By Caitlin Rother
When things get rough or tough, I sing.
When I want to stop thinking about writer’s block or the rejections I’m getting on the new book proposal, I sing.
When I want to bring some light into the darkness, I sing.
When I just want to be happy, I sing.
And now, after singing in organized groups since I was a teenager—chorus, college glee club, community theater and a capella at the Bread Loaf Writing Conference—I am actually singing out front in an acoustic band with my boyfriend, Geza Keller, who has been a lead singer and guitarist in bands since college. It’s really at his urging (and my step-dad’s) that I’m doing this, and for this I am truly grateful. I don’t know if I’d ever have done this without their encouragement.
If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would never have even dreamed I would be doing this. In addition to these occasional group sings, I sang along with the radio in the car like everyone else. I sang some karaoke. And I learned I’d gone from a soprano to a tenor at Bread Loaf. But it was nothing like this.
I made a profound discovery about eight years ago, during an 18-month bout of chronic back, neck and arm pain. I’d been doing so much typing to meet back-to-back book deadlines that my body rebelled. I couldn’t stand or sit or do much of anything for very long. I was icing four times a day. Stretching and enduring prolonged muscle spasms. I couldn’t go out or see friends much. The only thing that seemed to bring me any relief was singing.
I would put on Linda Ronstadt’s double record of standards, “Round Midnight,” and belt out songs in my living room. I cried and smiled as I felt the pain and spasms let go. The more I sang, the stronger my voice grew, and the more my mood improved. Maybe this pain would go away someday after all. It was better than any physical therapy, and it was free. Singing provided the healing I needed and some joy as well.
Once I started feeling better, I was able to go out, see some live music and dance a little, which I’d always enjoyed when I was younger (and when I was an aerobics instructor). Most often, I’d go see the local retro-dance band, FakeBook, with a longtime friend of mine whose husband, Tony, played guitar and sang in the band. His friend, Geza, the lead singer and guitarist, was always friendly and winked at me every once in a while. Geza would play “Old Love” by Eric Clapton when I requested it, even when the rest of the band didn’t want to do it anymore.
FakeBook played at the book launch party for my novel, “Naked Addiction,” in 2007. And about a year or so after that, Tony invited me, Geza and some friends over to his house for a sing-along. It was fun, but I was still shy and intimidated by the whole notion of singing with two guys who were used to performing in a band on stage.
Fast forward to 2012. Geza and I started dating, and within a couple of years, he started asking me to sing along with him at parties (he brings his guitar everywhere). We started singing together at home for fun. He suggested I pick some songs to sing where he would sing the chorus with me, and some where I would sing alone. Really? Ummmm, okay. We kept adding to the list, learned new songs, and practiced more often. Soon it was every weekend.
When I finally passed muster, he decided it was time to bring me into his acoustic band, Breaking The Code, in which he plays his own original songs with Tony de Paolo and Tom Borg, who are also in FakeBook. So here we are, three engineers (Geza is also a physicist) and me, singing Geza’s songs as part of a singer-songwriter showcase of catchy well-known, but not overplayed, songs we’ve compiled. And now they’re urging me to play keyboards too, so who knows what other surprises are in store. (I’m a classically trained pianist, started playing when I was seven, and I also have a grand piano in my living room, but I have always found it difficult to sing and play at the same time.)
I’m still working on my confidence level, but I would have never even thought about singing like this if I hadn’t gotten over my shyness and fear of speaking in public first. I had to become an author before I could learn to speak in front of large groups and to give interviews on television and radio without being scared. But nowadays, the bigger the group the better I do, because there is more energy in the room, and if I can reach and engage people, it’s a great feeling. I’m hoping that in time the singing fluidity will flow the same way.
But at the moment, singing in public still makes me feel far more vulnerable than public speaking. And yet, when it goes well, I feel even more triumphant, because I’m doing something I didn’t think I could do, something that other people never saw me doing.
“YOU sing?” they ask in disbelief. They knew my boyfriend was a musician, but not me. To them, I’m an author, not a singer. “Why didn’t I know that?”
Then they ask, “Where is the video?” which I hear as, let me be the judge of this. Let me rate you like you’re a contestant on “The Voice,” or “American Idol.” Let me call in and cast my vote.
So far, we’ve performed in front of crowds in Socorro, New Mexico, at an outdoor café on Salt Spring Island in Canada, and at my Beach House Writing Salon in April. We’re looking for a way to make that video, and we’re also looking for venues to play in San Diego, where we all live.
Yes, it’s a bit of scary prospect, like being naked in public—not that I’m striving to meet that challenge, but hopefully you can appreciate the metaphor. But it’s a joyful activity, too.
I am grateful to have found this new creative outlet, which also, by the way, seems to be helping my writing, and as I said, bring some light into the darkness that comes with the true crime genre. I’d liken it to acupuncture, where you pierce the skin to let the energy flow in a different direction. It makes me feel more alive, invigorated by achieving a new accomplishment and developing a new skill and hidden talent.
I’ve also found that it makes me feel fresher when I come back to writing, because I’ve had a new endeavor to work on in between. Like the Stevie Wonder song, one of my favorites in our growing repertoire, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”; the Louis Jordan tune, “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”; Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”; KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and A Cherry Tree,” or John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.” It takes the sting out of the rejections, and I seem to care about them less, which is a feat in itself.
I love it when people tell me they are so inspired by my willingness to take a risk and try something new like this at my age, that it makes them want to try something new too. Truth is, quitting a full-time journalism job to pursue my dream of being a full-time author was a much bigger risk, so why not try this? Life is too short to live in fear and hide from new challenges. I’ve also learned the hard way that striving for balance in work and play is crucial to my health and continued success.
“You GO, girl!” one former colleague posted on Twitter, a sentiment for which I am also very grateful.
But, as you can see from this blog, I’ve been doing it all along.
If you or someone you know would like us to play at an event or party, or knows of a bar or other place that might be looking for a four-person acoustic group (which means no drums or loud electric instruments), please let me know. You can reach me at [email protected]flash.net. (You can also see more photos and news if you visit our Breaking The Code page on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/BREAKINGTHECODE-342359899128345/timeline/)