Editor’s note: Entrepreneur and Podcaster on The What’s Your Excuse? Show, Max Ivey, shares his journey of finding the courage to sing publicly. Max contributes his story in hopes of encouraging others who are blind or low vision to conquer any fear they have in pursuit of an employment goal or personal aspiration.
I’m writing to share the journey I have gone through to overcome and even thrive over a long-standing personal fear.
Most people on the Ivey side of my family can play a musical instrument or sing; many can play multiple instruments. I recall loving singing with my dad and grandfather, J V, who was good enough to play on the radio in the ‘40s.
I have never learned to pick a guitar, but I can sing. I was even in the choir in junior high school. I sang alto and, later, tenor.
Losing My Love of Singing
Unfortunately, I lost my love for singing due to the continued vision loss of Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) and the changing of my voice that came with puberty.
Several musical variety shows were on TV during my teen years, including Sonny & Cher and Donnie & Marie. I wanted to sing along with the performers while watching the shows. Somehow, because of my decreased vision, I got it in my head they were singing without moving their lips. When my family tried to correct me, I thought they were picking on me for no good reason.
As far as my voice changing, that happened during the middle of the school year. I had been singing with the choir as an alto all year. Some of the other students noticed I was struggling. But instead of having a teacher talk to me, they teased me. They even told me to lip sing at a competition. Our performance was below our expectations, but at least the choir teacher discovered the problem and made me a tenor the following year.
But the damage had been done. I had lost my love for music. I only sang if I knew someone couldn’t hear me.
Eventually, I sang along with the radio when riding with my dad. We both enjoyed the same music, and he never made fun of me. I would also sing to myself to pass the time on the carnival midway when crowds were sparse or when people avoided my game booth for more exciting games with better prizes.
In 2003, Dad passed away, and by 2007, our carnival closed. I began working with my Uncle Albert’s carnival. My games couldn’t compete with those on a more extensive midway; I eventually had to find something else to occupy my time.
Finding a New Career
The only work experience I had was helping people sell their used rides. I did this when Dad was alive because the only way we could buy newer rides was to sell our older ones.
Once I stopped working carnivals, I had to learn many new skills, including HTML coding. I didn’t learn it because I wanted to. At that time, the only way a man who is blind could run a website was to learn HTML. This way of thinking was before the existence of technologies such as WordPress, Wi-Fi, and Facebook. I had no money, talent, or skills. At least, that is how I saw it.
While working to sell a used carousel, I requested a video of the ride in operation. The video led to the sale of a ride in only 30 days that had been listed for sale by other brokers for over a year.
I thought if a video could sell a ride, maybe one could sell me. I decided to record videos telling people about new items for sale on the midway. After a friend helped me configure the built-in camera on my laptop so I would know when I was in focus, I was ready to record. But I needed an introduction. I didn’t have the money to hire someone to make one. I didn’t have the skills to create something fancy. So, I decided to sing an introduction. It was near the end of the year, so I did a few lines from the Christmas song by Nat King Cole. People liked the video in general but expressed they liked my singing on it. They encouraged me to sing more.
I kept recording videos for the Midway Marketplace and eventually started recording myself singing covers. It was eye-opening to know that, according to my stats, people seemed to like my singing better than my talking.
I never thought of these videos as a VLOG (personal website) or a podcast, which is probably how I was able to record them without getting nervous. Plus, I had the motivation of that big amusement ride sale.
In early 2013, I discovered podcasts and did my first live interview. I began focusing on the ride brokering business. After I accepted my role as someone who could inspire others and started working as the Blind Blogger, I continued doing podcast and radio interviews. One day, a host asked if I would sing at the end of the interview. I didn’t think about it. I just did it. I sang the second verse of the River by Garth Brooks, a song about not waiting until tomorrow to take action. The host loved it! Other interviewers began asking me to sing.
In the fall of 2016, I appeared on the Dreamers Podcast hosted by Super Joe Pardo. In 2017 he invited me to Philadelphia to be part of his first in-person conference. It was a long way to go for my first speaking event. Thankfully, additional opportunities came my way once I said yes. You can read more stories about my speaking engagements in my book. Everyone was impressed by my courage to make the trip and by my talk on not letting fear keep you from your dreams.
After the event, people hung around taking photos. I felt comfortable with everyone, so I asked them if it would be okay to sing in front of the banner. They said yes, and I sang the first verse of the River.
My knees were knocking, my stomach was rumbling, and I thought I would be sick. I was nervous that day, something my friends and other speakers claim doesn’t happen to Max. When I was through, one of the other speakers came up and gave me a big hug. His name was Azuka Zuke, a bestselling author and an in-demand public speaker. He said, “Max, I coach speakers. And singing is going to be your thing. I never want to hear that you have walked away from the mic without singing.”
I took his message to heart and started doing that. At first, I had to explain my singing and justify it. I didn’t feel right singing, but now it feels more natural. I tell organizers when they book me to speak, they are booking me to start or finish with a song.
I received a standing ovation at my last in-person speaking event at Pod Fest Expo Orlando in March 2020. Speaking of vision loss affecting things, I didn’t know I was getting a standing ovation until the organizer told me! I am glad he did, or I wouldn’t have acknowledged the crowd properly.
Growing My Confidence Singing
Over time my confidence with singing in public increased. I’m starting to believe I have some talent, people love hearing me sing, and the courage it takes to face my fears and sing in public has the power to change lives.
Last year I heard the song “Better Together” by Luke Combs. I love the song, but I don’t like some of the lyrics in the chorus. So, I decided to write my own lyrics to his music.
Where he sings:
‘It’s a match made up in heaven. Like good old boys and beer.”
“Like having S’mores around the campfire or cotton candy at the county fair.”
I shared my version online, and my followers liked it. I shared it with Luke Combs’s staff, and no one has complained. I’m not sure they have even noticed.
After hearing my version of Luke Comb’s song, a friend challenged me to write an entire song of my own. I told her I had never written a song and wouldn’t know where to start. She asked me, “Max, how did you do all those other difficult things?” She answered her question by saying, “You started small.” She challenged me to write just one verse or just one line.
So, I took her advice, which reminded me of something I knew or should have known. I created a song called “If You Don’t Ask.”
Dad taught me that you would be told “No” a lot. He also taught me that as a blind man, I needed to get over the fear of asking for help. He always used to say if you don’t ask, they can’t say yes.
The song references things like getting hired, getting help moving, hearing I do, or being told you are the best.
The lyrics represent a talk I have given many times and thoughts I have shared in many podcast interviews. I was surprised by the number of people who said the song helped them understand my message better than when I talked about the subject.
Finally, my friend and editor, Lorraine Reguly, challenged me to write that next song. She suggested I use “What’s your excuse?”. This is because, over the years many people have said, “If Max can do it, what’s my excuse?”
My podcast is also called “What’s Your Excuse?”. And the podcast network I founded last year to help people with disabilities start their own shows is called the WYE network.
I began working on the song. I came up with the chorus right away. A catchy tune came to my mind very quickly.
Once I settled on the chorus, the lines of each verse had to have a similar number of words. And I really struggled with that. Even now, a couple of lines don’t quite fit.
I shared the first few verses on LinkedIn and Facebook to hear what people thought. The reviews weren’t great. I was told the song needed a lot of work. People said the verses and chorus were too repetitive. Some said the song was too long to be commercial. And others criticized the audio quality or the video background in my recording.
But I kept working on it. I got it to where I had four solid verses. I was pretty happy with it but wanted to get more feedback. Several people in my circle still thought it wasn’t good enough.
I finally decided to do what I tell other creatives to do. I did what I talked about in my post about starting a podcast. I released my song anyway. I gave people the opportunity to find something to love.
And wow, did they find things to love. My friend Rick Dodson, a professional musician and performer whom I didn’t share it with prior to releasing it, told me I was honest and authentic. He said he could see me working in my grandma’s cotton candy stand or picture me setting up carnival rides in the hot Texas sun.
Another friend, Kevin Lowe, who hosts the “Lowe Down with Kevin Lowe podcast,” called my song a classic country music song that includes authentic storytelling.
And my friend Romeo Crow from the UK, who also hadn’t heard the song before its release, wrote to tell me how much he loved it, specifically mentioning the lines about my overly bright website.
My Next Act
I shared my song with Neva Fairchild from the American Foundation for the Blind and Pris Rogers from APH VisionAware. I didn’t tell either of them I had shared it with the other.
Neva said, “Max, this is great! Will you sing it at the AFB Blind Leaders graduation ceremony?” I said sure, as long as I can sing it acapella because that’s the only way I know to sing it.
She told me that was fine but to think of ways to encourage crowd participation. Some friends mentioned the song gets stuck in their heads, and they can’t help but sing along or tap their feet to it.
When Pris heard my song, she said, “This is awesome; we need to find more to do with your song.” She suggested I write this post about my journey.
A Change of Plans
I had been rehearsing my song, looking forward to the graduation ceremony with excitement and fear. Singing in public is one of those things that will always make me nervous. And this was to be the first time I attended an event where my singing was the primary reason for attending.
Well, as sometimes happens in life, it turned out I could not go to Louisville. There was flooding in eastern Kentucky. I know that’s a long way from Louisville, but we Houstonians have a healthy fear of flooding. Also, COVID was on the rise again. I live with a 78-year-old mom and a younger brother who survived arrhythmia, which is usually fatal. There were too many at-risk people in my family to chance it. Plus, the trip was making my church family nervous. If it were up to me, I would have gone ahead anyway.
At first I was crushed. I can’t remember anything I have wanted this badly in years. I was so depressed by not being able to go that I didn’t even think beyond the decision.
This is funny because I’m known to many as the “no excuses guy” and the “decide to find the positive guy.”
Neva was very understanding. She said I could attend the ceremony online and even sing my song virtually. I felt a little better.
But it isn’t the same performing over Zoom or Google Meet as it is standing there in person with the mic in your hand. The energy is different. There is nothing like the immediate response from a hot crowd.
I didn’t know if people would be able to sing along or not. I also didn’t know if AFB would get the same benefit by sharing the video. Plus, the showman in me was upset I was disappointing people by not showing up in person.
Yet, I was still looking forward to getting to sing. Without this, I would have had an even harder time recovering from the sense of personal disappointment. We aren’t presented with many of these moments, so we have to take advantage of them.
My friend Rick said singing on a virtual platform would be even better. He pointed out that people could watch live instead of watching the event video later. Prior to the event, I didn’t know if I agreed with him.
Now, I can have your thoughts on how it went and what the impact is from hearing this blind carnie kid from Houston, Texas, singing a song he wrote on a big stage facing his fear of singing because it brings him and others joy.
Here’s my song–If I can do it, what’s your excuse! Enjoy!
A Word of Encouragement
I hope my story encourages you to face your own fears and take small steps toward following your passion. If I can help, please reach out through my website.
Thanks so much for being part of my journey.
AFB Blind Leaders Development Program
How To Create a Podcast – VisionAware
The Blind Blogger – Helping you share your story and grow your passion through the power of TV, radio, and podcast interviews.
Maxwell Ivey – YouTube