At my college’s orientation weekend, we were put into groups to do an icebreaker game.

“Say something unique about yourself,” said the orientation leader, who looked to be as uncomfortable as the 12 sweating freshmen sitting around him. “A fun fact or something that sets you apart from someone else.”

I paused to think about what I would say. The first thing that popped into my head was that I’ve sung in Carnegie Hall. My own self-doubt and self-consciousness over being insufferable got the better of me. I clamped my hands onto my plaid short-covered knees and said, “I get frequent nosebleeds.” Carnegie Hall was too impressive, too indicative of someone who knew what they were doing.

I can’t read music really well. When I went to a music and theater camp as a freshman in high school, I got put into what was basically remedial music theory. Bored kids who just wanted to sing or act their little hearts out sat in a stifling classroom that summer. Our teacher was a guy with a ginger beard and a newborn who had too little patience and too little sleep to teach us what the hell the key of G was or how to read what everyone was singing for our choral performance that week.

From Faure’s “Requiem” to Edvard Grieg’s “I Himmelen”, each afternoon I shrunk and made the voice I boomed so proudly in my school’s chorus class too small to discern from the talented musicians that surrounded me. The chamber music instructor was exasperated.

“If you’re going to keep up, you have to understand music theory.”

I felt every missed note. My “pitchy” quality was on display. Musically-illiterate. 

It wasn’t like I hadn’t had any training. Sure, I can clap out beats and read something in the key of C if you give me enough time, but sight singing? No way. Not on my best day. I was surrounded by people who could pronounce the Italian, German, and French we sang with ease. They could just look at a piece of music and sing it beautifully. I couldn’t do that. And yet a year after that miserable remedial music theory class, I was standing on the same boards where Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Mark Twain, and The Beatles shared their talent with the world.

It’s a humbling experience, singing in front of other people. You’re so vulnerable and once you’re there, you can’t lie. You can’t fake singing well. You either hit a note or you don’t. So when my chorus teacher announced that he was taking a group of selected singers to New York to perform in a festival, there was a part of me that shied from the opportunity. Yeah, it was Carnegie Hall, but did I even deserve to be there?

I threw myself into practicing the pieces they gave us. I still can’t read music, but for months, I hummed, sang, shouted and shrilled my way through gospel hymns, a beautiful piece inspired by a Shelley poem (which happens to be my favorite), and a mournful Brahms. When we got there, we were prepared. Jill, a junior, got a solo in the performance. I saved my ticket stub and teared when the last note rang out. I couldn’t believe I did it.

My euphoria carried itself back to the school year. The voice that was louder and more confident than the rest in 2nd period? That was me. The overeager beaver who jumped at any opportunity for a solo, no matter how flat she was when she had to do it in front of people? You betcha. But the girl who didn’t get picked for District Chorus because her scores from the judges put her below the cut? Yep, that was me too – and it sucked.

I put the bravado away for awhile and only let it peek out for the spring musical, and an awkward, costumed duet I sang with a junior high boyfriend. I graduated and figured I was done, save for the occasional karaoke performance. What was left for someone who couldn’t read music?

I walked by Carnegie Hall this past winter. It took me a moment to remember that my skinny, long limbed self had been filled with so much joy when I looked out at all of those seats – some filled, some not – in a place that held more history than I could have ever imagined.

I turned to my friend as she walked beside me and smiled. “I sang there once, you know.”