07/03/2014 11:54 EDT | Updated 09/02/2014 05:59 EDT

When I Turned 50 I Realized I Could Sing

I have a history of doing things out of sync with the rest of the world.

I tried the straight-and-narrow lifestyle at 20 -- married, 9-to-5 job after a university degree, baby a sensible 5 years later. Something happened, though, when I reached my late 20s and the whole normal façade began to fall apart.

I started nude modeling at age 34 (a whole story unto itself). I realized I could sing right about when I turned 50.

An outside observer might have noticed that the signs were there. I'd taken guitar lessons as a pre-teen and was writing my own (admittedly awful) songs as a young teenager. I'd gone so far as to brashly take a tape and my guitar to a studio somewhere in the big city at age 16, where a producer told me he could work with me on song writing (to the tune of lessons that I had no money for) and remarked, "you could also exploit your voice," (and his choice of words leads me as an adult to believe that he was in fact an actual studio professional and not a scam artist). He seemed to think I could sing.

Nonetheless, I let myself be persuaded that I had no musical talent -- and most particularly, not for singing. I sang my heart out in the car by myself for decades but never even considered the idea that I might be able to sing, like, in front of people.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it was my parents who told me I had an awful singing voice. Now, to be fair, this likely occurred during one of our family talent shows, where I'd belt out my compositions to the tunelessness of my Mickey Mouse guitar.

And to be even fairer, I know of many, many other people whose parents told them -- ordered them -- not to become musicians. African society, in contrast with the northern European/North American society I grew up in, not only reveres the arts but sees them as part of everyday life. It's why I envy their traditions so much -- yes, there are professional dancers and musicians but everyone else is also a dancer and musician.

Image of me by David McEachern


Yet, many of the African musicians I know and many others who I've interviewed have told me that they met with great parental resistance when they wanted to pursue a career as a musician. I've heard anecdotes of young musicians kicked out of the house, living on the street, disowned.

It was a stint in a public art project -- the Toronto Complaints Choir -- a few years ago that changed my mind. Belting it out over 30 other participants, I discovered I wasn't terrible at all. What I found out is that everyone can sing. It's all lies in discovering your internal physics and letting your musical mind take over.

What parents don't understand -- as I now understand -- is the overwhelming addiction that is making music. You're touching the face of God in truth. There is nothing that comes close except maybe sex and music is not usually as messy or unhygienic

Here I've been writing about the redemptive power of music to change lives for years -- wrote about the devotion of the Sistema kids in Venezuela, the inspiring story of the Sierra Leona Refugee All-Stars and many more -- and it's only now that I get the true nature of it.

I could get all New Age-y mystical and say that singing is about tapping into some kind of universal song - that I'm only an instrument for the music that originates from some cosmic plane. That's certainly what it feels like. It's taken a couple of years of constant work but I'm finally at the stage where my technique is adequate for the kind of material I want to sing and the buzz of being part of a group of people making music is indescribable.

Now I find I want to sing everything; the world is full of an endless repertoire to learn. So far it has amounted to a handful of restaurant and lounge gigs and a little busking -- which I love -- and a lot of singing and jamming with friends. The how and the wherefores don't matter -- just serving the god of music

That's why it really is wrong for parents all over the world to keep telling their kids to forget about music. And also why it's wrong for instrumental and choral music to vanish from our school systems. It's the universal language. It brings people together and makes them a part of something larger in a way that nothing else I've experienced in this world can do.

And the god of music is always looking for new devotees.

The Toronto Complaints Choir (under choir director Bryce Kulak) - I'm the one in the pink in the second row btw