The Soloist

I begin listening to Christmas music somewhere around mid-March. I’m aware this isn’t a universal practice and you probably wait to turn on “All I Want For Christmas Is You” until you’re doing your Black Friday shopping. That’s fine, but I’m ready to rejoice and jingle some bells long before then.

My love of Christmas music is rooted in my being hyper-involved at church as a child. My fall months were generally consumed with Sunday afternoon rehearsals for either the children’s production where I may be a singing mouse or the adult production where I may be a limpy, gimpy Tiny Tim. In any case, there was a manger and an angel and candles and the entire world seemed beautiful and magically heightened through the red-and-green-tinted prism of Christmas. Today, the joy and lights and love and peace of the season still elicit happy tears—sometimes even in July.

As a young teenager, one of the early solos I was given to sing with the youth choir was during our Christmas set and technically, it was a duet. The other boy, James, was someone I’d admired since I was too young to be a part of the youth group; someone who could sing really well and seemed to succeed at everything he did. That year, we’d each sing one of the verses in Kirk Franklin’s “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”

James and I were to play tag-team solo buddies in which he sang the first verse and I sang the second. He sang like a professional—at least he did in my mind—and his voice had already changed and leveled out. Mine had only just begun to drop and swerve and weave into finding itself, the proof of which manifested during our first rehearsal. Singing tenor had been easy when I was young and had the voice of a coloratura soprano but now my voice was changing and it sounded like skidding tires and uneven trombone blasts. I feel like anyone going through puberty should be put on vocal rest until they’ve settled down and can learn how to sing again.

It was a well-known fact at church that I could sing because, again, I’d been singing in the children’s productions since I was able to walk. The first time I had a solo, I was in elementary school. I walked to the middle of the stage, sang a song about the heroes of the Bible, the crowd applauded and I walked off. But when Michael—a member of a ritzy and expensive boys’ choir—sang after me, the crowd went crazy. I stood backstage and seethed as he got what I heard as riotous applause, openly questioning what I needed to do to elicit that same sort of response. This was before I knew about how little God cares about applause.

Truth be told, Michael’s solo is what led to my first kiss. I sat in the balcony with my elementary school girlfriend Alyssa and complained about how mad I was he got more applause than me. She consoled me and said I was a better singer than him—so I kissed her on the mouth.

My first solo experience as a teenager was in junior high. Once I’d graduated into the youth group and left the silliness of being a singing mouse behind, I auditioned for the role of Tommy in the musical that summer. This probably had more to do with my wanting to be Tommy the Green Ranger than wanting that specific speaking part, but since I was used to being cast as a lead in every show, I figured the part was a sure thing. To my surprise, one of the pastors’ sons got the part, not me, and I was given a solo in the back half of the musical as a consolation prize. I cried to my mother, my heart disappointed and my ego bruised, but she reminded me it was nice to be included at all and I shouldn’t become despondent over not getting a speaking part in the first youth production for which I ever auditioned. She was right, as mothers tend to be about these sorts of things.

I practiced my song diligently, all the while wishing I was Tommy, but when I had to sing it at dress rehearsal, I froze. I’d never sung in front of the teenagers before and my knees were literally knocking together. That’s an actual phenomenon, not just a figure of speech, and I was sure my legs were going to buckle under the weight of my nervousness. When the spotlight hit me, I felt like Snow White in the forest—lost with nothing but scary eyes reflecting all around me—and I don’t remember exactly what happened, only that I survived.

Three years later, I felt that nervous knee-knocking again. James may have only been a few years older than myself, but to me, he was Danny Zuko. I thought he was simply the coolest. In rehearsal, we sang our duet with the choir and halfway through, my director told the sound guy they couldn’t hear me and to turn my microphone up. In actuality, I was singing but the notes that were coming out were so muted they could barely be classified as sound. The song sat right in the break of my warped pubescent voice and while I was technically hitting the right notes, I couldn’t sing them with any heft. My director pulled me aside and sang through it with me. Then James did the same thing. Everyone seemed to know how to make notes and sound happen except me.

I spent weeks working on the song, trying to find a way to make it not sound horrible, and during our first performance, I made a serviceable attempt at doing so. It wasn’t repulsive but it wasn’t memorable either. I warbled my way through, barely hitting the notes but smiling and step-touching like a champ. James went out of his way to make me feel included and supported, something I was more grateful for than he’d ever know, and at the end of the song, we and the rest of the choir walked out into the audience and left through the front of the sanctuary singing. That was my favorite part, the leaving part.

A couple years and a voice change later, I stood with a small group of ensemble singers on the sanctuary stage. We’d been given a cassette tape on Wednesday night and told to learn the song, “Be Magnified,” by Sunday afternoon so we could sing it as a part of a special prayer service. Listening to it that week, I found myself singing along with the male soloist. Our ranges were the same and if the reverberating sound off of my bedroom wall was any indication, I sounded pretty good. It was the first time since I was a singing mouse that I felt like my voice had leveled out and could allow me to sing publicly and not wind up in a shame spiral. Yet the solo had gone to another boy in the group, someone who’d never had a solo before, and I became fixated on that fact.

You know when you’re hungry for something very specific and you become a garbage person until you satisfy those cravings? Any given day, that’s how I feel about nachos but I also felt that way about this solo. I hadn’t had one since I limped through the Christmas duet and I’d resigned myself to being an ensemble and choir singer, solid at harmonizing but never meant to be out front again. But my fixation got the best of me and I told my director on Sunday morning I wished I’d gotten that solo. She smiled and told me the other guy needed it more than me. I didn’t know what that meant, still don’t, but I begrudgingly said I understood. Trying to be a team player, I didn’t bring it up again.

That afternoon at rehearsal, we began to sing through the song around the piano yet our soloist was nowhere to be found. We ran through our harmonies and perfected our blend on the unisons but we really needed to have a complete run through for the sounds guys and as luck would have it, I was asked to pinch-hit the solo. Sometimes, complaining works.

I gave myself the quickest pep talk in history. You can do this. Don’t over-sing. Don’t do a bunch of vocal runs. Vocal runs don’t equate to being a good singer. Just sing the song and don’t be flat. Or sharp. You’re fine. You asked for this.

When we reached my verse, it came out sounding exactly the way I imagined it did in my bedroom. I didn’t look at anyone while I sang, afraid my concentration would break and I’d say the wrong lyrics and burst into flames, and when I finished, my fellow ensemble members clapped for me. They clapped! We had to stop the song and start over because I was receiving a mid-rehearsal ovation! This must be what Rudy felt like being hoisted into the air by his football team. It was elation, it was affirmation, it was Christmas duet redemption.

Not long after we ran through the song again, the soloist arrived. We sang through it with him and though I kinda hoped he wouldn’t, he sounded good. It remains one of my favorite songs we ever sang—a one-off performance with half a rehearsal for a prayer service where the solo was sung by someone who wasn’t me for a reason I will never know—but what I do know is that I needed the unlikely confidence that came from within the vacuum of that rehearsal. It was intimate, only witnessed by a handful of my friends, and it allowed me to finally leave behind the petty nagging of my Christmas experience everyone except me had long forgotten.

More than a decade later, I heard from that soloist for the first time in almost as many years. Every now and then, I post articles that are liberally-leaning affirmations on faith and culture. Most internet articles or blurbs are affirmations, either liberal or conservative, and we post and re-post them to make ourselves feel good about the decisions we’re making and the causes we champion. We then receive validation from like-minded people, which fortifies our resolve on the issue. It’s not exactly a balanced cycle but it is what it is. One such editorial I posted was from a mother who lost her son to an accidental overdose. Her son was gay and she and her husband were adamantly against his “decision” to be a homosexual. The article was this mother’s call to love people just because they’re living, breathing people. She said we don’t have to all fit under the same umbrella, we just need to love each other.

That soloist messaged me on Facebook, thanking me for posting the article and said it challenged him greatly. A few months before that, his wife of ten years left him to be with a woman and he was still dealing with the fallout from his broken marriage. He explained that having been raised in the same Super-Christian environment as I, he was taught being gay was a sin. But he also said he forgave her quickly and continued to pray for her regularly. I saw that as a monumental task—forgiving someone so quickly who went nuclear on your decade-long marriage—and while it’s not that I haven’t prayed for people who’ve screwed me over, I’ll admit that for a period of time, my prayers sounded something like, Dear God, get ‘em. He had far more grace than I.

He went on to say he’d become fearful his children might also be gay after seeing her with another woman and of course that’s not how it works but when the wound is so fresh, rationality goes out the window. He also stated he did not support homosexuality, “probably even more against it now than ever,” but reading the story of this mother learning to love her son without condition challenged him. He said he tried to love others “as Christ loves the church,” but he wasn’t sure he’d been able to do that with his ex. The mother’s article was helping him through that process.

I thanked him for sharing his heart with me. It takes balls to message someone out of the blue and pour your heart out. On top of that, to be so transparent about a touchy social issue in which we clearly disagree, that’s gutsy. But God’s a gutsy God and if he needed to vocalize his dogma in order to have a dialogue about it, by all means talk to me. I can take it.

I told him the crux of the Bible is condition-less love but somewhere along the line, that’s been discarded in favor of dictating who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, and who has God’s ear and who doesn’t. I echoed his sentiments about the challenge our upbringing presented in understanding that all-encompassing, condition-less love since we came from a very “we’re right and everyone else is wrong” sort of environment, but I also told him peace was possible and I was sorry he was in a period of heartbreak.

He messaged me back to tell me he shared that story with his ex-wife’s parents who he said were truly grieving. He hoped the article would provide them with some hope over time. He, himself, already sounded hopeful to the point of stating he didn’t want to fall under the same umbrella of grief in which they were trapped. He ended his message stating he believed in time, he and his ex-wife would be great friends and enjoy a happy, slightly dysfunctional, family.

There’s such beauty in that statement. From something so painful, something cool may come of it. There’s power in siding with positive possibility and in his words, I was reminded again of the song we sang in that prayer service. I could hear him, the soloist, singing out, “Heal my heart and show yourself strong. And in my eyes and with my song, Oh Lord be magnified.”

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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2 thoughts on “The Soloist

  1. This is a stunning post. Totally feel you on the Christmas music bit! 😉 and what a first kiss story! Haha. Thanks for sharing you heart here. That use of analogy to pull through the post is great. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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