By Joan Langford
In my early 20s, when I flailed about with no clear direction, when a job meant answering phones and opening mail or housecleaning and babysitting, I decided to become a professional singer-songwriter. Singing had been the steady glue in an unpredictable childhood, but I’d never taken it seriously.
I chose this path in just one second of certainty when a friend asked me at the right time and the right place: “If you could do anything you want, what would you do?” I had no idea that’s how I felt, and yet I knew to my core that it felt right to declare this to myself and to the world. From that moment on, every major decision in my life revolved around how it would affect my singing career.
Unfortunately, I had three major obstacles to overcome.
- Performing terrified me. Singing alone onstage felt like stepping into The Black Hole of Death. I lost sleep for days over Master Classes, small performance classes taught by my voice teacher.
- Although I’d been told I had a beautiful voice many times, and loved to sing, my actual relationship to my voice bordered on neurotic. Navigating around my vocal break proved elusive, and when nervous, I sang off pitch, breathy and unpredictable. Also, as soon as I stepped onto a stage, the ability to tune my guitar disappeared, leaving me wincing inside each time I played the string.
- I had zero desire to travel alone into the dark nights of a New England winter, playing at coffee houses to develop my following. This is the tried and true way to break into the biz.
You’d think that the above problems would have been deal-breakers (life would have been so much less traumatic!) but I had a few things going for me.
An overwhelming passion and drive for self-expression that forced me to keep pushing through my fears.
Confidence in my ability to write good songs. Though my inner judge attacked my voice constantly, it stayed quiet when I put words to music.
A talent for surrounding myself (ahem—dating) musicians who played better than I did and made me sound more sophisticated than I could on my own.
After seven years of playing around Boston, still struggling my guitarist boyfriend John and I went to a music camp in the Berkshires. John was to study with the nationally known guitarist from the duo, Tuck and Patti. I would study with a songwriter henceforth known as “He Who Shall Definitely Never Be Named.”
Our ultimate agenda was to give our demo tape (yes, a tape; it was the early 90s, after all!) that we had written and recorded to our teachers. We dreamed about their positive feedback and hoped that we were only one person away from being discovered. With John’s amazing guitar playing, and my melodic and lyrical talent, we knew we had something special.
My songwriting teacher had sung with a famous vocal group in the 60s, and he knew people who knew people! At the end of the first day of the five-day retreat, with pounding heart and wavering voice, I found the courage to give him our tape. He took it from me, barely glanced at it, and tossed it in his backpack.
Then I waited, and waited, obsessing over his reaction. Would he like it? Would he say he’d give it to his agent? I tried to believe that it didn’t matter, but it did. A lot. I’d spent my twenties suffering for my art, holding onto my creative identity with both solid desperation and incredible fulfillment. It was time for recognition.
Well, “He Who Shall Definitely Not Be Named,” said nothing to me-not that evening or throughout the second day. At lunch break the third day, I finally drummed up the courage to ask him if he’ d had a chance to listen.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, shrugging. “I put it on last night while I was getting ready for bed. Nothing really grabbed me.” He pulled the tape out of his backpack and handed it to me.
Oh, soul of wretched soul. It felt like daggers had been thrust into my wounded, debilitated heart and fragile ego. If the earth could have cracked open and swallowed me whole, I’d have been okay with that. I managed to get to my cabin before I began bawling. Deep gut-wrenching, “I have failed and wasted my time for all these years, what was I thinking, I’m such a loser,” howls.
John found me in a crumpled ball. “What happened?”
“He didn’t like it.”
“Bummer,” John said. He looked a little sorry, but not that much.
“Why aren’t you more upset?”
“I had a good day with Tuck. He likes my playing. I actually showed him this lick I’ve been working on. He loved it.”
“It was fun.”
“Get out of here,” I growled at him.
The rest of the week felt like coming out of a bad break up. I could barely look at my teacher. I avoided him at the community meals. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t sleep. I hated my boyfriend. I hated my guitar and my illusions. I felt like I had wasted too many years with endless voice lessons that were more like therapy, terrifying open mics, and even being a backup singer in a terrible 80s guitar-heavy band.
Then, on the last day of our retreat, one of my fellow students asked “He Who Definitely Shall Never Be Named” to play some of his songs for us. About half way through his third song, I found myself fidgeting, and staring out the window. In that moment, I had a revelation. I didn’t like his songs! The words were clever but boring, and I didn’t find anything catchy about the melodic line. Nothing. As the other students applauded with great enthusiasm, I sat in the back, my heart and ego picking up their cracked selves, like Humpty Dumpty and putting themselves back together again.
I’d just learned the most valuable lesson of my creative life.
Other peoples’ judgements are only their opinions. “He Who Shall Definitely Never Be Named” didn’t connect with my music and I didn’t connect with his. How could I care what he thought of me? There would be other people who did connect, and in that moment I knew I’d be okay for the long haul. I’d keep writing and keep singing and never give up.
Fast-forward 20 years of crazy musical adventures and five CDs to my name, when I walked by the main hall of a retirement community where I’d just finished playing for a hospice patient. I looked in and began watching someone playing with incredible positive energy to a group of residents. I paused and watched for a while, then struck up a conversation with a woman sitting just outside the door reading a book. Turns out she was the wife of the performer.
She proudly told me this gentleman used to sing in a famous band of the 60s. After several minutes of great conversation about her husband’s career, I realized something. Wasn’t this was the same band that “He Who Shall Definitely Never Be Named” sang in?
“Yes,” she said, “it was.”
With a laugh, I told the story of my horrible week. How I’d been so traumatized and how it turned into this great lesson for me. After I finished telling those painful details, the woman said, “I’m not surprised. He treated everyone around him with zero respect. A real diva.” She went on to tell me about one event in Atlanta where he showed up late, well into the first set, no explanations, no apologies. It was a reunion gig and they were getting an award!
I admit it. After all these years, it felt beyond smirking-satisfaction to know that my experience with “He Who Shall Definitely Never Be Named” was no fluke. I experienced guilty (but not that guilty) joy that he had a horrible reputation, and no one wanted to work with him. I thanked the younger me for being wise enough not to let his attitude and opinion and total lack of empathy defeat me, and especially for realizing that I don’t need to be defined by what other people think of me.
Sometimes an opinion is just an opinion, however famous someone might have been—once.
Joan Langford is a Singer-Songwriter, Vocal Coach, and Life Coach living just outside Boulder CO. She performs in a band “LIVING EASY” with her husband Andy. You can read more about Joan at her blog site at JoanLangford.com “Living Creatively with Chronic Illness”.