I am a guitar player and a singer. That is, I play the guitar and sing in the comfort and privacy of my room, with my door closed, while my family is in a different part of the house. Every once in a while, I record my singing on my phone, never to be shared with the outside world. On the rare occasion that my mother walks into my room while I’m singing, I throw my guitar from my lap, red-faced, and pretend that she couldn’t hear through the bedroom door. When she tells me I sound lovely, I only blush, mumble a thank you, and change the subject. Singing has always been a passion of mine, but also a source of insecurity. For a long time, the vulnerability I feel when I sing kept me from exercising my vocal chords in any public place, except to sing the obligatory chorus of Happy Birthday.
While I felt safe singing to myself from the interior of my bedroom, I also felt artistically confined. I know my singing voice is decent, and somewhere deep inside of me I wanted to share my voice with an audience. Despite my stage fright, I wanted to spread joy with my music. This summer, an opportunity presented itself: I learned of a retirement home in my neighborhood seeking volunteer performers.
In a moment of nervous determination, I called the activity director at the home and asked if I could schedule a performance. She asked if I played an instrument and if I would need any equipment. I awaited that fatal question- “When would you like to audition?”- but it never came. Instead, she booked me for the following Monday, with total faith in my musical ability. She told me that the residents would love me. I was anything but convinced.
The following Monday, I drove to the retirement home with my guitar and set list, singing along to the radio in a desperate effort to warm up my voice. I arrived at the home, nervous and shot through with adrenaline, and waited for an attendant to open the front gate.
“You must be the performer!” a woman in a nurse’s uniform appeared and unlocked the gate. “Come on in. They’re waiting for you.”
I stumbled into the activity room, carrying my guitar in one hand and music stand in the other. All around the room, seated in armchairs and wheelchairs alike, were the members of my audience. White-haired and frail, they huddled in their seats, some dozing off, others watching me with tired expressions. I gulped.
“Hello, I’m Avery,” I said, with as much cheer as I could muster. My stomach churned. “I’m a local high school student, and I’ve come to play some songs for you.”
I sat down on a piano bench and pulled my guitar from its case. The residents gained interest in me; some were now smiling. I was terrified to disappoint them with my amateur voice and imperfect command of the guitar. Nonetheless, I was there, and my audience awaited the show. I unfolded my set list and began with “Blue Skies,” a song reminiscent of their own generation.
At first, my voice was shaky. My fingers felt swollen on the strings. I looked up timidly from my chord sheet and into the faces of the residents, expecting all to be cringing or asleep.
Across the room sat a small woman, with short grey hair and a red cardigan. Her lips were moving in time with mine. She was singing. A smile spread across her face, and then across my own. My voice picked up volume, and other residents began to join in our song. No one minded when my voice faltered on a high note, or when I fumbled a difficult chord. They were simply grateful to have a high school girl join them for a morning, offering the eternal gift of song.
My performance was imperfect. All of the things I feared- voice cracks, chord mistakes, running out of air mid-verse- happened during the set, but they didn’t ruin the performance. In fact, no one seemed to notice- not even the activities director, who sang along to every song. After the performance, I received a hearty round of applause. One of the residents, a Japanese woman, struggled to find the English words to express her feelings. She told me that my music had made her feel something natural and beautiful, pointing to her heart. This I will never forget.
I now perform at the retirement home once or twice a week, each time bringing a new song or two to share with my wonderful audience. I am learning their names and stories, where they grew up and what songs they would like to hear most. I continue to make mistakes when I perform, vocally and musically, but I no longer fear judgment or criticism. I have learned that music can arouse joy and love in people, even if it is imperfect. I actually cherish the flaws in my performances now, because they expose me to vulnerability. Each time I make a mistake, I become less afraid of opening up my soul and my vocal chords to an audience.
Volunteering at my local retirement home not only brings me the satisfaction of lifting the spirits of others in my community, but has also freed me from my own fears and reservations. Soon I will extend my volunteer performances to new retirement homes and new volunteer venues altogether, as the opportunity arises. I will not come bearing promises of professional music or perfection, only the joy that can be spread through music. This, I have learned, is all that matters.