Finding Joy: Holidays Offer Many Chances to Discover Your Voice

Illustration by Hannah Agosta


Not to brag, but my shower singing is worthy of a Grammy. I attribute my steamy vocal stylings to great acoustics and the fact that I can’t hear myself over the running water. Though my voice isn’t what it used to be, I still love to sing. As kids, my sister Leslie and I used to make our nightly dishwashing chore easier by singing together. Our favorite song was “Sisters” from “White Christmas.” So when I heard about a Messiah singalong at the Nixon Library, I called Leslie and we made a date.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we stood outside the Nixon Library waiting for the doors to open. A woman who had to be the winner of an ugly Christmas sweater contest approached us. “What are you?” she demanded, her brow furrowed in a dark, angry slash. She wasn’t an official, but she sure acted like one.

“What?” I said, not certain of the correct response.

She clarified. “A soprano or an alto?” “I’m an alto,” my sister said, with a smile.

“Good,” she replied, not smiling. “So am I.”

“I’m a soprano,” I said, also with a smile.

The sweater woman looked me up and down like I’d just said my hobby was drowning kittens. My smile faded. She made her second and final demand: “You can sit with us. Just don’t sing.” She was serious.

Don’t sing? It’s a singalong!

I knew I shouldn’t let this woman bother me, but I’m one of those overly sensitive types. Her words crushed me. That rude woman probably would not have upset most people; they’d just brush it off. But my recurring depression had reared its ugly head, and for the past month, I’d been in a dark place. I was at the concert to find a bright spot.

According to a study from Brigham Young University, group singalongs add meaning to your life by providing a sense of belonging—and that woman had unceremoniously shut me out. “Don’t pay any attention to her,” my sister whispered. But it was like not thinking about pink elephants. I became quiet and too self-conscious to sing.

I wished that I didn’t care, that I could be like Dorothy Parker, who said, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Still, I tried to enjoy the concert. The performance, conducted by Fred Francis, was lovely, with magical singing by the choir and beautiful playing by the orchestra, but I sat mute, not even muttering a few Hallelujahs when everyone stood for the big “Hallelujah Chorus” finish.

When January rolled around and I was still feeling down, I made a resolution. I aimed to bring more joy into my life.

That’s when I found another singalong, this one from the Off Center Festival at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, a show called “Choir! Choir! Choir!” The website said it “blurs the lines between performer and audience … and invites nonprofessional singers to belt out pop hits with no audition required.”

Besides what I’d read, I knew nothing about the show except that it was at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, and it was free. Ready to continue my search for joy and determined to forget about the woman who told me not to sing, I got two tickets.

My neighbor went with me. People of all ages filled the lobby, from teens using selfie sticks to octogenarians using walkers. Judging from the smiles and laughter, everyone was having a good time.

While waiting for the theater doors to open, we started chatting with another woman. She appeared normal—and didn’t demand I not sing—and because she seemed to be alone, I asked if she wanted to hang out with us. Her name was Wendy, and I knew she was the kind of person I’d like when she told this story: “I was once at a conference,” she said, “where everyone wore name tags. When I spotted a man whose tag read ‘Peter,’ I walked up to him and said, ‘I’ve been looking for you all my life.’ To which he replied, ‘And I’ve been looking for you.’ ”

Nice and a sense of humor.

The show started when two men walked onstage, the show’s co-founders, Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman. Goldman asked, “How many of you know what this is all about?” When only a few hands went up, he said, “So you all just go to random events?” That got a big laugh. “Well, tonight,” he continued, “we’re going to learn Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ The key to this evening is that there are no auditions, and you can leave whenever you want.”

With Goldman singing and playing guitar and Adilman conducting the audience, we were to learn three-part harmony for that beautifully haunting song. After they broke us up into high, medium, and low voices, when I had to wave a temporary goodbye to my friends, I sat down beside a young woman. I held out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Pam.” She took my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Joy.”

I’ve been looking for you all my life.

Joy, a music major, helped me when I got confused and told me I had a nice voice. For an hour and a half, I lost myself in song. All my problems found a closet in my mind and locked themselves away. At that moment, nothing else mattered. And though most of us that night would never get past the first audition of “American Idol,” together we blended and made beautiful music.

Something Goldman said that night stayed with me. It’s not only the key to a singalong; I believe it’s the key to life. He said, “You’re not going to get it perfect; but as long as you’re here, you may as well try.”

I didn’t get it perfect. Far from my virtuoso shower performances, my voice cracked. But as Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

That good feeling stayed with me throughout the year, and when it was once again time for the Messiah singalong, I decided to forget my past experience and give it another try. It was wonderful. No one told me not to sing. Rather, I was encouraged to.

In the choir that day there was a singer who performed the most beautiful, magical solo. Her name was Grace. It took forgetting and trying again, but in the end, I found what I needed in Joy and Grace.

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