My daughter Pearl, now 20 years old, has wanted to be a famous singer since she was about 11. When she was in preschool her teacher Kathy told me that being around Pearl was like being in a musical because she was always singing. She has sung in school choirs all her life, and in church sometimes, too. Around age 13 she and her friends went through a very serious High School Musical stage. She was the kind of kid who memorized the lyrics and the dance moves to every song. She once became depressed because we couldn’t move to Los Angeles and do (I guess) a kind of Miley Cyrus make-over.
It seemed to me, at that point at least, that my darling girl wanted to be a “famous singer,” not a singer. I coached her a little bit about what it means to be an artist (not that a 13 year old girl listens to her mother’s advice), how it’s kind of a pyramid and needs all the supporting players underneath that small percentage at the tip top. You don’t get to the tip top, in fact, without excelling at the supporting roles. I told her how I had to decide quite a long time ago that I had no control over whether or not my writing “made it” into some kind of winner’s circle. But if I loved to write, then I should write. And if she loved to sing, then she should sing.
That said, I also told her that if there were ever anything in my power to help her, I would do it. This did not include moving to L.A. Piano lessons maybe? Okay, so she took piano lessons for 9 months. She enjoyed piano lessons. She loved her teacher, my friend Susan (another artist who lives her art). But did Pearl practice? No. Not once in 9 months. When the school year ended, Pearl was surprised that I said that was it. “You need to step up to the plate, Pearly,” I told her. “If you want to sing, then I want to see you singing, not just listening to your music on your I-Pod. I can’t do all the heavy lifting here.”
A few months ago she hatched a scheme to go to San Francisco and audition for American Idol. She started socking her pay checks away. She talked to the music director at our church about trading babysitting for coaching. She thought she would pay for airline tickets and I would find a place to stay and go with her. I thought this was nuts, but when I complained to various friends, they said, “You have to do this. She’ll learn a ton from it. Thousands of other kids will get rejected, too. She won’t be alone.” I decided that if I was taking one kid to SF, I was taking all three. So, plans were made.
Eating clam chowder on the pier and taking a Duck Tour, taking a haunted house walk, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, those were the easy parts. Getting up at 4 a.m. and standing in the cold with 1000s of other people … two mornings in a row … acting enthusiastic for the American Idol cameras–that was outside my comfort zone.
This is what I learned. 1) I wasn’t alone. There were lots of moms there and we talked. One said to me that even if her college-age son didn’t make it past the first audition, she had enjoyed hanging out in SF with him. I adopted that as my mantra. (It was rather exciting to see him make it past the first audition–I think it was the cool hat.)
2) I learned that many of these young people had tried out for X Factor, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, and American Idol before. No surprise, these were the young people with the most polish. They had learned that it takes more than a good voice. (And I saw several of them take the walk with the golden ticket after that first audition.) Part of the game, I learned, is learning how to present yourself.
3) I saw pimply kids and chubby kids, kids in really bad haircuts, and kids with no discernible fashion sense.
4) I saw kids who love to sing, who pack their guitars everywhere, and tip back their heads and sing at any invitation.
5) For the first time, I saw that my daughter is one of those kids.
“What if the judges don’t pick me?” Pearl said to me, just before her row was called into the line-up. “What if they don’t?” I said. “You made it this far. Enjoy it. Sing your heart out. That’s all you have control over.”
6) I realized that what Pearl is trying to do is really no different from me, 20 years ago (30?), sending out a few poems to total strangers (called “editors,” a very mysterious profession, it seemed at the time). I only very gradually discovered what I had to do in order to compete at a new level. For me that meant enrolling in a poetry workshop, and eventually getting an MFA. In the process, I became a teacher, and sitting in a classroom with students who want to write, teaching them how to write mo’ better (as one of them recently praised me), has had its own satisfactions. Not that everyone has to go that route. I suppose it’s the equivalent of Pearl’s voice coach finding a singing career in church, or Susan teaching piano to children. Getting to live your art–well, that makes it worthwhile. (And, as I often say, you do get paid for doing what you love, just not always in money.)
“Change your life today,” the American Idol producers challenged, through bullhorns and in big letters on a screen hanging over AT & T Park. I imagine that a large percentage of the young people trying out in the foggy morning hours in San Francisco with my daughter will never make it “big.” But you don’t have to make it big to change your life. It starts small. If you want to sing, sing.