“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
— Helen Keller
A year ago I quit my job. The stated purpose was to start a freelance graphics business and sing jazz at night, but I was lying to myself. I didn’t want to be a designer anymore. I just wanted to sing.
Singing always came easily – too easy. I was gifted with good pitch and a pleasing voice, and I loved singing more than anything else in the world. It was the first thing I was good at. But build a career out of it? Silly girl. I thought I was ugly, short and had no charm. Everybody knows performers are tall, glamorous and feminine. Instead, I took a consolation prize, dressed my little artist self in a gray suit, and 30 years ago became a graphic designer. I was good, but never great.
Passions have a funny way of persistently itching and mine would not let me go until I scratched it. At midlife I owned what beauty and charisma I had, and learned to love myself as is. I left the corporate design job ostensibly to work freelance and sing, but actually started an inner battle that shook me hard. This became a tug-of-war between doing something I did well and doing what my singing demanded – taking a leap into the unknown and believing in myself. At first I did both half-heartedly.
I posted in a blog: “Every day I get up and ride two horses. When I spend time on music, it feels as though I am cheating my business. When I work in advertising and design, I feel like I’m taking the easy, well-worn path of success and not devoting myself to my passion.” Clinging to the ruse of being graphic designer by day and a jazz singer by night ensured neither would flourish.
A saying kept haunting me: “Burn the boats to take the island.” It refers to historical incidents where a commander, having landed in enemy territory, ordered his men to destroy their ships, so that they would have to conquer the country or be killed.
I hadn’t burned my last boat. I kept swimming back to my graphics career and clinging to it. I was afraid to trust my singing and my ability to make it succeed – afraid of failing at something so beloved and desired.
This fear had a point. The music business has never been easy, especially in Western New York, where most musicians supplement their income with teaching or another job. Even low-paying gigs are ferociously competed for and guarded. However, hard work, competition and challenge had never stopped me before. Why should they now?
After a year of divided attentions, I still had no advertising clients. The few design jobs I pitched landed with dull thuds as the client probably sensed my heavy heart and lack of enthusiasm. A previously strong suit was now dragging me down.
Meanwhile, music was succeeding in ways never thought possible. I had regular gigs at clubs, scored spots at festivals, was playing with some of Buffalo and Rochester’s best musicians, and had selected and memorized songs I loved, could master and deliver with feeling. Most importantly, I was connecting with my audience on a deep level and building a fan base at each gig. The answer was blazing a hole in me.
One year after quitting my job, I officially quit my old career and faced my terror – closing the door on the one sure thing that was not so sure after all.
The American Buddhist nun Pema Chödron writes: “A teacher once told me that if I wanted lasting happiness the only way to get it was to step out of my cocoon. When I asked her how to bring happiness to others she said, ‘Same instruction.’ ”
Today, when asked what I do for a living, I answer without hesitation: “I am a jazz singer.” I finally believe it.
The things that change our lives often come when we are not looking for them. It could be a book we read; it could be a sermon we heard, or it could be the confidence expressed in us by a parent, teacher, or mentor.
We would like to hear from Western New York women about the defining influences on their lives for Women’s Voices. Send your essay (up to 700 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name, email and daytime phone number. Submissions must be by email and cannot be promotional in nature or anonymous.