As a teacher who works with students in public schools, my yearly calendar is still pretty much the same as it has been my whole life. Busy during the academic school year, then a slower few months of summer vacation until the cycle starts anew. The summer is not exactly a time of doing nothing, but my student load is considerably lower, and it is nice to have some quiet time to just think.
The school year is usually pretty hectic, so once the summer hits, I do try to force myself to slow down and enjoy that new pace. I actually have time to sit and enjoy a cup of tea in the morning, maybe do some reading, or go out and water my garden and tend the plants. Most days I find myself doing all three. This slow start really sets me up for a more relaxed and focused day, regardless of how busy my day will be. This is something I hope to take with me into next school year–finding a small daily ritual to get started slowly. That may be a no-brainer for many people, but it’s not something I’ve consistently done over the years, and I do notice a difference.
If you are a busy creator/artist/musician/dancer of any stripe, finding that quiet head space from which to approach your craft is pretty important. And this can be pretty hard to come by when you are running your own business on top of the general creative work that IS your business. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or unable to focus, or you feel like your creative juices just aren’t flowing, take a look at your daily routine. It doesn’t matter exactly how, but starting your day with a few moments of quiet can be the solution to so many problems.
I know that’s hard to do for everyone, regardless of the field, and then if you are also a parent...yikes. But if you are able, take a week and try starting every day with some quite time. Drink tea, read a book, pray, spend time out in your backyard/garden...whatever it is, see if you feel a difference after several days of intentional quiet time. One critical element (in my opinion): DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. From the time you get out of bed, don’t open your email, don’t check for messages, don’t check the news, don’t check any social media apps. Take the time to be in the quiet by yourself. Just BE. It’s amazing how all that stuff quickly crowds out any sort of inner peace, and it certainly can wreak havoc on your own sense of self (without you even realizing it). You have to take the time to greet yourself each day before you can greet the world.
So that’s my homework for myself this summer: spend a little time each morning just being quiet, tending my garden, and talking to God. I don’t have all the answers to life, and I definitely make as many mistakes as anyone else, but it seems like God + nature + silence = a good place to start.
After the last entry, in true end-of-school-year fashion, work did indeed get crazy. That last month was jam-packed with teaching, rehearsals, choir shows, recitals, State Solo & Ensemble, church job...it was a lot. So needless to say, that whole “work-life balance” project got shelved for a bit. But now that summer is upon us, and I’m organizing the schedule for teaching, it is definitely a time to prioritize balance. But before that, I am taking some time this week to rest and recharge, and reflecting on this past school year.
Overall, it was a great year. There were so many highs, not least of which was returning to in-person teaching and performing. It certainly wasn’t easy, but just as I noticed at the beginning of the year, working with my students in-person was just so much better than virtual teaching. Virtual teaching is great for convenience, and it will certainly remain an option in my studio for those that really need it. I am so grateful that I was able to use it throughout the pandemic to keep my studio going. But now that I’ve been back in person with my kids, I never want to be so completely cut off from them again.
Speaking of my students, I am truly blessed to be working with such fantastic kids. My studio is full of tremendously talented students who are also really fun and interesting people. That’s not to say that every day isn’t a challenge, and as human beings everyone can have ups and downs. Those middle-school and high-school years are full of voice cracks, drama, hormones, stress, and any number of complications (as we all know from when WE were those ages). And full-disclosure: there are days when my own motivation or energy is low, and I will come to school not really looking forward to a full day of teaching. But then I get to the first lesson, and I talk to my students, and as we connect and begin to work, something clicks, and suddenly I’m not feeling so tired or unmotivated. It’s a different kind of energy than performing, but my students certainly help keep me going, and when we get those magic moments where a breakthrough happens, or I get to see them deliver a great performance–those are exciting for me as well.
The students joke about my regular “script”: “How’s it going? Anything new and exciting in your life?” It’s true, that’s how I start pretty much every lesson, but I really do want to know how things are going with them. It’s the human connection that is the foundation of all the vocal work we do. I am so proud of all of my kids for returning to school with such enthusiasm, and for going with me when I push them and don’t let them settle for mediocrity. We have had quite a year, and I really am excited for next year!
This year was also a fantastic one because I got to see my colleagues again. In the virtual times we might see each other once or twice a semester if we set up a meeting, and I really missed seeing my fellow voice teachers and the choir directors. Even if it’s just a quick “hello” in the morning, or a brief conversation at the end of the day, it was definitely a huge boost to my mood to see people in-person and know that we are all right here in the same place working together toward a shared mission. Just like the students were really excited to see each other and return to school, we teachers were excited to see our own friends at work again! And no matter how hard this year was, we kept each other going, and...WE MADE IT!!
The last big hurdle for the year for me is usually doing my spring voice recitals. The prep-work, the emails, the planning for the receptions, practicing the students’ music, doing programs, scheduling...there is a lot that goes into it. I am fortunate to have some great help, but I always feel like those two recitals are the final mountains to climb, and once I survive that, it’s all smooth(ish) sailing. This year was the return to live in-person recitals, and I could not have asked for a better end to the year. There were mistakes, little memory slips, some wrong notes...but being together in the same room, hearing the kids singing live...it was magic. It was the same supportive atmosphere as always–something I really want to continue to cultivate in my studio–and everyone had a good time.
So now, having survived a year back in the physical trenches, it is time to look ahead. We’ve got TMEA music, summer lessons, Solo & Ensemble, NATS, recitals, choir concerts, musicals, church job, opera...the grind returns. I welcome the work and the challenge, but I also know that I am going to try to make sure I stay present in each moment, enjoying each experience as it happens. You never know the things you can lose or miss, so always take that time to look around WHILE you are doing the thing (whatever that thing is).
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my career in this pandemic, and to examine my relationship with performing music. As you might guess, it’s complicated. I love performing. I find it fulfilling, inspiring, and uplifting, and I love rising to meet the challenges presented by a project. However, my commitment to performing has taken a lot of time, energy, sacrifice, and financial investment. I have had to give a lot to this art form in order to be able to reap some of the benefits of being a gigging musician. My rule is simple: I will keep doing this thing as long as it fulfills me and as long as I can have fun. When I don’t enjoy it, that will be a good sign that I might need to stop. Or at least take a break. So far, I have always enjoyed it. As the world opens back up and performing comes back more and more, I still feel like that enjoyment is there and I am truly excited to return to more live performances and explore new projects.
But there’s a catch. Now that I’ve had some forced downtime, and I’ve been able to readjust my life to allow for more, well, LIVING...I am not as willing to give all of that up. Pre-pandemic, I was working way too many hours, teaching way too many students, juggling that with a church job, accompanying choirs, and then my opera career on top of that. As I’ve said before, it was an unsustainable workload, and if there is one good thing the pandemic did, it was force me to slow down. Now I can honestly say that my desire for a slightly more balanced life factors into my decisions.
Do I want to take on opera gigs and return to the stage? Of course. But do I also want time to pursue my own interests or musical projects, to hang out with my friends, to play D&D? Yes. I am no longer willing to completely sacrifice ALL of my time for work. [Insert laugh here for my friends and family who still think I am too busy with work.] I know, I know. Even with this mental shift, I’m still working a lot. But from my perspective, it still feels like less, and I feel like I now have some head space to commit to something other than my job.
I think we all have realized that we can’t just live to work. It is definitely a luxury to be able to think this way, and I recognize that not everyone can decide to take more “me time”. And full disclosure–I still need to actually work to earn a living. I can’t just sit back and go fully in the other direction. But I am much more committed to finding where that real balance exists for me, and finding ways to incorporate time and space to just BREATHE into my life. I want time to enjoy dinner with friends, or go on a walk, or sit and read a book, or just...sit and think. I want to be able to enrich my life by the fulfilling artistic projects I take, and in turn bring to my craft the enrichment that only comes from actually LIVING. I’m not saying it will be an easy change, and I certainly will still be working A LOT. After all, any small business owner will tell you that their free time has to go back into building their business. But I am promising myself to make more of an effort and hold a firmer line on those work-life boundaries. If the term “workaholic” applies to you, I hope you’ll consider figuring out a better balance for yourselves in life. We can never forget the important value of hard work, but we should not let work consume our lives. Find the balance (that’s one of those unending quest items), and that is the key to a happier and more fulfilling life.
This weekend...I have a gig! Yes, at long last, I will be getting on a stage and singing for a live audience. As a soloist. I haven’t done that since 2020. The virtual opera performances were wonderful in the interim, and of course I’ve been singing at church, but...this feels special.
The preparation process has felt pretty normal–score study on your own, hammer out notes, work on lines...the list goes on. But once we started our group rehearsals, it was instantly different. Aside from seeing friends I’ve not seen since before the pandemic, which was definitely a nice perk, being back in a live rehearsal like this just felt right. It really illustrates the difference between keeping up with someone on social media and actually interacting with them in real life. I’ve seen many of these people in posts and updates over the past 2 years, but I haven’t seen them face-to-face. That immediate personal connection, being able to talk about life on the brief breaks, laughing together as a cast when someone cracks a joke or does something truly hilarious in an aria or duet...I missed those things so much.
Speaking for myself, that first rehearsal felt so familiar and instantly comfortable. It felt like no time had passed, although we all know that A LOT has happened since the world was last “normal.” It wasn’t perfect, we all made mistakes, and we all went home thinking about the stuff we needed to tweak and improve. But there was a tremendous feeling of gratitude for being back in a live rehearsal setting, preparing to put on a show. I am very fortunate to have my life filled with music all the time, but this definitely scratched that itch in a way that hasn’t totally been scratched since the before-times.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: live every day with a grateful heart, and try as best you can to live IN each moment and appreciate them as they happen. We have all lost a lot in these past few years, and there is tremendous upheaval and suffering throughout the world. If you can bring a little joy to the world through your music, your art, your writing, your...whatever...do it. And even if the small corner of the world that is reached by your creativity is only one other person, or even if it’s only yourself, still keep creating and sharing.
After a much-needed break over the holidays and the new year, the time has come to once again add to this little corner of the internet. I was definitely ready for a break after a very busy fall semester. Although, now that I think of it, between teaching, my church job, and music prep, the actual downtime was in short supply! Nevertheless, it was a good reflective Christmas, and what better time to start writing again but the new year?
I look at the new year not only as a time of new beginnings, but also a time to reflect on the past. It just so happens that as I write this, I’m back in Lubbock for a choir reunion. Aside from preparing for the concert, this will definitely be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and hopefully a bit of a creative boost. We could certainly all use an infusion of new creative energy from time to time, and certainly after the past 2 years, it’s needed! When your work is making music, it can sometimes be easy to forget that it isn’t just a chore–it’s an opportunity to make magic happen.
When I think back on my life as a musician, one of the most wonderful times was the four years of my undergrad. Everything about the training of becoming a professional musician was new and exciting. I had just had the real epiphany that THIS was my path, and this was the first step in that journey. Choir was a large part of this amazing time. No matter what I was doing–University Choir, Men’s Choir, Madrigal Singers...I was being fed a wealth of fantastic music both new and old, and I was blessed with AMAZING choir directors. It was a choral experience that was rather like being in All-State every day. I was continually challenged, inspired, and uplifted, and I began to truly understand how music could change both the performers and the audience.
Before I went to college, I got all sorts of advice from my parents (much appreciated), and one thing that stuck with me about being a music major was something my mom said (she was also a music major). She told me, “Make sure you really enjoy every musical experience you get in college...it’ll never be like that ever again.” And she was absolutely right. That isn’t meant to sound morbid or depressing. I have had so many wonderful and transformative musical experiences and opportunities since I graduated. But it was during undergrad that I first began to explore the wider world of music, and that time will always be a singular and magical one.
This reunion will allow me to revisit some music I have not sung in over ten years, and see how it is transformed by the life we all bring to it once again. We sang in this choir and experienced this music when we were young, eager, and bright-eyed about the future. Since then, we’ve all aged, learned, moved, and just, well, lived. We have changed. In so many ways we are not the same people we were back then...and yet, in just as many ways, we ARE the same people. We reunite now because the same thing that called to us and inspired us back then still speaks to our hearts and minds today. We bring with us a deepened collective emotional depth, and I cannot wait to see where that can take us!
So. Why the nostalgic rambling about my old college choir? Not just because I’m back in my old college town and I’m going to see old college friends and sing with our old choir director. Although, certainly, there will be a lot of feels from all of those elements. But more than that, I think it is important to remember to truly enjoy what you are doing now. No matter what it is, it will never be like that again, for good or ill. When you are blessed with the chance to have amazing experiences and make wonderful friendships, don’t take it for granted. As any adult will tell you, someday you will look back on “the good old days” with fondness, even if in the moment the days don’t seem so great. We would all do a lot better if we tried, just a bit, to see the days as “good” while they happen, rather than waiting until they also become “old.”
And...one more thing...wishing Dr. John Dickson a fantastic retirement, and exciting new chapters ahead! You have changed many lives through your work in music, and I am forever grateful that I got to be a part of that!
Thanksgiving. A holiday all about food, family, and (hopefully) being mindful of all of the blessings we have in life. Because we all have blessings, whether they are immediately obvious or not. Sometimes we just need to shift our perspective a bit, and we might actually find that we have a great deal to be thankful for. I’ve talked about the struggles of being an artist, of the challenges faced, the sacrifices made. But there are also some incredible gifts that we should never forget.
1. The thrilling sensation of singing (or playing music in general). When I am singing well, and everything is lining up, it is a feeling that is like nothing else. The idea of a “performance high” is a real thing. That’s not to say that I am carried away in an ocean of euphoric bliss, but it does feel pretty great. What in incredible gift it is to be able to sing and express through music. It’s the best kind of cathartic experience, and no matter how frustrated I may be with the process, I hope I never forget how much I enjoy it, and how blessed I am to have the talent.
2. The amazing wealth of music in the world that we get to learn and perform. There are several centuries of music in the operatic repertoire alone, but when you add in to that all the other music I sing, ranging from Gregorian chant to contemporary repertoire, it’s A LOT. How wonderful it is to live in a time when we not only have access to so much repertoire, but also how easy it is to listen to it and to find out about it. My last post was about the difficulty of choosing repertoire–never forget that it is also an incredible gift to have so many options.
3. The magic of collaborating with other musicians to create art. Rehearsals are hard, scheduling can be a nightmare, and we are often overworked and underpaid. But we get together with other musicians to perform an opera or a choir concert or some such...it really is magical. We are all unique, and we all bring our unique talents to bear, and then we join those talents together in service of a single artistic vision. That is something that I didn’t even realize was so important until the pandemic happened and we suddenly were unable to do it.
There are so many more things I have to be thankful for, both as a musician AND as a regular old human being, but these are three essentials for any creative, I feel. We should never take our art for granted, and we should never let ourselves become too jaded to be open to the joy and power of music. Always remember that being an artist is a gift and a privilege, and we have an incredible opportunity to change lives with what we do–for ourselves and for others. So as we head into this hectic holiday season, let’s remember to count our own blessings, and also let us also BE a blessing in someone else’s life.
For creative folks, whatever their particular brand of art, choosing a new project is hard. Especially as a singer, our projects are so often determined by the next gig. But how do we choose what to do in between gigs? As we all know, it can be hard to be motivated to keep working on projects (or choose new ones) if there is no pressure of a hard start date or concert performance. On the one hand, you definitely feel the pressure to create SOMETHING, but on the other hand, you don’t have a specific purpose for it yet, so why not just keep on binging that show on Netflix?
First you have to wade through a sea of options. Do you start working on a song cycle for possible recitals? Do you crack open that opera score that has been staring at you for months and have a go at a new role? Do you dive headlong into research to find some undiscovered gem? Do you focus on revamping and refining your audition package with some new arias? There are so many choices, and there is only so much time in the day to get the work done.
You also have to deal with setting your own goals with no external push. This will help determine (in part) what you work on, but even once you’ve made a choice it’s still there, looming. Should you focus on exploring work of an unknown composer and creating a recital based around that? Should you only choose music that speaks to you on a personal level–the whole “does this spark joy” approach? Should you be focusing on refining a role you’ve sung before, or should you work on adding a new role to your repertoire? In that aria package, what are you trying to showcase about your voice and your “brand” as a singer?
Obviously there is much to unpack and consider, and there isn’t one right answer here. I’m actually in a bit of that quandary myself–I find myself wanting to choose something new to work on, but I have not really committed to a new project yet. I’m still in the limbo phase where anything is possible because no choices have been made. The trouble is, if I’m not careful, I’ll just stay right here, and never make a choice. It’s so easy for any of us to get overwhelmed by the choices available, so we choose instead to do nothing.
So how do you go about choosing?
I tend to start with projects that I know I HAVE to do, such as an upcoming performance job or some other event. Those are the ones that are easy, because you have a deadline, responsibilities, and someone else is generally in charge. So that hardly counts for our purposes here.
Once I make it through those, I just start listening to music. Whether it’s in a voice lesson when I am helping my own students choose repertoire, unwinding after a workday with some Youtube listening, or even just listening on the classical radio station. I encounter a composer, or a piece, or sometime both, that really gets to me. And then I start a quick internet search to find out more about the composer (if it’s an unknown one), and start to build out from there. You never know what sort of wonderful music you can uncover if you just stop to listen. I’m currently in the listening phase myself - hopefully some concrete ideas will rise to the top!
Basically, find some music that speaks to you, and go from there. If you choose music based on what you WANT to sing, rather than what is “expected” of you for auditions, you’ll generally show better in auditions because you actually like what you are presenting. There is no magic formula that works for everyone. We all have to do the work ourselves to discover who we are as artists. This in turn can help guide us toward the kind of music we want to perform or the type of art we want to create. Unless you are preparing for an audition or competition that is asking for specific repertoire, the world really is your oyster in terms of song selection.
Rather than thinking of project selection as something you HAVE to do, think of it as something you GET to do. If you think about the situation in a positive mentality, then you can perhaps even enjoy the phases of the project when you have no idea what’s going on yet! It should be noted: this largely listening-based approach is what tends to help me as a classical singer. If your creative output doesn’t involve wading through centuries of music, your approach to project selection could be very different. The bottom line is, try to enjoy the freedom of the process as you cast about for a new project. Accept inspiration as it comes, and never limit yourself by what you think you “should” do. Taking ownership of all of the stages of your own creative process is the key to finding fulfillment in your ongoing artistic journey.
Auditions don’t always go the way we want them to. More often than not, they result in some form of “no,” and we are left to wonder what exactly we could have done differently. One of the hardest lessons to learn as a performer is that usually you will never know the reason you didn’t get a gig or advance to the next round of a competition. And you still have to keep going anyway. It’s even more maddening when you realize that in many cases the audition result had less to do with you and your shortcomings and more to do with external factors beyond your control. Maybe you remind a judge on a panel of an ex. Maybe the judges are a bit hangry because they haven’t had lunch. Maybe the judges are a bit sleepy because they JUST had lunch. Maybe the judges know they are looking for someone taller or shorter than you. Or maybe the auditions are being held because they have to hold them as per union rules, but in fact the role(s) for the show have already been cast.
Regardless of the reason you didn’t get the gig or advance in the competition, there is always something you can learn from the process. Even if you DID get the gig (or advance to the next round of competition), you should still try to learn as much as you can from the experience. This is true at any level, whether you are a student involved in the TMEA audition process, an aspiring opera singer doing the Met Competition, a pop singer auditioning for The Voice, or someone trying out for a role in the community theater production of The Sound of Music. It is important to ask yourself a few questions:
1. How was my preparation? Did I do everything I could to be ready for this audition?
2. How did I feel before/during/after the audition?
3. What were my goals for this audition, and did I accomplish them?
4. What would I like to improve or change for a next audition?
There are many more questions to think about, but these cover a basic analysis of the preparation for the audition, the audition itself, and preparation for future auditions. I find that taking this slightly clinical approach can not only help you learn, but can also help you process the emotional roller coaster that goes along with auditioning. You are absolutely allowed to wallow in a bit of self-pity if it doesn’t work out, or celebrate if it does. Feel all the feelings. But having a system to analyze things can help everything feel a bit less personal, and can keep you in a healthier headspace. It never feels great to get a rejection, but if you know that you have some potential learning in that moment, and you have a specific series of test questions to ask yourself to get those analytical juices flowing, you can sometimes move past disappointment a bit more quickly.
The key to a successful “postmortem” of an audition is honesty, especially in regards to question #1. No human being is immune to slacking off from time to time, and we all have days when the practicing just doesn’t happen. That's normal. But there is a certain amount of prep work that each person needs to do to be ready for auditions (or any other event). If you did not meet that need in your own preparation process, then you know that is one of the first things to improve for the next audition. Deep down, we all KNOW whether or not we did the work. We may not like to admit it, but we know.
Analyzing how you feel throughout the audition process can be really helpful in recognizing how nerves are affecting your performance. Do you feel sick to your stomach before you go in the room? Do your palms get clammy? Does your mouth suddenly get dry? Did your mind go blank, or was it racing through a million bad scenarios at once? Did your breath suddenly become really shallow and you feel like you can’t sing those long phrases you practiced? If you can recognize your own brand of nerves, then you can acknowledge it as a part of your process. Then it becomes more “normal” in your mindset and you can more easily deal with it. That’s not to say that you will ALWAYS have the same nervous response, but in general you’ll notice patterns. Once you recognize the patterns, you get a clearer picture of your own process, and knowing your own process is one of the biggest keys to building a healthy and sustainable technique.
If you take away nothing else, take away this: the only thing you can truly set against nerves is solid preparation, and the only way to develop solid preparation habits is to analyze your own process and figure out what works and what doesn’t. This daily work is a grind sometimes, and the audience will never know or celebrate your own mastery of your nerves. But in the end, the quiet confidence that comes from true self-knowledge and strong foundational work is a wonderful feeling to have when you walk into that audition room to face a panel of judges (or maybe just a blue tarp).
How often do we think about how our actions and words (or lack thereof) make others feel? It can be just one email, or one text message, or one inadvertent glance, but there can be far-reaching effects, many of them unknown or unintended. It doesn’t matter how old we are or what we do for a living–we all have incredible power to connect with others and lift them up, or to tear them down.
For those who have been involved in opera audition season (or as it was so aptly titled in an op-ed for Schmopera.com: “The Festival of Shattered Dreams”), they know it as a time of hope, fear, disappointment, sadness, jealousy, happiness...basically every emotion. There are so many layers to the interactions between singers and companies, whether in email correspondence or the coveted in-person audition. The timeliness of responses, the length of an email, the furious scratching of an auditioner’s pen, the furrowed brows as the panel pores over your resume, the unfurrowed brows when the panel doesn’t even look at your resume, the auditioner who gets up to look out the window or look at text message during your aria...the list goes on and on.
It’s a complicated business, but what it should boil down to is very simple. Every singer who applies to your program or company is a human being who has devoted a lot of time, money, and heart into their operatic training. Whether or not you want to hire them for a young artist program or leading role, you owe them all the same level of professional courtesy and care. I know it is absolutely exhausting to sit through a million auditions, but you owe these singers your attention in this moment. If there are singers who will be getting that first email saying “We’re sorry but you have not been selected for a live audition”, make sure that the tone of it is kind and professional, and the sooner you can get those (and any) rejections out, the better. Just remember that just as the job of holding auditions is very challenging, it is also incredibly difficult to be the singer who is auditioning for you, hoping to start or continue building a career.
The importance of mindful communication goes beyond just this, however. As we have all found through this pandemic, communication and connection are essential to our well-being as humans. When we reach out to one another, whether in professional or personal correspondence, are we just communicating information, or have we given any thought to how that information is presented? The old, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” adage comes to mind. Small gestures can carry huge weight. Checking in with remote-working employees to see how they are doing, or welcoming back employees to in-person events or interactions with a friendly memo or email can be huge steps toward making people feel like they are valued members of your organization or team. A quick message or check-in with friends could be just the thing to lift their spirits or remind them that they matter to someone. We all struggle with feeling lost and alone sometimes, so it’s good to remember that we always have the power to reach out and change that for someone else.
We have all missed performing for live audiences, and many have found ways to scratch the itch with virtual performances, recordings, creative collaborations, and the like. As we transition back to some of the “normal” routines, working with opera companies (both in choruses and as soloists), symphonies, and other entities, many of us have had time to reflect on how we feel about our work, and how we feel we are being respected (or not) by those entities. Whether it’s an opera chorus, a ballet company, a symphony, a community/church choir, or maybe even a barbershop quartet, it’s so easy to make the members feel valued. A quick “Welcome back, we are so excited to see you” email from the “powers-that-be” can be incredibly effective. It may seem trivial, and in the hectic scramble of life it is easy to forget these small touches, but they really do make a difference to how your employees, coworkers, and even bosses, feel.
The same goes for those of us running our own private voice studios. I always send a general “Welcome to a new semester in the Maus Vocal Studio” email once I get my schedule set up, but this fall semester it felt especially important, and I spent more time than usual writing and re-reading it. Never forget that all of our students want to feel like they belong and that they matter, and as teachers we have an incredible amount of power to tip that scale one way or the other (even if we don’t always feel that way). In fact, this has always been a part of my own general teaching philosophy. Yes, I have goals, and I want my students to build their skills and become self-sufficient and technically sound singers. But I also want my students to know that first and foremost, I care about them as human beings, and I am invested in helping them grow. I push them. I challenge them. I build their voices as best I can, but along the way I also want to build them up to be confident, kind, and supportive people who have a real love of music.
The people in your life, whether the relationship is professional or personal, should always feel like they matter. It takes so little effort to write that email, to send that text or Instagram/Facebook message, or to share that funny meme with the person who will just love it. It takes slightly more effort to call someone on the phone, but that too pays huge dividends, and is well worth your time. People seem to be almost mindless these days in their rush to write a nasty review, or tear someone down in a pointless online argument, or are in too much of a hurry to be friendly or polite. Everyone has value as a human being, and we are all fellow adventurers in this journey called Life. We owe it to ourselves to help others see their own worth as we do, and we owe it to others to let them know that they matter to us. CUE CAST ALBUM FOR WAITRESS–TRACK 15–YOU MATTER TO ME, and let the feelings commence.
I’ve been adjusting to this new/old routine for a few weeks now, and so far it is feeling pretty good. The sense of the familiar is returning, and already I get a sense of forward momentum in the progress of my students. Definitely an improvement over the virtual lesson slog of last year! But with the return of the on-campus routine, there is also the return of the age-old problem: finding time to practice my own stuff! The days are incredibly busy, and it is so easy to just keep putting it of until the end of the day. And then when the day IS over, you certainly don’t feel like sticking around the practice room to do more work. Once you get home it’s time for dinner, and then you need to unwind a bit, and before you know it...you go to bed without working on any of the music you planned on practicing. And then the next day, the cycle begins to unfold anew.
The practice routine is probably one of the hardest things to balance when you are both a working performer AND a full-time voice teacher. And that’s even before you consider other wrinkles like vocal fatigue. At the moment I’m just working on a few arias, but I do also have some music to learn for my third gig: accompanying choirs. Needless to say, it’s a lot to juggle. I often tell my students to practice in small chunks of time where they can be extremely focused for those short periods. I also tell them to write out their schedules in a spreadsheet (or some other visual format) so they can see what pockets of time are available to practice. Funnily enough, if I only follow my own advice, I find that I can generally get my work done pretty efficiently. Once I’ve identified the windows of practice time that I can use throughout my day, I just have to make the decision to use those windows and actually get the work done. It is amazing how much can be done in a half hour break between lessons. All you have to do is commit to doing that work.
It’s not enough to schedule the times though. I find that I also have to be very intentional about what I want to accomplish in any given short practice session. This piece of the puzzle came from William Westney’s fantastic book, The Perfect Wrong Note. Seriously, if you are looking for a book on practice philosophy and musical preparation, it’s an excellent resource. It seems so simple and logical, but most of us sit down at the piano (or other instrument) and we don’t have anything more than a vague idea of what we want to do. “I want to work on Figaro.” “I’m going to...practice an hour because my teacher told me to.” “I have to prepare that piano concerto for the upcoming concert.” Once you get in the habit of being intentional and setting specific goals for each practice session, not only does the work become more efficient and focused, but it feels like progress comes more quickly. For example, in a 15-minute session, I might choose to focus on 1 aria, and within that time I’d give myself the goal of working through the text/translation in sections, working through a tricky passage in the vocal line, and perhaps explore how the text declamation can be used to help the melody. It doesn’t really matter what, as long as the goals are specific and not overly large.
Once my time for that session ends (and you can absolutely set a timer), I go about my business, doing some other work, perhaps teaching the next voice lesson of the day, or if I’m feeling motivated by my first practice session, I do another! By using these little “power practice sessions” I can fit them in and around my other lessons, and then I don’t have this mountain of work to do when I get home and my brain goes off the clock. It’s also important to note that when I build my schedule for the year, I do try to have at least SOME windows of time built in. It isn’t always possible to get all of that practice time every day, but having a few pockets of time available is essential.
Life is never just going to sit quietly and let you have all the practice time you could ever want. You are always going to be busy, with many demands on your time, and it can seem impossible to work on anything at all when you really start looking through the endless to-do lists. But if you can commit to these little bursts of focused activity and schedule them into your days, you might be surprised by just how much you can accomplish. The quest for balance in work and life is an ongoing one, but it IS possible to be both a dedicated voice teacher and an artist who still works on creatively fulfilling projects. You just have to get a little creative with how you use your time!