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.
This past week was all about revisiting Vodnik and seeing how much of the role was still rattling around in my brain (and in my voice). Some excellent coaching from our fearless leader definitely helped knock some of the cobwebs off! Surprisingly it has come back to me rather quickly, even though I haven’t sung the role or really even looked at it since last July/August. This is not the first time I’ve revisited a role, but it is definitely the first time I’ve done so with a role of this size. Most of the time I’m revisiting some supporting role–those are usually rather small and not full of any real juicy vocal or dramatic moments. These characters don’t get the big dramatic death scenes or the heart-rending love duets, but you definitely need them to tell you when it’s time for dinner (among other things)! They generally serve to drive the plot along from some moment, so in reality they can be quite important, if a little thin on the character development.
Some highlights of my comprimario roles: The Officer (Barber of Seville), The Official Registrar (Madama Butterfly), The Court Usher (Rigoletto), Flora’s Servant (La Traviata)...some I’ve done multiple times. Slightly larger, of course, is the ever-popular Antonio (Le nozze di Figaro), the troublesome gardener who may or may not be drunk most of the time (depends who you ask). These roles are sometimes confined to just one word (Official Registrar, I’m looking at you), and they can often be more stressful than you might expect–you have one shot to get it right, and you have a lot to remember leading up to your shining moment in the spotlight!
Having now had the opportunity to revisit both small and larger roles, I definitely prefer revisiting the latter. I am discovering some wonderful new ideas about Vodnik this time around. Last year I was really focused on getting the Czech as solid as I could and trying to do justice to Dvorak’s heavenly music. The drama was there, but it definitely had some stiff competition in my brain! Side note: this role is really a dream to sing–it is beautifully written, and it just feels great to come back to it after some time away! This year I feel like I can focus more on the story I am telling, the dramatic beats going on in a scene, and all of the tiny musical inflections that I may not have fully grasped before.
There is a growth process that happens over time after you put a song or a role away for a bit after learning it. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this (I tell my students this all the time), but I am truly experiencing it in real time now. Without even thinking about it, some of these ideas and colors are there, and it feels like I am making new little discoveries every day. This isn’t so surprising to me–I definitely fall into the “re-reader” camp when it comes to books. If I like a book, I will keep it and reread it multiple times. Every read reveals something new, or some new perspective, and it doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book at all to know what will happen. It feels very much the same revisiting this role–like I’m picking up a favorite book after some time away and diving into the world again fresh eyes.
The performances are coming up next week, so we are now heading into some group rehearsals. Aside from the musical and dramatic work, there are many other considerations to iron out: working with tracks, when to use headphones, when to turn on the camera, how to interact with said camera, finding virtual background images...all things I never thought I’d have to worry about! And of course...figuring out what my makeup plan will be this year! Last year’s blue and green theme was great, but I am thinking I’ll mix it up this year and perhaps try something different for each performance. It’s the little things in life, you know?
The home stretch is nigh–this week will be a busy one, no doubt! But really, it’s nice to BE busy with singing, and I am reminded why I love this process. Even in a weird virtual format that is not terribly similar to the real deal, the preparation work is familiar, and Rusalka is an incredibly rewarding opera to perform. I can’t wait to put all of the pieces together and hear everyone in the different casts! Since I’m single-cast, I get to sing with EVERYONE! Production week, here we come!
As I said a few weeks ago, learning an opera role is an adventure, and it is definitely a challenge. Alberich is proving to be every bit the challenge I expected–Wagner is not easy, folks! So many words, so many chromatic passages, odd leaps...it is definitely a full-time job right now working through it! But it’s also really satisfying to have such a challenge, especially on the end of a year without really doing much performing to speak of. So here I am, minding my own business, learning this difficult role, when I get an offer to revisit another role while still prepping this one.
Last summer I sang Vodnik for the first time in Rusalka (basically the operatic version of The Little Mermaid, and Vodnik is her father..so King Triton). Luckily it’s with the same program I did last summer (and the same program for which I am preparing Das Rheingold now). That being said, it is still a bit of a daunting prospect adding this back into the mix. This role is truly wonderful to sing, so on the one hand I am thrilled to get to explore it again and see how my characterization may have deepened with time. On the other hand, it’s a very short timetable to bring it back up to scratch (especially the Czech language!), and I’m having to balance it with Alberich as well as my summer teaching load.
So...of course I said yes.
Will this be a challenge? Yes. Will I be worried about all of it? Yes. Is it a quick turnaround between start and finish? Yes. But it’s also an opportunity to delve back into a role I love, a role that I had no idea I’d be able to sing again so soon. It gives me a chance to have some extra artistic fulfillment and fun, so it is worth the extra work and the stress.
This is often a dilemma artists face in their careers. It’s always a balancing act, and you almost always have multiple projects going on at the same time. The real trick is to be able to weigh each project and say either yes or no at the right time. I have certainly gotten myself into situations where I was overworked and barely hanging on, simply because I didn’t say no when I should have. And I honestly did consider whether or not this was going to be one of those times. But in this case, I didn’t have the nagging feeling of unease or worry that normally tells me to say no. I was just excited to get to do this role again, and also excited to be asked!
So here goes a really busy 2 weeks. The center ring show under the big top: watch me juggle summer lessons, a church job, book club, Dungeons and Dragons, reviewing one opera role while still learning another, and putting a virtual opera on its feet in 2 weeks with little advance preparation. It’ll be a bit of a circus, but I think it’ll be a fun one–off we go!
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.