickly became three gigs, plus an album (In the Bleak Midwinter, available for purchase December 2013) and even something vaguely resembling a marketing and branding campaign. I’ve got coordinated fonts and images and art (designed by AlarmCat, which is the best ever); a carefully thought out CD table, mailing lists, emailing lists, a Facebook page, this blog, and a mongoose whose pelt has been genetically engineered to match the album art. Okay, maybe not that, but the rest of it is true. God help me, I’m even considering joining Twitter.
And then, about a month ago, as I made lists and wrote emails and spent hours in Jimmy’s studio recording, panic started bubbling up in me. I thought, “What am I doing here? I’m approaching this as though I have something to say to these people; something to offer them. I have nothing to say. Everyone is going to get there and take one look at me and know I’m a poser. Merciful God, why did I sign up for all this?!”
Then, about a week ago, I went to church with a friend and Jimmy Needham played during the service. He was onstage less than ten minutes. He spent about two of those minutes talking and played two songs and then he was done, and when the service was over, I all but ran to his CD table, paid no attention whatsoever to the way it was laid out, and bought every album he had to offer. I almost bought one of those rubber bracelet things too, but I managed to remind myself in time that those things look trashy on me and so saved myself the $5.00.
Why did I do this? Jimmy Needham has a great voice and excellent musicianship, but so do lots of other people. That wasn’t why. The reason I ran outside and dropped $35.00 for five CDs—an extravagant buy for a woman who takes eons to get into new music—lies within the two minutes he stood there talking. I started out listening to him thinking, “Good, this is good; maybe I can figure out from this guy how to talk to a crowd between songs.” But I forgot about picking up speaking tips approximately ten seconds later—not because Jimmy Needham is the last word in eloquence, but because he made me feel so comfortable in my own skin. He wasn’t some big rock star. He was just a guy talking about an experience he had—trying to earn God’s approval by doing stuff, failing miserably, and then realizing, oh, right; that’s not how this works—and then singing a song about it. He was gentle, soft-spoken, unassuming, and had me on the edge of tears in under two minutes.
Walking to the car with my friend, I realized that I had been thinking about this all wrong. Christmas music might well be my favorite music of all time. It is immensely meaningful to me and I get no end of pleasure from singing it—in the car, in the shower, on stage; it doesn’t matter. I love it. I do not need to approach any of these gigs in schmooze mode. All I have to do is stand up straight (with slightly bent knees and a long neck and unmoving shoulders) say, briefly, why I love the song I’m about to sing, and then sing it.
My mother put it this way. “If you can stand there and love people, you won’t need to do anything else.”
I may not be rock star material. But with the right help, I think I can do that much. And if nothing else, I know that if I remember why I’m there, I’ll be much less dismayed.