How Singing in a Band is Reminding Me That I'm Enough

I felt like I was out of my league, a nonprofessional backup singer surrounded by remarkable musicianship.
Publish date:
January 2, 2015
music, friends, bands, confidence, singing

"Remember when VH1 was your parents' music-video channel?" I half-seriously asked Matt as he was sound-mixing an upcoming episode of the reality show "Love & Hip-Hop" in his Lower East Side studio, Underground Audio. "Remember when it was where you went for the latest Bruce Hornsby video? I guess those days are over."

"That's just the way it is," Matt replied. I had met him only five minutes earlier, but I already knew he was a good egg. Anyone that quick on their feet with a Bruce Hornsby joke is a good egg.

I was intimidated, though. It was a beautiful recording and editing space, and Matt -- whose last name is, perfectly, Rocker -- is a supremely talented musician. So are the two guys who arrived after me, Alex Mallett and Chris Q. Murphy, who everyone but me calls Murphy because I've been calling him Chris since we were kids growing up in the same New Jersey hometown.

We'd assembled to learn and rehearse a set of Chris's songs, which we'll be performing tonight at Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn. Chris invited me to sing backup and a couple of duets, and I was psyched to participate; I've always wanted to get out and do more singing than just the occasional karaoke night, and while the Britpop choir I'm in is a great start, the idea of being in a band is extra-exciting to me. But something -- namely the fact that singing is the only contribution I can make to a band -- has held me back from trying to start or join one.

Earlier in the day, I had asked in our group email if anyone wanted me to bring beer or snacks. Before we started, I asked the guys one more time if they were sure they didn't want me to make a bodega run.

"It's weird that you're throwing yourself into the conventional gender role like that," Chris said, "the woman serving the refreshments."

"I know, I know. That occurred to me after I sent the email," I said, shrugging. "I just want to pull my weight around here."

Having known Chris for almost three decades, I was sure he could easily see that I felt like I was at the bottom of the totem pole in our quartet, but that I didn't resent that position; I felt deserving of and even apologetic about it.

Chris handed Matt, on drums, and Alex, on bass, hand-written charts of their parts, and he handed me lyrics. I looked over at Alex's charts and back at my lyrics and immediately felt like I was sitting at the kid's table. I haven't been able to read music since I was a mediocre cellist in middle school. But the lyrics were all I really needed as I'd be learning the harmonies by ear during this four-hour practice, the only one we'd have.

As we ran through the set, I was continually impressed not only by Chris's songwriting, but by his, Alex's and Matt's ability to improvise and rearrange their parts. I felt like I was out of my league, a nonprofessional singer surrounded by remarkable musicianship; that no matter how good a vocalist I may be, it wasn't as valid a contribution to this project as the musicality, education and experience of the others.

And so, when I opened my mouth in a non-singing capacity, insecure questions and comments came out.

"Let me know what you want me to do," I'd ask Chris before we'd start each song, referring to where the harmonies should go and what notes I should sing. In some cases, he already had my part in mind, but sometimes, he left it up to me.

"Just do what you think sounds right," he'd say.

"Uh... OK?" I said, unsure why someone with so much musical knowledge would trust me with helping to shape how his songs would be heard. I mean, I have solid instincts about harmonizing, but I can't confidently throw around terminology like thirds and semitone. But in virtually every case, he was pleased with what I'd sing. And in virtually every case, I'd be surprised that he was pleased with what I'd sing.

At the end of the rehearsal, Chris told me that he'd shown his wife the email I sent asking if anyone wanted me to bring beer and snacks.

"I said to Melissa, ‘I don’t think Marci knows she’s not an accessory,'" he said. "You’re here because you can sing."

That's when I realized no one was doing me some kind of reluctant favor by tolerating my presence; I was asked to be there by someone who believes in my talent, and I shouldn't compare myself to the rest of the members of the band, because they serve a different purpose and bring a different set of needed skills to the table. If I had been asked to play the piano for the band, I'd have every reason to be insecure and apologetic, as well as every reason to seriously question Chris's judgment. But I was there to sing backup.

I do this a lot -- comparing myself to others, apologizing for not being what I perceive to be adequate or not doing more than I'm expected to, being surprised when someone believes in me -- not just in musical situations, but in almost every scenario that could benefit from some relaxed confidence. And what Chris said instantly inspired a New Year's resolution to regularly remind myself that I'm enough. More than enough, even.

After the rehearsal, I decided to watch "20 Feet From Stardom," the fantastic 2013 documentary about some of the most prolific backup singers of the last half-century. I was hoping for a little inspiration, perhaps a nugget of confidence I could bring with me on stage tonight. I found it within the first few minutes.

"There’s a power to these women that stand on stage and sing with these guys," said Janice Pendarvis, who's sung background vocals for David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. And she's right. All they need to make an impact is a voice and a microphone. And the confidence to stand there.

I'm going to remember that when I join Chris, Alex and Matt on stage tonight. And if you're in the area, come by Pete's Candy Store -- we go on around 10 p.m. I'll be there because I can sing.