I was mesmerized. Michelle Johnson, a senior at Cairo American College, the K-12 international school in Egypt where my brothers and I attended, was belting out the title song of, “Hello Dolly.” Michelle’s voice was more beautiful than anything I had ever heard, at least in person. To attend the performance at CAC, my family and I had walked a mile and a half on a dirt road from our apartment. As we sat and listened, I noticed that a mother had brought a toddler, who continually whined on her lap throughout the performance. Although the child was distracting, I tried my best to pay close attention to ‘Dolly.’ Her voice brilliant and clear, with perfect pitch and the most gripping tone.
Yet, as beautiful as Michelle’s voice was, I was actually even more captivated by something beyond her musical prowess……her stage presence. There must have been at least one hundred and fifty people in the audience and, rather than appearing nervous, Michelle was consumed in the moment. She was clearly a natural on the stage and undeniably comfortable in her own skin, despite the large crowd of eyes on her. For some reason, even though many of us continued to find the toddler distracting, Michelle was able to perform without seeming to even notice the disruption.
The next day, my family took a trip to Giza to see the Pyramids. As we climbed the narrow passageway, up a dark and rocky stairway toward the King’s Chamber, I became distracted, less focused on the historical significance that awaited me, and instead consumed with the performance from the prior night. I realized that Michelle had a special talent that I needed: the ability to perform publically. It’s not that I had any strong ambitions to run for office or sing on Broadway. Rather, I began to understand that being fearless in front of others was a valuable skill on its own. Although while growing up I had always loved to sing while my dad would accompany me on the piano, it never occurred to me that a performer on stage or in a public setting must morph into someone who cannot worry about what others are thinking of them. In that instant, or for that point in time, as long as they were doing something they felt passionate about, they effectively could remove themselves from any feelings of nervousness, anxiety or stress. In their comfort zone, performers could ignore judgments and were free to be themselves.
From that day forward, I leveraged my own singing talents and began to study voice. Years later, I would join the Madrigals in my own high school, sing on Kresge stage at the Interlochen Performing Arts Camp, and even on stage while in Law School. Over time and with practice, singing became a terrific outlet for me. Although during those days in Cairo, and later as a teen and young adult, I was nowhere near ready to start flaunting my difference, I loved the feeling of being on stage, where all my fears about the way people might be perceiving me evaporated, at least for the moment.
The other day I watched a previously recorded episode of the FOX show, American Idol. Even before it began, I had heard from a friend that there was a teenager named Lazaro Arbos. Arbos had a significant stutter, and a painful back story. A Cuban immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as a young child with his parents, Arbos had been stuttering ever since. Although his parents fully expected him to grow out of it, he never did. On Idol, prior to his performance, Arbos and his parents described a quite lonely childhood, where he was frequently the object of pity, and typically friendless. According to his mother, Arbos’ stuttering became so acute that often times the only thing that enabled him to communicate was when he would sing. “Without music he couldn’t have survived,” added his father. During the American Idol interview, Arbos stammered repeatedly. “Stut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-ering is really hard,” he said. “It’s like a r-r-r-r-rollercoaster.” But when he started to croon “Bridge over Troubled Water” for the panel of judges, it was almost impossible to believe that this was the same person singing. I read one article that captured it well. “The amazingly fluent performance brought to mind the scene in the movie “The King’s Speech,” when Geoffrey Rush’s character puts headphones blasting with music on Colin Firth and asks him to recite passages out loud…which he does perfectly.”
But that was not the only reminder on point. Just a few weeks ago, I posted a Guest Flaunt written by Rabbi Ari Rosenberg. Rabbi Rosenberg wrote about growing up with “a stutter so severe, there were discussions about whether I would ever be able to chant Torah, or even read English at my Bar Mitzvah.” Overall, the Guest Flaunt helped readers fully understand what it would be like to have such a severe speech impediment. “The words would be in my head…bottlenecked like Friday traffic…..,” he described. Beyond providing us insight, I was particularly taken with Rabbi Rosenberg’s passion for Hebrew and ultimate discovery that his speaking difficulties began to diminish when he spoke outside of his native tongue in the language he loved the most.
Most importantly, Rabbi Rosenberg advised that he lost his stutter when he became comfortable in his own skin. Both of these stories resonated deeply with me. When someone discovers his passion, it can produce miraculous results. My love for singing allowed me to learn to perform publically, never once giving thought to how my hands looked while I was on stage. It seems that when we identify and allow ourselves to experience those things we love doing the most, we are at our strongest, and most able to move through our anxieties, our hiding, our stuttering, and all the rest. That’s when we can finally be seen for our accomplishments, rather than our impairments.
This post is dedicated to Michelle Johnson, the Executive Producer and Owner of Diva Las Vegas Productions. If anyone is in Las Vegas, make sure to see Michelle perform! And, a special thanks to Facebook, for helping me reconnect with friends I lived with from all over the globe and who I otherwise would never have located.