Public speaking? Cool… Public singing? …Ummm

Here’s something for the annals of “you did what?”. Notwithstanding my impulsiveness in personal life (random weekend trips to Boston, Baratza coffee grinder, et. al.), my academic self is a deliberate, risk-averse animal, hewing to the standard, rarely deviating in appearance and presentation. I now have one data point against this characterization. The story goes like this…

I found out a couple of months ago that I had been selected to present my research on hemoglobin at the “90 Second Science” session suring the CORE Group’s 2018 Annual Global Health Practitioner Conference. I had 90 seconds and one powerpoint slide to describe my work. 90 seconds!

Imagine my surprise, when the first thought that entered my head I had when I found out was: I should sing this presentation. Wait, what? As a doctor and public health researcher, my presentations in scientific conferences have been pretty run-of-the-mill academic, in posters or oral sessions. I like to get creative in the trainings that I run as a technical assistance provider to USAID missions around the world- role play, learning by doing, energizers, Jeopardy! games, etc. These are underlined by my belief that I should talk less, listen more, and showing is better than speaking.  However, if there is a red line on my public performance, it’s at speaking to a beat aka singing/rapping.

The thought swirled around in my head for a few weeks and I tested the idea on a few colleagues and received 100% positive feedback and encouragement. In hindsight, that kind of painted me into a corner because I’d given the impression that I was going to do it, which was far from my state of mind! Still plagued by self-doubt, I thought I would get song/beat suggestions from the younger/far-more-hip-than-I-can-ever-be crowd at JSI (thanks, Diane, Natalie, Kelly) and these were the suggestions: Shape of you, Shawn Mendez, One direction, Imagine dragons -thunder, theme of the Big Bang Theory. Being of an advanced age, I needed a refresher on these suggestions. Heard them sing, sounded great. I was still not inspired and on the verge of abandoning the idea. I was also swamped with work, we were five days away from the conference,  and I didn’t know how someone who is not naturally gifted, musically, can write the words, practice, and sing publicly for the first time.

Cue one day later. I was with my friends Monique, Theresa, and Bob. They had one unanimous suggestion: Hamilton. I might have paled at their suggestion. 1) I don’t know how to sing or rap’ 2) I am tone deaf; (3) There are also 46 songs in Hamilton and I don’t know any of them well enough to sing, leave alone add my lyrics to their beat.

How does an Indian, nervous, never sung before and a
tone deaf, dropped in the middle of a spoken
Spot in a conference by selection, unsure, in horror,
Grow a pair to be a stage-on rapper?

It was May 31 and three days before the conference. We were at a happy hour and I was casually hinted at “Hamilton at Core Group” to Lin-Manuel Miranda superfan,  Ashley [I was still testing the waters with suggestions. My backup was to go the staid academic route, which I could so with my eyes closed.]  The song suggestion was immediate: Cabinet Battle #1. I was still clutching at straws but I know how deeply immersed she is in Hamilton lore, and I then decided that I was going to take her up on her suggestion. I still have 3 days to prepare, and lots of work piling up in my non-Hamilton life.  But if you know me, you know that, the dithering notwithstanding, once I’m set on a path, I stay on that path till the end.

I couldn’t get to Hamilton till Saturday – conference was on Monday. I spent Saturday listening to Cabinet Battle #1 on a loop, but only the first 1 minute 30 seconds (it was 90 second science after all!) I wrote out my research as lyrics, to the tune of the song. I spent Sunday with Suj and his daughter Sanvi, who were of course more important than a conference. I did convert an instrumental version of the song into a 1:30 clip. I was still playing around with the words, as they didn’t fit the beat well. And practicing.

Monday morning, 5 to 7 AM was dress rehearsal. Still not happy with words. But i needed to get the timing and pronunciation right.. trying saying “hemoglobin is definitely less” instead of “government assume state’s debt”…

I spent the day at the conference, attending sessions while subconsciously head-banging to Cabinet Battle #1 . I had a last minute practice at 3.30 pm. Then it was time, at 4 PM, and I was on first. The hitch was that the 1.30 instrumental clip I had recorded would be played through the central sound system with volume controlled by sound engineer. I’d practiced my rhythm with the music loud in my ear, so I was not sure how I was going to maintain both beat and key without the music being as loud. As I started the song with “Ladies and [music] gentlemen, you coulda been anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with us in Bethesda Maryland. Are you ready…for a 90 second science session”, I realized that I couldn’t hear the music well. Nonetheless, I was in it, and i forged on ahead. Gwyneth recorded it all from the front row, so I will know how I did after I see the video. [Update: I have seen the video- Ed]

Tell me how I did. Be gentle.

The lyrics are available on request.

Before you ask me about any more singing appearances, I will have to say, “I can neither confirm or deny any future musical interludes, research-y or otherwise”.

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