Why I’m not a professional singer

We’re gonna take it back…way back.

Most of you know I’m a writer and an editor. Some of you know that I used to work in arts management. But I bet most of you don’t know that before I did either of those, my fondest ambition was to be in musical theatre. I’d grown up listening to musicals, and fell in love with them. When I got into 5th grade, I had the option to sing in chorus, and joined immediately. The more I sang, the more I loved singing. It came easily to me, and I was pretty good at it. I sang solos fairly regularly, and I really liked the recognition and applause I got for doing it.

So I decided I wanted to be a singer. I pursued chorus and musicals in high school and college, signed up for a vocal performance degree, and took beginning acting and dance classes. I kept up this pursuit for several years, until my junior year in college when I took my first advanced acting class.

I hated it.

Everything I had to do felt wrong. The class was very heavy in improvisation, which scared me literally stiff–there were a couple classes I felt physically paralyzed. Learning the characters of my monologues and scenes involved digging into emotions I had worked very hard (or was currently working very hard) to forget and escape. And I’d started to see how my classmates loved the very work I struggled with, that they couldn’t wait to work on it after class while I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and read a book. I began to find my supposedly-daily singing practice taking on the same dread and difficulty as well (and it had never been my favorite thing to do to begin with). But I had spent so many years telling myself that this was the career path I wanted, and I was so afraid of removing this driving force from a life that seemed to have no other direction, that I refused to quit.

Until one day past the halfway point of the term I found myself in tears in the middle of class, with the statement springing unbidden to my lips “I don’t know if this is really what I want to do!” Everything came out in a (literal) flood. As I spoke to my classmates and teachers through this crying jag I realized just how dishonest I had been with myself for so long. It wasn’t the craft of acting and the practice of singing I loved, it was the recognition I got for doing those things in front of people who saw me as a relative expert. Under that desire for attention (which was largely in place to counter a lot of social issues I’d struggled with for several years), I had no enthusiasm or love for the work of actually becoming an actor or singer.

I finished out the acting class (got the lowest grade of my entire college career), and ultimately my music major (I did a paper instead of a recital for my capstone), but for a while I really felt like a fraud. For something like six years I’d told myself and everyone who would listen that this was what I wanted to do. I’d said it loud and proud, and probably annoyed a lot of people with it. And now here I was, rudderless for the first time since sophomore year in high school. I felt like an absolute fake, an absolute failure, and worst of all, absolutely lost. I considered stopping performing entirely, though I still had no idea what I would do instead. I wasn’t the most depressed I’ve ever been, but I was pretty damn down.

Three things saved me: words, swimming, and West Side Story.

Words. As I considered what I could potentially do instead of vocal or theatrical performance, I remembered the distinction I’d made earlier between what my acting classmates loved and what I loved. They loved acting; I loved reading. This ultimately led me to change my potential second major from theatre to English, and spend the remaining terms of that year taking a lot more literature classes. Even though this change ultimately led me to spend a fifth year in college, it was clearly the right choice, and gave me a new direction to point myself in.

Swimming. I was on my college’s swim team, and as this acting class was winding down, swim season was starting to heat up. Between increasingly intense practices, a training trip to Florida over winter break, and the breakneck schedule of weekly meets after winter term started, I was too busy, too exhausted, and too focused on my work in the pool to give too much attention or thought to how depressed I was over what happened in the acting class. That season I recorded my best times of my collegiate career.

West Side Story. After some serious misgivings, I ended up auditioning for my college’s spring musical even though I wasn’t feeling particularly excited for it. And right off the bat I had to deal with some serious mental pushback when three people were called back for the two lead male roles of Tony and Riff, and I was the third one. I was relegated to being a bit part Jet with only one solo line in the whole show. I almost quit. But something made me decide to stay on…and it was the best decision I could have possible made. For the first time in who knew how long, I was in a show with absolutely no pressure. I didn’t have to stand out or impress anyone or be under any kind of scrutiny. All I had to do was sing and dance and do stage combat.

And I loved it.

Somewhere along the line in the rehearsal process, I realized that it wasn’t solo singing that I loved. It was THIS. Being part of an ensemble. Singing WITH people. I hated practicing by myself, but I loved rehearsing with everyone else. And just like that, a huge weight fell away. I found I could love performing again, even knowing I would never pursue it professionally. (I also met three incredible friends in the WSS ensemble, and the Jets stole the show so much with “Gee, Officer Krupke” that we were asked to resurrect it for a talent show the following year.) This experience ultimately led me to starting a men’s a cappella group at my school the following year, singing with prestigious choruses in three states after graduating, and nurturing the deep love of choral music I thought I’d lost after the acting class debacle to this day.

It also helped lead me to arts management…but “why I’m not an arts manager” is a story for another day.


  • PL DL

    Great read James.Reminded me of my love for collaboration.

    • James M. Ranson

      Thank you sir! Really glad this resonated with you. How are things in Chi-town?

      • PL DL

        Write on. Good man! Let me know if your in the area.