My Simple Realization
After spending her childhood performing in stressful singing competitions, ASHA LEMMIE quit cold turkey. Years later, she embraced songs as pure comfort.
For one writer, music is a long-lost friend
I WAS 2 WHEN I started singing. Broadway musicals, butchered operas, jubilant Disney songs. I had inherited a talent my mother had not, and she ensured it would be fastidiously nurtured. I was enrolled in voice, piano, and violin lessons, and later, in competitions. From the age of 5, I measured my talent against others’ for the amusement of a crowd. Sternfaced judges, heavy red velvet curtains, an X-marks-the-spot in white masking tape on the stage. I was good enough to win often— but never often enough, as far as I was concerned.
If I placed second in a competition, I’d ban the failing piece from my repertoire—for both playing and listening. I’ve walked out of malls because I heard some elevator-music rendition of a song I thought I’d botched. Through all those years of singing and playing, my passion was tied to the need for control. But the reality was that music had more control over me than I had over it.
After college, and 16 years of competing, I stopped cold turkey. I could have kept practicing for fun, but I didn’t do that either. Instead I sank into a depression. No one was looking at me anymore. I was invisible as a young woman living alone in New York City. But the sense that no one was looking at me and that I was surrounded by thousands of more talented people was, oddly enough, just what I needed to feel free.
As the anxiety started to lift, I remembered the beginning of it all: being a child who fell in love with music and sought it out in the most unlikely of places. In the sound of rain on the roof, there was an arpeggio. In the hum of the refrigerator and the buzzing of the coffee maker, there were hints of a minor chord. In the moments of my life that were the darkest and most fearful, there was, in the back of my mind like an old friend, always a song—an Ave Maria, a Holy Mother, full of grace.
I welcomed that friend back in. I became OK with the occasional karaoke night. I could play simply because I wanted to—because it was Thursday, because the greatest betrayal to a loyal instrument is to let it lie silent. Decades later, I have rediscovered the wisdom of my 4-year-old self, who belted out a Broadway tune: The sun’ll come out tomorrow.
ASHA LEMMIE IS THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING AUTHOR OF FIFTY WORDS FOR RAIN.