Fierce, Faithful and Free
Tenor In Heels
By Linda Kay Klein
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“Come in,” Billie said.
I hesitated. Billie never called me into her office that way. She preferred to open the door, look me up and down, shake her head, and then take a long step to the side, allowing me the privilege of entering her office for our weekly independent study.
“Is everything okay?” I asked as I peeked inside.
Billie sat at her desk leaning on her elbows, her hands folded in front of her chin. She wore a deep purple pantsuit, earrings the size of a fist, and had a cleft in her chin that said “I don’t take no shit.” Billie gestured for me to sit on the small stool in the corner of her office. I set my acoustic guitar down against the wall, and fumbled with the zipper of my Jansport, nervously removing a pen and a pad of pink lined notebook paper before tucking the backpack under the stool. Billie waited.
“Are you settled?” she finally asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Billie leaned across the desk, reaching for her answering machine, and pressed “play.”
“Hi Billie,” squeaked a small, thin, high-pitched voice. I looked up. “Um, I’m calling because, I’m sorry but, um, I’m just feeling really sick this morning and, um (cough cough) I was just wondering if, do you think we could, maybe, reschedule our meeting today?” It was a message I had left Tracy last week. “I’m sorry, I’m just feeling, like, really, really terrible, and um, well, just, well I guess just call me and we’ll find another time to meet this week if that’s okay with you? Or if you can’t do later this week just let me know and I’ll come in anyway. But I don’t want to get you sick. Okay, thanks Billie. I’m really sorry. Okay. Bye. Sorry.”
Billie pressed stop.
“Who was that?” she asked me.
“Um…” I stammered.
“Who was that?” she asked again.
“Me?” I looked at her to see if I had gotten the right answer. Billie looked away with exasperation. Clearly, I had not.
“You,” she repeated me. “That was…you?”
“That squeaky little, meek, I’m-so-sorry-somebody, that was you?”
I opened my mouth to respond and then shut it again. I wasn’t sure what Billie wanted me to say, what she was looking for.
“I guess that—“ I finally tried.
“—I’m disappointed to hear that,” Billie cut me off. “I’m disappointed to hear that that was you. Because I thought you were more than that. Or that you could be, if you’d made the choice to be for once.”
I looked down at the notebook on my lap, ashamed of myself without really knowing why. My pen still stood readied on the page. What was this? Some kind of lesson? Should I be taking notes? What did she want me to do? Say? Finally, I set my pen down on the paper and looked up at her, pleading with my eyes for her to explain.
“Girl, you’re not foolin’ me!” Billie finally hollered. She walked back around the desk and threw herself on the chair opposite my stool. “You may be foolin’ you, but you’re not foolin’ me.” She slammed down the rewind button on the answering machine. The tape spun backward, screaming its high-pitched zip of words in reverse moving too fast to be heard, let alone understood. Finally, the rewind button snapped back. I jumped.
“Nobody’s voice is that high. And I’ve heard you sing, Linda,” Billie said, leaning toward me. “That low-down soul-thing you do when you forget to be the good girl you still think you’ve got to be. So I know, that little girl on my answering machine? She isn’t you. Stop trying to pretend she is.”
With that, Billie pressed “play” again. And again. And again. We listened to that recording over and over and over again until I had every pause, every lift and every dip of my own voice memorized. And then, Billie told me to go home and think about what I had heard.
“You don’t want to hear the song I wrote this week?” I asked her.
“Don’t you understand what we’re doing here together yet?” she said, as though she couldn’t believe my question. “This class isn’t about your songs, Linda; it is about you. You will never be able to write a song that matters if you don’t believe that you matter. First things first. Now, go home.”
I muttered to myself as I walked back to my dorm room. Did she have any idea how much I was paying for this class? For this school? My family wasn’t made of money like a lot of these girls’ were. I actually wanted to learn something in my classes. Last week, Billie and I spent fifteen minutes going through a Mary J. Blige album jacket, discussing what the artistic director was going for in each photo, and what my own style choices said…or didn’t say…about me. “Every week, you come to my class in jeans and a t-shirt,” she had told me. “When you wear that, you’re telling everyone, Hey, I’ve got nothing to say.” I looked down at my bright orange t-shirt. It read: Support Wisconsin. Eat Cheese.
Billie and I spent most of our semester together haggling over just what our independent study was about. I thought it was about writing music and poetry. Billie had something else in mind. Sure, she knew I would write a few songs, but they were mostly there as opportunities for her to psychoanalyze me.
For Billie, art was ongoing—whatever the artist was up to, the art was too. She referred to herself as a “sound artist,” and saw that art as being as much about the way the artist projected her voice when she yelled at her neighbor to turn down his music or the way she grumbled into her coffee when it was too grainy as it was about what an artist did on stage. Real art couldn’t stop and start any more than real people could. So either I was that little girl with the high-pitched voice apologizing on her answering machine or I was the artist who knew how to sing from a place so low it made her gut shake. I could be either, but I couldn’t be both. And Billie wanted me to decide one or the other. Now. And over the course of the following week, I finally got that. So the next time I came to her office I told her “Okay, let’s do this your way.” She smiled.
What Billie didn’t know was how intensely I had been raised to use the little girl voice that bothered her so much. In the evangelical Christian community in which I grew up, girls and women who spoke with too low a voice, or with too much confidence, faced serious consequences. One of the young women in my youth group once received a letter from a member of her Bible study group insisting that she resign because her voice was too deep and manly, which indicated that she was not suitable to lead the group. When she ignored it, the individual who sent the letter brought the issue to the pastor, who mediated a discussion about whether or not my friend did indeed need to resign. The same young woman was told by her pre-marriage counselor that if she didn’t stop speaking with so much confidence her marriage would not last long. Her fiancé nodded, and she clamped her mouth shut, fuming at the injustice of the statement and worrying that it may be true at the same time.
Unable to choose between the religion she loved and the gender paradigms she hated, my friend has spent her life fighting the way the church treats women from the inside, boldly facing pain and mistreatment for her instance upon being herself. But not me. I didn’t even know that my real vocal register was low. I had literally never let my throat relax enough to realize that I spoke in a higher pitched voice than was natural to me, and that when I was nervous or apologetic, I became a chipmunk. I honestly had no idea that I could speak in any other way.
Over the rest of the semester, Billie took to interrupting me almost every time I spoke.
“Pay attention to what you’re doing now,” she would say. “Your voice just went up. You hear that? The squeaky girl is back. Why? What are you thinking? What are we doing here that brought you back there?”
“I don’t know,” I would say. “I guess I…was wondering if you think—”
“I think. You were wondering if I think.” Billie gave a low guttural laugh. “You want me to approve of you? Then stop asking me to. Be true to yourself instead. How does your throat feel?”
“Tight. Right. So relax it.”
I closed my eyes, dropped my tongue to create space at the back of my throat and took a deep breath.
“Okay, now finish what you were saying,” Billie prodded.
And I paused, centered myself, and finished my sentence. When I did, it came out straight and low, without apology, without permission, without question and with a mounting annoyance at the professor who it would’ve killed to give a girl a break, let alone a friggin’ pat on the head every once in a while.
“Good,” Billie said. “Now—sing.”
Then one day, I didn’t stop to bottle either my anger at Billie or my frustration with myself. Instead, I closed my eyes, readied my hand on the neck of my guitar and went straight into song. The anger, the frustration, it all went into the song I’d written that week.
Oh I’m struggling now
But I’m learning how
To fly with arm, legs and feet, finger nails and gritted teeth
We ain’t given wings
We gotta make the damn things
Outa agony and despondency which are coming a lot to me lately
I’m struggling now
But I’m learning how
“There it is!” Billie exclaimed.
I opened my eyes.
“Everything you’ve been hiding behind that little girl voice!” she exclaimed. “There it is! What a shame. When all the while, you could do this.”
Over the coming years, I began to pay close attention to when I spoke in my little girl voice. Back when I was working with Billie, I used it all the time. I didn’t even know I could speak any other way. But as time when on, I began to notice myself only using it when I was nervous, or deferential, or with a man I liked. I heard it and realized I’d been triggered by a need to be liked or approved of, by feeling like I might be in trouble, and all kinds of others things.
Eventually, I learned to stop myself mid-sentence, close my eyes, relax my throat, take a deep breath and then open my eyes and continue speaking as though nothing had happened, baffling those I was having a conversation with. The voice that emerged afterward I stopped myself was always deep and powerful. Sometimes, people literally took a step back.
“Whoa! What just happened?” they would ask.
The more I practiced hearing the little girl voice, stopping, and dropping my voice, the more that a deeper, more lyrical voice—one that did not hurt my throat to use—replaced the little girl who used to speak for me.
Ten years after my independent study with Billie, I now stand among a crowd of black men in the tenor section of a progressive gospel choir in New York City. They call me and the few other women who sing in our section “tenors in heels.” It was a long spiritual journey to get here, but over time, I learned that my soul-voice—the voice with which I commune best with God—lives lower in me than I ever thought. Today, when I sing in that voice, I can feel my own soul expanding right there on the spot, the way you can sometimes see a truly phenomenal singer’s soul do on stage. I live for those moments, the ones in which you get this incredible powerful opportunity to see a person climb up on their own soul’s shoulders and be carried closer to God—ever wondering, ever questioning, ever seeking—yet closer and closer to the wide spread of wild power that is the unknowable truth of the divine.
Now, when the apartment is still and I am alone, I sometimes sit in the center of a room. I cross my legs, close my eyes, sit still for a moment, and then, I open my mouth, and I sing. I always start out very low, very slow, gathering up the my deepest energy. I let the music wander, let it search the space around me out, and tell God about my questions and my concerns, about things that I am sometimes too busy to know are bothering me until the music helps me find them, in song. It is a kind of meditation, a kind of prayer, but one I do through music. I allow words or phrases repeat—praying anger, sadness, joy and longing into them until the words get worn out and lie down all raggedly and panting on the hardwood floor, their juice sung right out of them. And sometimes, when I am very lucky, I sing my way not only into my questions but into God’s answers. They show up in my mouth, coming right off my tongue, and I have no idea how they got there except to say that my voice became God’s voice, my soul voice, the soul voice, and for one brief moment I could hear the voice of the divine in my own.
“Oh!” I exclaim aloud every time it happens, my eyes still closed. “Well now, that was you, God, wasn’t it? Hi!”
It is in these moments, alone with God, singing in my true voice, that I feel closest to Him. What a shame that the religious community I grew up in taught its girls that they could only use one voice—the syrupy-sweet voice of child, a little girl not yet fully grown. What a shame that we were told that we could not go low. When all the while, we could do this.
Linda Kay Klein is a writer, speaker, and spiritual strongwoman based in New York City. She is a frequent speaker at colleges, universities, conferences and nonprofits, and has been featured by outlets such as NPR, PRN, and the American Prospect.
Linda urges authentic engagement around life’s biggest questions—be it in her role as a former evangelical Christian who now gathers stories from young evangelical and ex-evangelical women about sex and gender, or as the Director of Work on Purpose at Echoing Green's program to equip Millennials to do work that is right for them and good for the world.
Linda has worked for a number of progressive religious organizations—from the multifaith gender equality foundation, The Sister Fund, to the young women’s spiritual leadership movement, REVEAL: Young Women Defining the Divine. She was the assistant writer for “Testimony,” a documentary theater piece on the religious culture wars which was incubated by Princeton University, and she sits on the advisory board of our very own Feminist.com’s “Our Inner Lives” religion and spirituality project.
Linda holds a Masters in religious studies and creative writing from NYU, where she focused on American Evangelical sex and gender education, and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and theater from Sarah Lawrence College.
For more information, check out her blog at www.manmadegirls.com.
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