This week marked the end of an extremely challenging and seemingly endless school year. I definitely felt an immense sense of relief after my students finished performing on the spring voice recitals–the year was finally over, and we could all breathe a little easier knowing we had made it. I know right now all anyone can think about is enjoying some much-needed time away from the computer screen (I know I am), but first I wanted to take some time to reflect on the year and what I’ve learned.
Probably the biggest learning curve for me happened when it became clear that we were not going to return to campus after spring break during the previous school year. I had to scramble and figure out how to do my job virtually, and I only had a week do it. Luckily there were already a small wealth of resources from other voice teachers who had tried some of this technology out, so I had some solid guidance. I quickly ordered a mic, a ring light, and some speakers, and I was off to the races. I will admit, it took me a few weeks to adjust to the virtual format, just as we all tried to adjust to the new circumstances in which we found ourselves. Initially I absolutely hated it: the extended screen time, the internet issues, audio lag on Zoom, not being able to play piano for my students as they sang...it was all vastly different from what I knew, and I was not a fan. I would find myself irritable and exhausted, and I just had to hope that my students were still learning in their lessons.
As time wore on, and I adjusted to the new reality that I was facing, I began to figure out how to do my job in the virtual world just a little bit better. It wasn’t as good as in-person lessons (and I still maintain that virtual lessons are an inferior product), but it was something. I was still able to connect with my students, we were able to interact and even have a virtual spring recital, and I began to feel a bit more like I knew what I was doing. Honestly that’s a large part of my immediate dislike of virtual teaching–I am not someone who likes change. Once I settle into my routine, and I feel like I know my business, anything that forces me out of the norm is a bit of a challenge. Not only was this something new and unexpected, it was forcing me WAY outside my comfort zone–my whole teaching method had to be adjusted and reevaluated to fit a different format, and I had no say in the matter. The plus out of all of that–even as I would like all of my lessons to eventually go back to in-person, I feel like I have the skills now to be effective in a virtual format, so I can offer that as an option when needed. I never would have explored this format had I not been forced to do so.
On a related note, I’ve begun to get a little more familiar with audio and recording technology, and I hope to be able to record some songs from my own little home “studio” before too long. It was something that I have had a passing interest in over the years, but never had time to explore. Last spring I took a fantastic “Intro to Voiceover” class being offered by a friend of mine, and she inspired me to think about other avenues to use my voice. I’m not jumping ship from opera or voice teaching, but it’s really fascinating to see how the voiceover world works, and to talk about the various pieces of tech needed to make something like that happen. I make no claims to be anything resembling an expert, but I’m learning, and it has been greatly satisfying to flex my mind a bit in a new way.
The other big shift for me was a hard one–when I’m not teaching, I’m an opera singer. I love performing in operas, and each season I am fortunate to be able to scratch that itch. We had just come off a truly remarkable operatic experience with Joby Talbot’s Everest, and had begun rehearsals for Turandot. I had never sung in this piece before, but it has a MASSIVE and truly amazing chorus part, and we were all excited from the first rehearsal. After a week or two of work, we were given an uncertain break, and ultimately the season was cancelled. Losing this other aspect of my life as a musician was incredibly difficult. On the one hand, I did have a bit more free time that I wasn’t devoting to rehearsal. On the other, this thing that fulfilled me artistically was suddenly taken away with no sure prospect of when it might return.
Luckily, I did have a summer opera role to prepare, and the program pivoted to an online format, so we were still able to forge ahead with that project. It definitely provided a needed distraction from the lack of other performing opportunities, and was in its own right quite fulfilling. But after that program ended, I literally had NOTHING on the horizon. I have never had nothing in the performance pipeline–there has always been some production, some rehearsal, something to do. After that final virtual performance...crickets.
As we began the new school year in the fall, there was still a lot of uncertainty with school schedules, but we did know that we would be looking at virtual teaching for at least the first half of the fall semester. Which then became the full fall semester. And then the spring. So...a full school year of teaching into a little box, and trying to keep each student engaged and excited in each lesson (as well as motivate them to practice in between). The year brought its challenges: the expected-but-always-annoying technology issues, completely redoing the lesson schedule multiple times whenever the schools would change their virtual class schedules, and then the occasional students who just forgot to come to lessons!
I could see some students handling the virtual school format with very little trouble. Others were really struggling–luckily most of the struggling students showed great improvement when they returned to school on-campus. The hardest part of all of this was the feeling of helplessness. I couldn’t do anything from my end to help my students feel better about all of this, or feel more motivated. I couldn’t follow along with them on the piano when they made a mistake in a song–I just had to hope they got back in line with the accompaniment track. I imagine this feeling of inadequacy was even worse for classroom teachers. At least with voice lessons, a virtual lesson is still one-on-one, and it functions largely the same, even if it is a bit inferior.
The one constant thing that I have been able to maintain, though, is singing at church. That has been a true blessing–not only was I able to continue attending church all the way through the pandemic, I was able to sing and offer my voice in some way to try to help others. It was certainly odd singing into an empty church for months: just me, my sister, the organist, and the guy running the livestream. No matter how what though, we were there every Sunday, singing for God and for the people who were listening and watching online. Singing in church is certainly not performing, but it did help give me a sense of purpose with my own singing when I had no other outlets to do so. I did not have quite the same profound sense of loss that many singers felt this past year and a half, since I was still singing and feeling some sense of community with the people around me as I did.
So that was my musical journey through the pandemic. What did I learn? I learned that I can adapt to new circumstances and pivot pretty well when I need to. I learned that there is no replacement for a real, in-person human connection. I learned that my students are tough and resilient, and were able to survive a crazy year in spite of all of the challenges facing them. I learned that sometimes you are just going to feel overwhelmed, and that you aren’t weak or deficient because you feel that way. And lastly, I learned about gratitude. I am so thankful for all of the blessings and the wonderful people in my life: my family, my friends, my colleagues, my students...I am a lucky guy indeed. The big lesson for us all: live each day with gratitude, and try to appreciate each moment while you are in it.
Learning an opera role is an interesting exercise, especially when it’s a really well-established role in a really well-known opera. You are at once expected to learn about the history, the traditions of performance, the great singers who have sung it before you...all of these things that will invariably help inform your own interpretation. However, all that background knowledge can add a certain weight to the whole process, a certain expectation. And even putting the weight of history aside, there are the myriad other challenges: pronunciation, translation (if in a foreign language), notes, rhythms, vocal technique, phrasing, artistry, acting, stamina...it’s a wonder anyone ever learns anything to begin with! But like so many other things, it’s just about focusing on process over product–if you just focus on the end result, you’ll never make it there. If you focus on the steps you will take along the way, they are much more manageable, and you can more easily do the work without feeling that “weight of expectation.”
So let’s talk about process. I want to be clear: this is just MY process, based on my experience. You will have to do the work to figure out your own, but I hope that this can be a help as you figure that out!
Getting started (like in many projects) is always tricky. I get the score, I open it up, flip through the crisp and unmarked pages...where do I begin? What is the best step? In fact, I’ll often just let the score sit on the piano for a while without opening it–just thinking about the process. I know once I get to work, I have to finish, so I wait a bit before getting “on the ride.” It is similar to the feeling of getting strapped/locked in at the beginning of a roller coaster, waiting for what lies ahead. Side note: I have learned that I am NOT a roller coaster person–I am perfectly content on the ground while you crazy people ride the coaster, thank you very much. So I wait, and think, and plan. I generally will make a chart of the work ahead, so at least I can see it all laid out on paper (I’m a fan of spreadsheets). I was introduced to “The Chart” concept by Ann Baltz (who founded OperaWorks), and it really did change the beginning stages of my process for the better!
And then, finally...the work begins. Usually I will sit down and plunk through the whole thing, accompanying myself and crashing through the singing as best I can. I don’t expect perfection, or even halfway decent anything...I just want to get a rough idea of what I’m in for. That helps me “frame” the opera in my mind so I can see the whole scope of the work. That is easier with some operas than others–my current project, Alberich in Das Rheingold, has been one of the more challenging roles to just stumble my way through. But I did it.
Once I’ve stumbled through it, I sit down and highlight my part throughout the whole score. Having that highlighted staff makes it easy for my eye to know where to look as soon as I turn the page. It also makes me feel like the score is really “mine”–I’ve made the first mark on it, so away we go. Then I start working with the translation and pronunciation...the really tedious stuff. Thankfully I don’t always have to go word by word and do a translation myself–Nico Castel books for the win! Although I will definitely look up words here and there to find alternate meanings, and if it’s a language I feel decent with, I’ll try to translate things without looking them up first, and then check after the fact. Speaking words by themselves, then in sentences, then in rhythm with the notes in the score, building in layers.
At the same time as the text work is going on, I’ll intersperse that with some time plunking out notes on the piano and singing parts, sometimes on text, sometimes on neutral syllables or some other vocalise (like a lip trill or through a straw). If an opera is broken up into arias and ensembles, I’ll generally start with one aria or ensemble, and use that as the first foothold on the rest of the piece. If there is recitative, that is whole other adventure! In fact, I think recit should get its own blog post! When I do it right, going back and forth between music and text helps reinforce each other, and it also keeps me from getting too bored with one or the other! Because boredom in role prep, folks, is a real thing! Keeping my mind active and working on different things makes it feel like I’m not getting to stuck in any one thing. Of course, sometimes you do just have buckle down and spend that time on an aria or scene–it’s all about finding a workable balance and knowing what you need to do as a part of your process.
And that’s really what this is all about–I don’t share my process because I think it’s the way everyone should work, or that I’m a great expert. I am sharing it because I’m hoping to help everyone find their own process. One of my professors in grad school (thanks, Dr. Rodgers!) talked about the importance of discovering your own learning process, so you can recognize those patterns that develop as you learn a role and figure out how to help them best serve you. And it’s absolutely true–once you know your process, whether it’s learning an opera role, fixing a leaky faucet, or cooking a five-course meal, the fear or uncertainty has less room to take hold. Which brings me to another crucial step in my process: the “oh no I can’t do this why did I say I could do this I’m going to fail and it’s impossible” breakdown.
This moment usually happens to me when I’m about ⅔ of the way through the work of learning a role. I begin to doubt myself and wonder what the heck I was thinking to take on this project. Usually someone gets to hear this venting in a bit of a rant (not necessarily hysterical, but definitely not exactly calm). I feel like this whole thing is just too much. It’s too hard, too impossible, so I should just stop right now. Interestingly enough, this moment always seems to happen at the point where things are about to get easier and feel much more natural (that ⅔ point). If I just keep working, and push through, I’ll get to the downhill side of things. Once I was able to recognize this as a legitimate part of my process, though, it became less of a scary crisis point, and more of a signpost of my progress. The whole, “Oh, I know that tree. I’ve been this way before” kind of thing. Knowing that there is something on the other side of it helps put this breakdown/freakout in perspective. It doesn’t stop me from having it, or feeling the concern, but it does allow me to weather that storm and come back to work the next day without feeling totally hopeless.
After clearing that last hurdle, it’s time to start working on memorization and artistry. Hopefully I’ve been laying some of the artistic foundation earlier (marking dynamics, looking through the piano part for clues as to what the orchestra will be doing, thinking on breath placement and phrasing, etc.). But now the focus can shift to those considerations once I’ve got enough of the role under my belt. And along the way, if I’ve been diligent with my other steps, the memorization has already been started long before I actively work on “trying to memorize.” There is still the need to drill certain things, review text and translations, work through scenes for memory’s sake, but there will already be a good foundation laid by my earlier careful prep. This is also a time when I might break out some recordings and do some listening, and even use those to help with memorization and acting. Sometimes just putting on a recording and lip-synching along while acting out the scene is really a lot of fun! Not only does it help with memorization, but it frees me up to explore the music and the drama without the burden of vocal considerations.
And then, finally, I have to put it all together, and get the thing on its feet while actually singing it. Again, if I’ve laid a solid foundation, this is less of a time of being afraid of the role and more a time of excitement. I have built the racecar, now it’s time to put it through its paces and see how it works on the racetrack. There is a lot to think about at any one moment when you are performing, so having the foundation not only helps combat nerves, but it also allows the freedom to explore and make new choices as you discover new things about the character and the world of the opera.
So...that’s it. A rough rundown of my process of learning an opera role. There are still more elements to it–recitative work, historical research, reading source material, basic background knowledge of style and performance tradition...but this is the framework I use. Or at least, this is the framework I try to use. I don’t always succeed in getting every step exactly in the same order, or being the totally organized and efficient singer I aspire to be. Sometimes there is a time crunch in preparation that requires some speeding ahead on things to cram it in place. But by knowing myself and my process, and knowing what I need to do to get the job done, I feel much more confident about preparation in a variety of circumstances.
And honestly, now that I actually think about this process, it really does apply to so many other areas of my life outside of opera. Especially the “breakdown/freakout” moment. How many times do we all do that, where we get stuck in our own “self-defeating” mindset? And often, funnily enough, it comes at EXACTLY the moment we are about to have a breakthrough in a positive way–we just don’t know that at the time.
I hope this look at my process is helpful for anyone reading this, and I hope that even if you aren’t an opera singer or performer, you can still find nuggets of inspiration to help figure out your own process in whatever area of life or work you find yourself struggling! If you know yourself and your process, you can conquer far more than you might think, and you will no doubt discover a whole host of new exciting adventures along the way.
Spring is all about growth, renewal, cleaning out the old remnants of winter hibernation, and enjoying the fresh inspiration that comes from letting go of unnecessary “stuff.” If you work within the academic school year, spring is a time for tests, UIL competitive events, and general burnout. The school year after spring break is a long slog, and it is easy for both students and teachers to give up and start phoning it in.
This year is no exception, and in fact, based on my observation of my own voice students, it is worse than normal. No surprises there. I am not immune to this–I have definitely struggled with a lack of motivation, putting off real work until the last minute, and just in general doing only those things that I absolutely have to handle. Students are generally going to do the projects they are assigned and required to complete, but most of them, when given an option, will choose not to take on something extra.
Speaking for myself, finishing this year is a bit like seeing the airline gate up ahead in the distance, but I’m stuck on one of those walkways that only goes so fast...and I can’t just walk to speed it up. If you are on that walkway with me...welcome. You are not alone, and we WILL eventually get there!
I don’t have any magic method, special trick, or secret tactic to answer these problems–there are no hacks here, folks. There are a ton of productivity products: bullet journals, detailed list-making, spreadsheets, productivity journals, apps...and that’s just the stuff designed to help us organize ourselves so we can attempt to do the actual work! It’s overwhelming just trying to decide HOW to get ourselves motivated in the first place! However, if I may, I hope to offer some encouragement that might help us all muddle through “The Doldrums” (bonus points if you recognize the classic children’s novel that I just referenced).
First and foremost, remember that this struggle is NORMAL, that everyone feels it sometimes, and that it is not something that makes you a bad student, teacher, adult, or human. You are not always going to be this fiercely motivated powerhouse, kicking butt and taking names. Sometimes you are just going to want to pull the covers over your head and go back to sleep, or write only the 5-page minimum for an essay, or play with the dog instead of grading that stack of papers. It is perfectly OK to make those choices, and take a bit of time to recharge. You shouldn’t feel bad or lazy for taking that time when you need to do so. That being said, sometimes you just don’t HAVE the time. You have a to-do list that is a mile long, and it ALL HAS TO BE DONE SOON!!! Or does it?
Whether I am feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I have to do, or I’m feeling unmotivated and stuck and don’t seem to want to get going, I do one simple thing: I breathe. I take a few deep breaths, concentrating on the moment, pushing aside (as best I can) the noise of all of my undone tasks. Then I take a look at my list (I’m a list-maker) and commit to one task. That’s not groundbreaking advice, or a genius idea on my part–it is just the best way I know to start anything. Just like the saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or, as some of us may know from Mary Poppins, “Well begun is half done.” And then once you complete that task, you pick another, and you repeat. Yes, that does sound like work...as I said, no hacks here. But it’s manageable work...one thing at a time.
If the first part of the solution is allowing yourself to not be productive for a bit, the second part is getting back to work. You can buy every planner, create the most beautiful vision board or bullet journal, or have the most highly organized and detailed series of apps and spreadsheets between all of your electronic devices, but if none of that results in you actually getting those tasks done, it doesn’t really matter. This is the part of the equation where we get stuck: I THINK about the work I have to do, I ORGANIZE it in my mind into manageable tasks, and then...I stop. I sometimes might even congratulate myself on the planning, as if I’ve actually completed the task! You cannot think or journal your way out–it’s a tool, perhaps a very useful one, but that’s all it is. When you get right down to it, what really matters is YOU deciding to get up and get to work, and then doing that.
The last piece of this puzzle (for me) is the breaking through the mindset of perfectionism. I wholeheartedly believe that in any endeavor, we should strive to do the best we can. But as perfectionists, sometimes the need to be perfect and achieve the impossible standard prevents all actual work, because we know it WON’T be perfect. It’s not about accepting mediocrity, or just being OK with the bare minimum: it’s about accepting the best that you are able to give in that moment, and getting the work done with that current ability level.
At any moment in life we are given a certain set of “ingredients”: our skill level with a particular task, our experience with that type of project, our ability to organize and see both detail and big picture, and of course the actual time we have to complete the task. You can only do so much, and those ingredients in any project help determine the level of output you are able to produce. If you attempt to do the best you can with what you are given, and you can honestly say that you DID give it your best effort, then you can accept the result with pride and move on.
So...let’s breathe deeply, pick just one task on that list, and commit to finishing it. And one more thing: while you are busy tackling that one task, and the ones that will follow, don’t forget to look around for small moments of joy along the way. You’d be surprised what you can find if you look for it, even when you’re stuck on that airport walkway.