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!
I just finished my first week of teaching voice lessons back on campus after a year and a half of virtual lessons. I wasn’t sure how it would be, going back to work in-person after so much time away. Without a doubt, I was ready to go back. I have been so incredibly blessed with my students and the ability to teach them virtually throughout the pandemic, but...enough is enough. There is no real replacement for that in-person interaction–lessons are just so much more efficient and more fun! That being said, there were many unknowns. Would I have a full studio? Would I be able to adjust back into the regular routine? Would the students be excited and engaged? So far, the answer to those questions is a resounding yes.
In the crazy pre-COVID times, my studio that year had 73 students. Which is insane. I have no idea how I handled that plus opera and my church job. And accompanying choirs for concerts and contests. That workload (which had I had maintained for a few years) was not sustainable. So right before COVID, I had made the decision to reduce my studio size to a more manageable level. It was either that or give up doing anything else but teaching, and I was not about to stop doing opera! Then...the pandemic happened. It definitely helped hold me to my plan to have a smaller studio size! As we approached this new school year, I set a goal to have a full but manageable studio size, one that would allow me to have Fridays off, and would allow me to maintain my other work without absolutely losing my mind. But as I said, I had no idea whether the studio would be full, waaay overfull, or full of vacancies. As luck would have it, I hit my goal number and am actually 1 over (the goal was 50, in case you are curious).
Knowing that I had a full studio was a tremendous relief, and once I figured out the jigsaw puzzle of putting everyone into the schedule, I just had to wait until lessons began. I wasn’t expecting to have any particular emotional reaction to this school year. I figured it would just be business as usual, and thankfully, returning to my more normal routine. What hit me, overall, was a profound sense of happiness at returning to the schools. I was driving to the middle school, before I even had a definite schedule of students, and as I came over the hill and pulled into the teacher parking lot, I found myself smiling. I’m not an overly emotional person most of the time, but I absolutely had some feels as I walked through the school on my way to the choir room. The same thing happened upon my return to the high school–despite so many questions, I was just happy to be back!
That was all before I had taught even one lesson for the school year. This week was the real test–how would I handle a full schedule of in-person lessons? The short answer: It. Was. Great. I’m not gonna lie–every day this week I was exhausted when I got home. When I’m teaching in person, I find that I give so much more energy, and when I’m on campus, I don’t have nearly as many breaks in between lessons. My voice felt a bit tired by the end of the week as well–between all the talking of going over studio policies, extensive modeling for new students, and being in louder spaces in general, I’ve got to get the daily stamina back up. It’s also not my favorite thing to lug my air purifier with me every day, and teaching in a mask is THE WORST. However, in spite of the exhaustion and the annoyances...I have felt so much more fulfilled, so much more joyful, and so much more...myself. It is only the first week, so I’m sure this joy will be tempered by the daily grind of the work, but I am so happy to be back with the students, and they seem thrilled to be back as well.
It is amazing how much we all take for granted in our daily lives, and how much we don’t appreciate the little moments as they happen. We tend to reflect on them once they are gone, and really only appreciate something when it is lost to us. This week has reminded me all over again how important it is to recognize what I am doing NOW. You can’t ignore the past, and you certainly have to prepare for the future, but the only moment you ever have is the one you are currently living.
There is a long school year ahead, and I don’t know how it will go. I’m sure there will be peaks and valleys, and I’m sure that at some point I will be griping to my fellow voice teachers about the latest frustration. And yet...I’m thrilled with these challenges, both the familiar and the new. I am looking forward to experiencing this year one moment at a time and really living in it, rather than barreling through it like a freight train as I have done in years past. I hope that this year I am able to be fully present in each moment, connecting with my students and sharing my newfound appreciation for the simply joy of singing together in the same room.
As was pointed out to my by a fellow castmate, I just sang Alberich 6 times in 5 days, which, if you know the role, is A LOT. Normally you don’t sing Alberich (or any of the other larger Wagner roles) back-to-back. However, when you are single cast in a production, sometimes you do what you have to do. I also had a long day of singing at church–4 Masses, followed by opening night! Definitely a challenge to survive all of that intact! Luckily, there were several factors working in my favor: 1. This was a virtual production so there was no pressure to oversing to fill a large theater over a huge orchestra. 2. I was able to mark in the second dress rehearsal, and in the third we skipped some heftier chunks of music since they involved the same 3 singers in each performance. 3. Our coach was watching out for me and kept reminding me to take it easy and rest.
This has given me some time to think about vocal stamina and the importance of healthy technique. No two singers have the same voice, so no two singers have the same vocal needs. As you build your technique and figure out your instrument (the journey never really ends), you find the things that work. You find the preparation methods and warmup routines that seem to get your voice in its most optimal state, and then it’s about making those discoveries into habits. Once you get to know your voice, you have to actually listen to what your voice is telling you. If you feel like you are pushing or straining, you probably are. In my experience, healthy singing just feels good. If it doesn’t feel good, there is probably something out of alignment. If you are feeling tired and you notice that you are having to work harder at something in a given aria or song, it’s probably not a good idea to keep on shoving your voice through it. You might have to make some economical vocal choices to make it through, but in the end your voice will thank you for it.
Alberich is a big sing, and even though he is a very well-written role, he is still a beast to get through. I really had to pace myself, as well as be humble enough to admit that I am NOT invincible, and make smart choices along the way. Despite the reputation, Wagner is not just a lot of “park and bark.” His music actually has incredible nuance and dynamic range, and the secret to success seems to be not simply blowing through everything like a freight train. You really have to pay attention to the score, and see how he treats not only the voice, but also the accompanying instrumental textures. If you ascribe to the whole, “Wagner = Loud, Louder, Loudest” philosophy, you will simply not make it through the role. You also have to be aware of how to approach the heavy stuff. If you set it up right, it’s like lining up a clean shot with a bow and arrow–your voice can fly right through it. In fact, it can feel pretty incredible. If you are a little off in the setup...the struggle is real. I don’t pretend to be an expert on singing Wagner after my first outing with one role, but I did learn a thing or two.
If there is one other thing I learned from this role, it’s the importance of knowing your limits and prioritizing your own vocal health. We were so fortunate to have a coach who was very mindful of our pacing and made sure that our vocal health was also his priority. Especially as young singers, we tend to fancy ourselves to be invincible, and we never want to say no to anyone, because we are worried about missing out on some opportunity. We also never want to admit with something is a struggle, or doesn’t feel right. But while we are busy pretending everything is fine, on the other end they may not have any idea there is an issue until everything falls apart. And that’s a best-case scenario. In a bad situation, someone is going to ask you to push yourself past your healthy limit, and your voice will suffer. You have to be your own advocate. It’s a balance of course. You can’t be the diva who arrives wrapped in twelve scarves drinking tepid Evian through a straw, and demanding that the air conditioning in a whole mall be shut down as you walk through the food court. You have to be able to live your life. But you can absolutely recognize when you are struggling vocally and take steps to figure out what is going on, and if you need to mark or make some other vocal accommodation, there is absolutely no shame in making that choice. As many famous singers have said, you have to take care of your voice, because when that goes, all the rest will go too.
I spoke earlier about the “freakout” stage of my process: that magical time when I doubt everything. “Why did I say yes to this? Why did I think I could do this? It’s too much! I can’t do this. There is no way this will turn out well–failure, here I come...” The inner monologue continues. This opera is no exception. It is the second hardest opera I’ve ever done, and the role of Alberich is a beast.
This is where you have to decide if you are going to give up and throw in the towel or if you are going to push through in spite of the fear, and keep working. It’s very easy to give it up if it’s just a personal project, and that’s something we all tend to do. We set a goal, make a promise to ourselves, make a plan...then we give up. We might get sidetracked by the demands of life, we might hit a wall and concede defeat, we might just decide to work on a different project instead. But what if the project is for a gig (paid or not)? I find that makes it easier to persevere, because I really don’t have another option. I have often had to tackle music that was much more difficult than anything I would have chosen for myself, simply because it was the gig I was hired to do (or the gig I paid to do). Once the option of quitting is off the table, I know that no matter what I have to find a way to make it work. So when I hit the wall, as I invariably will, instead of just giving up, I allow myself to freak out for a bit, and then I get to work. And as I said before, if you just keep working on the things you can do, eventually it all comes together.
Speaking specifically of this role, the layers of the challenge hit me in stages: there’s so much German, there are so many weird chromatic intervals (Wagner loved him some tritones!), this role is a big sing (so can I even really sing it), it’s tricky to line up a virtual opera due to internet issues...the list goes on. The self-doubt has been very real, and I have had to really push myself to keep working in spite of that. It has been a while since I’ve had a role that required this much digging, and the work has been no joke. However, it has also been incredibly rewarding to have such a challenging project, and I have had to remind myself often how much of a privilege it is to have this opportunity. This is the crucial extra step in the equation that results in successfully overcoming the obstacles we place in our own way.
If the first part of the equation is perseverance in the face of fear and doubt, the second part is gratitude. Gratitude for the ability to sing and create, gratitude for the chance to learn this particular role at this time, gratitude for the colleagues that I get to work with, etc. Being thankful for the chance to engage in any project is really key to finding the motivation to overcome roadblocks. Thinking about the blessings in a situation can often shift the focus from being a victim to being a victor. Of course you have to focus on the problem(s) themselves, but if you can also remember the gifts that have gotten you where you are, you will remind yourself that you are stronger and more capable than you might have thought. Aside from the role itself, this attitude is the biggest takeaway from working on Alberich: success may be closer than we think if we confront any challenge with thoughtful patience, focused action, and honest gratitude.
If you’re a teacher, then you know how much you learn on the job every day, both through the act of teaching itself, and also from working with your students. I wasn’t really aware of just how true this was until I began teaching voice lessons. I am so thankful for the solid technical foundation that I received in my collegiate training, which has given me so many great tools to use in my teaching. However, this training was only the beginning. Now that I have been out in the real world as a teacher and a performer, I feel as though these tools in my toolkit have gone from being shiny, brand-new, and untouched to being well-worn and familiar. And yet, even with the comfort of this familiarity, every so often I make a new discovery, or have a new insight. It’s like finding out some new use for a tool I thought I knew really well. And sometimes, I even find a new tool that unexpectedly shows up in my toolbox, and then it’s my job to figure it out.
These tools can show up in any number of ways, sometimes when I’m working on my own projects, and sometimes when I’m working with my students. Sometimes when I’m practicing, a particularly difficult passage might reveal some incomplete technical idea, and then I go down that rabbit hole until I figure out the problem. It often comes down to some basic simple element of technique, and it really is a light bulb moment once I reach the answer. Once I have this epiphany, any lessons I teach that week will usually contain some piece of this new idea–I’m excited to discover it, so I am equally excited to pass it along to my students.
When I have such a breakthrough in a student’s lesson, it usually comes by way of coming up with a new analogy or description of a process, or uncovering some new insight on a piece of music over the course of a discussion. The constant reminders of basic technique can also be a great source of inspiration–if you spend every day telling your students to breathe and engage their bodies in their singing, you can’t help but take that away and apply it to your own singing! Again, any epiphanies I have in one lesson can often spill over into other lessons. Knowledge, once gained, is meant to be shared!
The key is to be open to the inspiration that reveals these insights. If I enter every practice session or lesson with the idea that I am the wise all-knowing master, I am in essence closing my mind to the possibility of learning something new. That’s not to say that you need to enter a lesson without a plan, or that you need to always question everything you know at any moment. It’s just important to keep listening and exploring, and not just assuming that your “normal” approach will always work and has no room for tweaking. Both as a singer and a teacher, it is always a balance between trusting your existing knowledge and seeking new input. You have to have a foundation that is strong enough to sustain you, but be flexible enough not to break as you explore problems. If you let it, teaching can make you a better singer, and becoming a better singer can then inform your teaching.
One of the hardest things about training as an opera singer is figuring out what roles to learn. Usually you start with recommendations of others, but at some point you have to start doing the exploration yourself. In a broader context this applies to pretty much any music you work on–how do you know what is the “right” role or song?
The obvious answer is the much-discussed fach system, where voices are classified into various categories, and then roles are grouped into those categories. It certainly has its uses as a jumping-off point, but it can be a bit limiting. Even if some role is supposed to fit your voice by the fach system classification, it may not be right for you. And just because a role is listed as a different fach than your voice, it doesn’t mean that it might not be a perfect fit. Don’t worry, this is not going to be a blog about the fach system!
But seriously...how do you know something is a good fit? In my experience, the answer is pretty simple: it just feels good. Whenever I start working on a role or song that feels somewhat “comfortable” for me, I know I’m on the right track. It’s not that everything is instantly easy, and that I don’t have to work at it, but there is just something about it that seems to fit. Just like when you are trying on clothes–you know when the fit feels good. The trick is to remember to listen to that feeling, since it’s not always immediately obvious. In fact, we often discount that feeling. If something feels “easy” or “comfortable” we have this idea that it must not be hard enough. We can accept that our skills have improved enough to make certain things easier to do, but when they DO seem easy, we just assume it’s because they were easy all along and therefore we need to look for something more challenging. It’s a weird little trick of the mind, and it’s so subtle that we don’t always see it.
I’m now slightly better at recognizing things that feel right, and going with that. Case in point: Vodnik. It felt pretty good last year, but by revisiting it, I know that this role just feels good in my voice, and I never feel like I’m trying to shoehorn my voice into something that doesn’t fit. I’ve sung arias in the past that just felt like a slog to get through, and then I’ve had arias that feel natural and effortless (in a way). The Catalogue Aria feels pretty easy, not because it IS, but because it fits nicely into my voice. That’s such an important realization to have as an artist: you don’t have to keep searching for the impossibly hard thing that you can barely sing yourself. That is not going to be what is impressive, and it is certainly not going to show you off well in an audition. If you find something that feels like it fits, maybe just run with it, and work on getting THAT role or song up to the best shape it can be. It will be far more satisfying, and possibly more successful for you in terms of results! Renee Fleming talks about that in her book, where she used to take these hard and unfamiliar arias to auditions thinking they’d be super impressive, when in fact it was having the opposite effect. Bottom line: when something feels good, SING IT.