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Learning to Sing

Hearing the Music in Your Life

Learning to Sing by Clay Aiken
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“My mother prophesied years ago that my voice would take me places. She was certain that there was a reason I was able to sing. I am still discovering what that reason is, what it is that God wants to happen.”
–CLAY AIKEN, from Learning to Sing

When he was a kid singing in his church choir, Clay Aiken never dreamed of becoming a pop music star. His ambition was to be a teacher, maybe even a high school principal. But Clay’s mother was right, and the music that was Clay’s joy in life was destined to lead him to unexpected triumphs.

In Learning to Sing, Clay details what his astonishing success has meant to him. He writes from the heart about his life before and since his instant stardom on American Idol, how he has changed, and how he struggles to adapt to life in the public eye. He speaks candidly about his lonely childhood: the father who abandoned him, the school bullies who tormented him, the mother who taught him to be strong, and the friends and teachers who–more than they ever knew–kept him going. He describes his new high-profile life in Los Angeles– the awards shows, the free clothes, the unfortunate presence of avocado on all the food. More significant, he reveals what he has discovered from diving into the white-hot center of pop culture: what it takes for him to stay true to himself and remember the lessons he learned growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Clay shares his struggle to remain a man his mother can be proud of, and writes about the faith that sustains him today just as it did when he was an awkward, unpopular outsider. “I believe God has a direction for me. He did not give me this life just so I could buy a big house and an SUV. My job is to give back and to be a decent human being no matter how many people cheer my name.”

Clay’s friends–the old ones from North Carolina and the millions of new ones who love his voice–will hold this inspiring memoir as close to their hearts as they do his music. Learning to Sing reminds you that anything is possible. Like a perfect song, it will send your spirit soaring.

From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group; November 2004
ISBN 9781588364531
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Learning to Sing
Author: Clay Aiken; Allison Glock

Listen First

When I was a kid, the punishment I disliked the most was writing sentences. My mother loved to make me record my transgressions– always a minimum of five hundred times–and she even bought special spiral notebooks for me to fill up.
“I will not talk back.”
“I will not say my dinner is yucky.”
“I will not say Granny’s face needs ironing.”
No matter how many notebooks I went through, there was always another one waiting in the kitchen drawer.

I’m not sure writing sentences stopped me from acting out. But it did make me afraid of writing. Still, here goes.

I wanted to write this book primarily as a thank-you to all the people who have helped me become the man I am. So much has happened since American Idol, and in many ways I haven’t had an opportunity to reflect. I have toured three times. I have moved twice. I’ve flown across the country to appear on television programs that I used to watch. I recorded a solo album. A chicken with his head cut off has nothing on me. My hope is that by writing this book, I will force myself to slow down a little and take the time to savor both the past and the present, to give myself a chance to remember what matters. I also wanted to share stories about my life in the hope that it might enable a handful of other people to feel better about themselves. I was dubbed a loser throughout most of my childhood. As a kid, I was an insult magnet–a nerd who loved his grandparents, who wore the wrong clothes, who liked the wrong things, who had goofy hair and glasses, who didn’t smoke or drink.

It made for a lonely childhood. More than a decade later, I figured out that the real reason people didn’t like me was that I didn’t like me. When I learned to believe in myself, to have faith and to remain stubborn in my convictions, my life changed. Once I decided I was okay, other people agreed. And those folks who didn’t agree didn’t matter so much anymore. My mother taught me that we all have the power to achieve our dreams. What I lacked was the courage. The people I write about in this book gave me that courage. I learned from them, and as a former teacher, I believe that lessons should be passed along.

Many people think they know me from watching me on television, and in some ways they do. I like to think that what you see is basically who I am.

I like to talk. I’m a terrible dancer. I love my hometown. I have freckles and oversized ears. I’m a geek. I have tried not to hide who I am or what matters to me. Growing up in a friendly Southern town, I wasn’t trained for subterfuge. My mama believed in honesty and integrity, and I have endeavored to live up to her example.

No person matures by himself. We have all had someone who reached down and picked us up when we couldn’t manage to rise on our own. We have all been carried. I know I have been.

I was blessed with a mother who is strong, smart, and filled with the sort of decency that is out of fashion these days. Her fortitude enabled me to rise above circumstances that otherwise would have crushed me.

“Que será, será,” she would sing to me every night as I drifted off to sleep. “Whatever will be, will be.”

Mom helped me to see that every person is like a painting. When you come into contact with another life, that individual dabs a little bit of color onto your soul. It isn’t always a color you like, but even ugliness provides its own lessons.

I learned this the hard way. There was no shortage of ugliness in my childhood. My daddy drank too much, and when he did, he turned to violence. Mom and I spent much of my early childhood disentangling ourselves from him.

Then I went to grade school and discovered a whole new form of cruelty: the heartlessness of exclusion.

Pain happens to everyone. To grow up, to fulfill your potential, to develop into what God wants you to be–this process takes support. No one succeeds alone.

It is like making an album. I may sing, but someone else writes the songs, someone produces, another person engineers, another person packages, another person markets, another person sells it, another person buys it. To say I created a platinum-selling album is silly. A group created it. Life is collaboration.

Now, I’m able to screw things up on my own; that’s not a problem. But getting things right–that takes assistance and guidance.

I believe God has a plan. God has a direction for me. He may put me on a few detours, but the path will ultimately reveal itself. My job is to be a decent human being no matter how rocky the road gets.

Lately, the road has been pretty bumpy. Adjusting to life in Hollywood, far from the comfort of home, has been a challenge. I have had to adapt to so many things. Distance from my family. Traffic. Avocado on all the food. Most of my new life is amazing. But then there are times when I look around and notice that everyone around me is a stranger. In Raleigh, I had friends for eighteen years. Out in L.A., I spend my days around people who have been in my world for only three months. I may see them every day, but they don’t know me.

When I taped the Primetime Live interview with Diane Sawyer, I was struck for the first time with how significantly my life had changed. We were setting up in an old nightclub in New York City. There were arches, banquettes, and a curtained stage. The floor was checkered. It reminded me of the sort of place where Sinatra might have performed. When I arrived, there were bright lights and cameras everywhere. People scurried around with clipboards and cell phones. There were producers and management teams and makeup artists and wardrobe consultants and camera operators and lighting experts and caterers and assistants for the assistants. I was stuck in the corner and I watched these masses of people rushing and bustling because of me. I wondered: Why? What had I really done? I sang. But I had always sung. Suddenly, people cared. Since then, my entire circle of friends has changed. The people I thought would always be my peers really aren’t anymore.

I used to imagine what a typical day would be like once I grew up. I thought maybe I’d have a crappy time at work and I would call my friends who were also teachers and ask their advice about how to reach a particular student. Then I’d drive home or maybe meet my family for dinner at Applebee’s. Now it seems all my new friends are people who work for me. And when I don’t have a job for them, they may not be around. There are many days when I consider quitting. I fantasize about trading places with buddies who are teaching back in North Carolina, leading the life I thought would be mine. I relished being in the classroom. My whole existence had been mapped out down to the career conflict I would have: Would I want to be a principal or stay a teacher? Would I move to a high school or continue teaching elementary-level special ed? When my friends back home tell me stories about connecting with children, I feel acutely that I’m not making a difference. I find it difficult to believe that my getting more famous helps anyone else. Some days it would be nice to forget it all happened and go to the mall. When I feel down like that, I try to focus on what is good about my life now. I am making more money for charity than I ever would have been able to earn as a teacher. I have a broader platform for calling attention to children with special needs. I am singing.

To me, singingis the single most joyous thing a person can do. A song is like a smile. If you meet someone from another country, even if you don’t speak the same language, you know what a smile means. A song works the same way. Music produces feelings that need no translation. My mother prophesied years ago that my voice would take me places. She was certain that there was a reason I was able to sing. I am still discovering what that reason is. I am only twenty-five. I still have many unanswered questions. I’ve had to learn that whatever comes out of this is what God wants to happen. The challenge now is to find a way to do good work. American celebrities have an amazing amount of influence on the way young people in our country think, feel, and act. I believe that such influence should be used in the most constructive way possible. I want to use my voice to inspire good in others. I never want to produce anything that a family could not enjoy together. I never want to create art that would embarrass my own children later.

I do this because it feels right.
I do this because if I didn’t, my mother would snatch me bald-headed.
As she should.

One Sunday afternoon I decided to stay home with Clayton instead of going to my mother’s house. He must have been around two and a half. It was a mistake because I became so blue during the day. I found myself sitting on the sofa looking out the window. The stereo was playing some sad music and the depression finally overcame me. Clayton, being such a sensitive child, noticed and said, “Mama, what you thinking about?”
“Oh, a lot of things,” I said.
“Mama, you got cry in your eyes. What you need? You need me?”
I told him the music was making me sad.
“Okay,” he said. “You come to my room and I’ll play you some happy music.”
And he took me upstairs and sat me down and started to sing for me.
–Faye Parker

From the Hardcover edition.