Before anyone told me not to, I sang with enthusiasm. I was a little kid with no understanding of what makes a good singer. To me, it was all about passion. Music sparked something in me and I responded without questioning it. When I was eight, I got a portable record player with Michael Jackson’s picture on the case for Christmas. If that wasn’t spectacular enough, the turntable came with a child-size microphone. I sang along to my parents’ old Beach Boys records without restraint. Having not yet learned to be self-conscious, my singing was pure.
The Introduction of No
In fifth grade, a classmate delivered the devastating news that I was a terrible singer. She turned to me during Mass and crumpled her face in an exaggerated display of disgust.
“What?” I asked.
“You really shouldn’t sing,” she decreed.
From that day on, her words hit me every time I found myself in a situation that called for group singing. I internalized her rejection and told myself no every time I had the opportunity to in the presence of other people. The word no is a slammed door, and for a long time, I didn’t consider opening it. I lip synced or mumbled lyrics under my breath at birthdays and funerals.
Decades later, I took an Adult 101 winter class at ComedySportz® Richmond, terrified but eager for a new experience. A lifetime of taking no personally made me nervous that the other students or teacher would give me that crumpled-up face like my classmate so long ago.
“You really shouldn’t be here,” they might say with a withering look, but I took my chances.
I immediately learned that the kind of no I feared has no place in improv class. I discovered the mind-blowing basics of Yes, And, the cornerstone of improv. I learned to accept and detach myself from my mistakes because improv is not about perfection and mistakes don’t define us. Improv allowed me to be playful, to stay present, and to roll with what came my way. Learning Yes, And helped me find the confidence to take risks. I worked on putting aside my long-held tendency to avoid embarrassment at all costs. I let my guard down with my teammates and I trusted them not to cut me down.
Karaoke: My Worst Fear
As winter retreated and the class drew near its end, I learned that our coach, Christine, had planned a team building night of karaoke in a nearby public place. I wrestled with my long-held conviction that I should not sing in public. My improv friends didn’t know that I had the world’s worst singing voice and I foolishly feared that if I subjected them to it, I would lose their respect. As the event approached, I wanted to fake laryngitis. But this group had come to mean too much to me and I knew, deep down, that they had my back. Together, we had spent eight weeks practicing the concept of saying “Yes, I accept your offer.” The offer to sing out loud was my chance to prove my commitment to improv and to my team.
As I belted out the lyrics to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” with a teammate, I was surprised to realize I couldn’t hear my own voice amplified. Free from hearing myself and simultaneously disregarding my understanding that everyone else could, I charged ahead with enthusiasm. I knew I was subjecting everyone in the room to acoustic atrocities and yet I wasn’t mortified. Rather than crumpling their faces and turning away in disgust, my teammates were encouraging me and sharing in my joy. Strangers weren’t even paying attention because as it turns out, nobody but me cares how I sing. At karaoke, everyone has her moment to let loose and be a child again. Carrying a tune is beside the point.
New Reality: Doors Open
For decades, I’d forbidden myself to open a door because I was terrified of humiliation. Without my improv class, I think I would never have opened it and I would have adamantly refused to sing karaoke for the rest of my life. But the principles of Yes, And, combined with a team I trusted to lift me up rather than tear me down had given me the courage to sing. I relearned how to burst into song for the sake of getting caught up in music, without scrutiny.
Just as you don’t have to be the class clown to shine in improv class, you don’t have to be a nightingale to sing with passion. If it’s ok to enjoy yourself and to do things just for kicks, what other realities are possible? What gratifying activities are you denying yourself because you think you’re not good enough?
Lisa Swope has been a Minor League Player at ComedySportz® since 2016