Monday, 10 December 2012

On taking care of yourself...

I've just spent half an hour bent over a pot of hot water.  No, I am not cooking.  I am battling a singer's worst enemy: the common cold.

Die, cold, die!

I've seen it all - tonsilitis, laryngitis, bronchitis, strep throat, the flu... but by far the worst illness you can get as a singer is the common cold.  Why?  Because it's a viral infection, which can't be cured by antibiotics.  And it just looooves to linger.  So while other sicknesses might be cured in a few days by a magic pill, the only thing you can do with a cold is rest, stay warm, and drink lots of fluids.  Easy enough, right?  Maybe not when opening night is in four days.

I've heard it said that singers are neurotic about their health.  Ok, fair enough.  Guilty as charged.  But when your body is your instrument, and the slightest sniffle might be heralding The Cold of Doom, and thus the cancellation of your next gig, well, it's only sensible to be a little bit neurotic.  As they say in the Princess Bride...

And so we singers watch our health like a hawk.  We drink litre upon litre of water.  We drink litre upon litre of herbal tea.  We take echinacea and vitamin C and ginseng and whatever other immune-boosting potion is hip these days.  We eat healthy foods.  We exercise.  We don't drink alcohol.  We always make sure we get plenty of sleep.  Yes, singers always take good care of themselves.  We are a paragon of health and wholesomeness.

Yeah, right!

Aside from the water and tea and echinacea business, I don't think any singer can claim they do all these things.  Ok, maybe we would like to do all these things.  They all sound very nice in theory.  But they're much harder to put into practice, especially with a busy and stressful rehearsal schedule.

It's been a long week at the studio.  In the run-up to opening night (which is Friday), we did five 12-hour days in a row, and having had a day off we're now doing three days of dress rehearsals.  In the past month or so everyone has been getting sick.  This is only natural - we're stressed out, exhausted, and run down.  Also, it's winter.

I didn't get sick.  At first.  I have to admit, I felt a bit smug for a while there about being the healthy one.  While others missed rehearsals or saved their voices by marking (marking, v. - the act of singing quietly and/or down the octave to indicate one's part in rehearsal whilst preserving one's voice), I was always there and always singing full voice.  But I should have known, it would only be a matter of time before I too would succumb to The Cold of Doom.


For a while there, I was doing pretty well.  I was getting lots of sleep, going for runs, and even doing  yoga at home.  Ok, so my diet isn't the healthiest in the world, even at the best of times (spag bol, anyone?) but I was cooking for myself most nights, and getting some fruit and veg every day.  However as pressure mounted and our rehearsal days got longer, it became harder and harder to stay healthy.

A musician's lifestyle is not always a healthy lifestyle.  In fact, with the long and unusual hours we work and the frequent travelling, it can seem impossible to take good care of yourself.  Eating healthy is a great idea - if the grocery store is still open by the time you're finished rehearsal.  Exercising is great too - if you have the energy for it after another 12-hour day.

Ok, but at least after a 12-hour day I can enjoy a good night's sleep, right?  Wrong.  When I finally do get home from rehearsal, I find it's impossible to turn off my brain.  I've been concentrating so hard on the music all day that it's become lodged in some distant corner of my brain and it will never find its way out.   (By the way, I think this is the reason so many musicians drink).  Have you ever tried sleeping with a 90-minute opera running through your head on loop like some kind of perpetual motion machine from hell?

"Ach, ich fΓΌhls...."
As the weeks went by, I started to succumb to some bad habits.  Skipping the running and yoga.  Surviving on chocolate, cheese sandwiches, and crisps.  Sure, I knew I should be living better.  I still had my notions of a healthy lifestyle, and I would always promise myself to be better tomorrow.  Somewhere out there I envisioned an ideal world where I would do yoga every morning with the sunrise, sleep 9 hours a night, and eat berries and nuts that had been freshly picked from the woods by my animal friends.

Basically, I would be like a hippie Snow White.
But that ideal world did not exist.  What did exist was long days, late nights, and the constant temptation of deliciously bad-for-you snacks being shared around.  And when you're tired, stressed, or just a bit bored of sitting around waiting for your entry, those biscuits start to look pretty good.

At one point I visited the grocery store on my lunch break, and in a last-ditch effort to fight back I purchased some healthy food to keep at the studio.  No sooner had I done this than some kindly old ladies came to the studio to bring us a huge pile of chocolate and cookies on behalf of Sinterklaas.  I think there were also some oranges in there, but I don't really remember because my response to chocolate is always this:

ZOMG CHOCOLATE!!!!1!!1!!!!11!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
It's a genetic condition.  I can't help it.

Anyway, eventually all of the junk food, and the lack of sleep, and the fact that it's cold season, caught up with me.  I got a cold.  I missed the last 12-hour day of rehearsal.  I spent 2 days in bed.  And now that I'm past the critical stage and into the annoying almost-gone-but-still-lingering phase (which could last for ages, in my experience) I'm leading a double life.  By day, I rest, stay warm, drink lots of fluids, and try to get rid of the last of this cold.  By night, I run around the stage in costume (marking, of course, because my voice still isn't back).  After all, opening night is Friday and the show must go on!

Could I have avoided this cold?  I'm not sure.  Perhaps it was inevitable.  Everyone gets colds.  Try as we might to stay healthy, we all have to succumb to our body every now and then.  But it certainly would have been easier to fight it off if I was taking better care of myself.

As it stands, I'm getting pretty fed up now of not singing (probably the most frustrating feeling in the world).  And although I know I kind of brought this on myself, I'm really annoyed with my body.  But I'm pretty confident that my voice will be back by Friday.  And I'm promising myself, once again, to take better care of myself from now on.

It's never easy to put your health first, but then maybe that's why colds exist.  We need to be reminded sometimes how important it is to take care of ourselves.  Of course a cold is not convenient this close to opening night, but then again, when is it ever convenient?

And on that note, I'd better go steam again.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

On learning to trust...

I was never an athletic child.  While the other kids were playing soccer and baseball at recess, I was usually sitting against the wall, drawing pictures.  I got top marks in reading and writing, and the teacher always read my poems out loud to the class.  But in gym class, I was always picked last for people's teams.  Strong?  No.  Fast?  Not at all.  Graceful?  Hardly.  But at least I knew I was smart.

And this is where it all began, this habit of living in my head.  Trusting my mind and not my body.  I know that if there's one thing I can count on it's my brain.  I may not be good at sports or dancing, but I'm certainly good at thinking.  And so, ever since I was little, I've been working my brain very hard and relying on it for everything.

The problem is, I am a singer.  And a singer is a kind of athlete.  Singers spend hours and hours training a set of muscles in their body to work a certain way.  And then, just like an athlete, they have rely on all of this physical training so they can perform under pressure.

Pressure... pushing down on me...
There is a lot of thinking involved in training your voice, especially if you're not a natural.  Yes, I do believe that "naturals" exist.  I've met a few of them.  These are people who seem to be born with a very good voice and an uncanny intuition for how to use it.  They can't really explain to you how they're making such a beautiful sound - they just are.  Their body seems to know exactly what it's doing.

I am not a natural.

I've always had a pretty good voice, but I never knew instinctively how to use it well.  I've had to do a lot of work - with my body and my brain - to develop my singing technique.  Why does that note sound like that?  What can I change to make it better?  What was different this time?  What do I need to think, visualise, or feel, to make sure it's right the next time?  Once I've figured this puzzle out I need to practise it about a million times until it's a habit.  Until it's right every time.

This is what all musicians do in the practice room.  It's just like how athletes train.  We try to find the perfect approach to a physical movement, and then repeat it over and over again until it's in what we call our "muscle memory".

We spend a lot of time practising because we want to perform as well as possible.  We train our bodies so that hopefully, in the crucial moment, they will do exactly what we want them to do.  And here's where it gets tricky.

You can think as much as you want in the practice room.  You can live entirely in your head, analysing every sound and sensation as it happens.  There is always a chance to try it again and make it better.  But performing is a whole different kettle of fish.

(I never understood this saying. 
Do people ever actually keep fish in a kettle?)

In performance, the pressure is on.  This is it - the moment you've been training for.  And there are no second chances.  As my singing teacher says, once you've sung the note, it's out there.  You can't do anything about it.  And you COULD choose this moment to think about your technique.  If you really want to.  But then you would probably look like this while you're singing:

And nobody pays to watch a singer who looks like they're doing math in their head.  They want to see something more like this:

Performing is not the time to be in your head.  It's not the time to analyse or control the voice.  Performing is the moment when you have to let go of all that - stop thinking and TRUST that your body will do what it's been trained to do.

This, for me, is by far the most difficult leap to make.  Let go?  Stop thinking?  Trust my BODY??  How can I trust my body when it's made so many mistakes before?  How can I believe that my voice will be fine on its own, when I've always had to think about it so much?

This week I had another difficult encounter with The Wall.  If you don't remember from last time, The Wall is 2 metres high and just a bit wider than me, and I have to spend a fair amount of time on top of it in the opera.  A few days ago we rehearsed a scene where I have to stand on The Wall, and then climb down from it.  And I had a little bit of a panic attack.  (There may have been tears.)  The director eventually decided that because I'm such a chicken I can be the last to climb down and the others can help me down. 

Maybe I'm being too hard on myself here, but I'm not happy with this decision.  I hate that we've had to change the staging to accommodate me.  My castmates seem to get down quite easily by themselves.  And some of them are much shorter than me, which means it's a longer jump down for them.  So why do I find it so scary?  I should be able to do this!  I really hate that I'm such a chicken.  It makes me angry at myself.

I am physically capable of climbing down The Wall.  And yet I'm terrified to do it.  I'm always overthinking it.  Instead of trusting my body to be strong and do its thing, I keep thinking of what might go wrong if I try.

It's the same thing when I'm singing.  Even when I know my voice is capable of doing something, I can psych myself out.  I try to control things so much that my voice comes out sounding strangled, dull, or a tenth of its actual size.  My mind, my clever little mind, who I've trusted so much through thick and through thin - my mind is not my friend here.  My mind is a dastardly little control freak and it's getting in the way.

Why do I make things more complicated than they have to be?  As a famous baritone told us in a masterclass this week, "just sing the damn thing!"  I was really nervous about singing an interval at the beginning of a Bach aria - straining to sing it as sensitively and perfectly in tune as I could.  But as soon as he told me to "just sing it", the sound I made was miles better.  My voice knew what it had to do - I just had get out of the way and allow it to sing!

I have a new theory about "naturals".  Maybe I am a natural after all.  Maybe all of us are.  The problem is that so many of us let our mind get in the way of our "naturalness".  We may need to do a fair amount of thinking in the practice room.  But at a certain point, the mind has to let go and trust the body to act on its own.  It's the most difficult leap to make, but it's a beautiful leap when it's done well.


As for me, I'm going to keep practising climbing down The Wall.  I know I can do it - I might just need to practise a little.  Just like a difficult passage in an aria, I need to keep repeating the motion until it feels natural.  And eventually I'll be able to let my body climb down on its own - without help from the others, and without any nagging from my mind.

It can be hard to trust your body, especially if you're used to living in your head.  But if you can learn to be kinder - to stop punishing and start encouraging, to stop controlling and start allowing - you might just be amazed by what your body can achieve.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

On being a foreigner...

You are constantly lost and confused.  You can't understand most of what other people say and do.  You feel like an idiot, and many people treat you as such.  The smallest, simplest errand always turns into the most complicated task.

Welcome to life as a foreigner.

I have written a great deal about my reasons for being in Belgium and what I'm learning while I'm here, but I haven't really written about what it's like to be here.  Well, let me tell you, it's no picnic.  Unless of course you are imagining a picnic in the pouring rain where the ants are stealing all of your food.

Stupid ants.
When you're living in another country, everything is weird.  Absolutely everything - including you.  You are a weirdo to everyone around you.  Why do you dress like that?  Why don't you speak their language?  Why do you act that way, and why don't you understand that things work the way they do?  As a foreigner, you don't just have to adjust to everything being different - you also have to adjust to YOU being different.

For instance, there is the small matter of language.  I am lucky enough to live in a part of Belgium where people speak excellent English.  Their mother tongue is Flemish, a language which (to me at least) kind of sounds like a mash-up of German and English with a funny accent.  Most people, if prompted, will speak fluent English to me when I enter a shop or cafe.  If someone speaks Flemish, my knee-jerk reaction is now to say "I'm sorry.." and before I can continue with "I don't understand Flemish" they exclaim "oh!" and immediately switch to English.  Unfortunately, sometimes they will speak for quite some time before I can manage to get a word in edgewise and let them know that I didn't understand a single word they just said.  Then they'll get really annoyed and huff "well why didn't you SAY so??" 

If I am lucky enough to be the first person to speak, I usually launch into English right away without warning.  But I've recently noticed that at a certain sandwich shop I get dirty looks for doing this.  My Belgian friend pointed out that it is sort of rude of me to assume that they will speak English, and it would be more polite to start off with "Spreekt u Engels?"

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Why haven't I learned Flemish?  A perfectly reasonable question. I know how annoying it can be when you encounter people living in your country who haven't bothered to learn the language.  But let me just say that a) I am only here for an 8-month course and am not likely to stay in Belgium afterwards, b) my course is taught in English, and c) Flemish is only spoken by a small number of people in the world, and it would be much more practical for me to continue improving my French and German than to start learning Flemish.  That being said, I did buy an audio-course in Dutch before I came here (there were no Flemish courses and Dutch is the closest thing), and I have managed to pick up a few words of Flemish here and there.  I know how to say my numbers and things like please and thank you.  And I know the word for sandwich.

A very important word, as Dagwood would have you know.
Armed with this knowledge, I returned to the sandwich shop determined to place my order in Flemish.  I confidently ordered "een broodje Grieks, alstublieft" and even managed to understand how much it cost.  But then they began asking me a bunch of other questions in Flemish and I was at a total loss!

There is nothing more uncomfortable or embarrassing than attempting to speak a new language to someone, only to have a bunch of words you don't understand fired back to you at warp speed.  Just ask the cleaning lady at the studio.  I once spoke a few words of Russian with her and told her I'd studied the language in university.  Now she's constantly babbling to me in Russian as if I'm a fluent speaker, and it's too awkward to let her know that I only understand about 30% of what she says.

Seriously, so awkward.  One day she's going to tell me something sad and I'll laugh and say "da".
But language barriers are just the tip of the iceburg.  Living in a foreign country is like playing a board game when you're the only one who hasn't read the instructions.  There are all kinds of rules and conventions you don't know, and people just don't understand why you don't know them.  It's so obvious to them!  Why isn't it obvious to you?

This week I had to travel to Stuttgart for an audition, which involved catching a 6:15am train to Brussels airport.  I often travel by train, so to save some money I've bought a 10-ride train pass.  You buy this pass for a set fee, and for each trip you write the details on the card and have it stamped by the ticket collector.  Until now it's worked pretty well for me.  This time however, it being 6 in the morning, I fell asleep before remembering to write on my pass.  When I woke up, I remembered and asked my neighbour if I could borrow his pen.  Just as I began writing the journey on the card, the ticket collector came up to me.  She was absolutely furious!  Apparently it is very important that I write my journey on the card BEFORE I get on the train.  She could not believe that I had been on the train for AN HOUR and still hadn't written on my pass.  She insisted that I pay her a fee of 26 euros.

I could not understand why she was so angry.  It wasn't as if I hadn't paid the money - I had already bought my train pass.  I had simply neglected to write on it until now.  But in her eyes, by failing to write on my train pass before getting on the train I had somehow failed to pay for my trip.  I wasn't just being absent-minded, I was being dishonest.

As a foreigner, I was unaware of this rule that I had to write on the pass before getting on the train.  Furthermore, I couldn't understand why this rule would be so important.  As far as I'm concerned, the important thing is that I bought my train pass and I recorded the journey on it.  But in her rigid worldview, writing on the pass an hour later was the same thing as not writing on it at all.  The end result?  I was charged over three times the cost of the journey and made to feel like a criminal, just because I didn't know the system.

And this is how I felt as I got off the train, 26 euros poorer.
This is just one example of the millions of situations in which not having the necessary cultural background or knowledge can make things more difficult - and often more expensive.  It's extremely frustrating and stressful, and it never gets much easier.  It seems that no matter how long you live in a country, there will always be something new like this to trip you up.

But the hardest part of being a foreigner?  The feeling of isolation.

You're away from your family and friends, away from people who speak your language and understand your culture.  You don't get other people's jokes, and they probably don't get yours either.

Why is noone laughing at my references to the Simpsons and Seinfeld??
Surrounded by all this unfamiliarity, it's tempting to close in a little bit.  To avoid venturing out.  To limit your life to a safe routine of work/school and home.

I've been living here for just over two months now, and I can't say that I have much of a life outside of the opera studio.  It's partly because my schedule is quite busy, but it's also because anything outside of my home and the studio is, well, a bit daunting.  I don't speak Flemish.  I'm unfamiliar with Belgian culture.  I still don't know my way around the city because I have a terrible sense of direction.  I don't know how the public transport system works.  And so, despite having lived here for over two months, I really don't know my city at all.

My friends are in Scotland.  My boyfriend is in Sweden.  My family is in Canada.  The other students here are a lovely bunch of people and we have a lot of fun together.  But outside of the studio?  My home life mostly consists of cups of tea, skyping with the boyfriend and the parents, reading, and watching episodes of my favourite shows online.

So my home life is pretty quiet, and I'll admit, sometimes a bit lonely.  I know I should probably be more adventurous.  I should be out and about, exploring Ghent.  Not staying at home taking refuge in familiar things like English novels and American TV.  But sometimes it takes so much energy just to function in a strange city that all I want to do at the end of the day is sit around watching the Office.

You've missed us, haven't you?
To sum up, being a foreigner is fairly difficult.  It's just like living at home, except that everything is ten times less familiar and ten times more confusing.  So why do I do it?

Well first of all, I've never been one to do things the easy way.  Easy is boring as far as I'm concerned.  But also, as I've said before, you learn a lot about yourself and the world by living in another country.

And if you can have a sense of humour about it all, if you can stand to laugh at yourself a bit, being a foreigner is actually pretty fun.

Yesterday I decided not to set foot in the studio.  Not just because I needed a day off from singing, but because I needed a breath of fresh air.  So I left home and wandered into town.  I used my terrible sense of direction to find a nice cafe.  I browsed through a sale at a vintage store, trying to decide which clothes were "interesting" and which were just plain ugly.  It was a miserable rainy day and I got lost several times.  But I'm glad I did it.  I had a nice cappuccino and waffle, and for just 6 euros I got new shoes and a sweater (which my boyfriend informs me is a "granny sweater" - guess I didn't judge that one too well).  More importantly, I got to know my city better and feel a little bit less like a foreigner.

I am slowly starting to get the hang of all this - the new city, the new language, the new culture.  It might never be comfortable.  It will probably never be easy.  But it will most certainly never be boring!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

On handling feedback...

Opinions, opinions, opinions.  Everyone has them.  Everyone loves to share them.  And they vary and change, from person to person and from day to day, just about as much as celebrities' hairstyles.

Naturally, singers are always hearing other people's opinions about their singing.  Coaches, teachers, directors, conductors, and of course other singers.  Everyone is eager to offer their two cents.  And they (usually) mean well.  Some opinions are helpful, some not so helpful, some make absolutely no sense at all.  And it's not always easy to tell the difference.

Being a singer is a confusing business.  To start with, you can't see your instrument.  It's not exactly obvious what's going on in there.  I mean, if you played the double bass, nobody would ever walk up to you and say "actually, I think that might be a trumpet."

Unless perhaps they are Helen Keller.
But it's different for singers.  You have to "diagnose" your instrument blindly, relying solely on your ears and your instincts.  There are a few things to consider when figuring this out: colour (what your voice sounds like), range (how low and high it can go), tessitura (where it likes to "sit" most of the time), size (how loud you are) and weight (how easily your voice can move).  On top of this, the distinction between some voice types can be quite subtle.  And your voice is constantly changing with maturity and training.  And of course voices are very individual, so some people just won't fit neatly into one category.  Now, keeping all those things in mind, how easy do you think it is to know what your voice type is?

To further complicate matters, you can't completely trust your own ears.  Since you ARE your instrument, since your voice is inside you and is resonating in various spaces that are quite close to your eardrums, you can get a very distorted idea of what your voice sounds like.  It's impossible to hear yourself from the outside as you would if you were playing the violin.  In fact what you hear when you're singing can be quite different from what your audience is hearing.  Listening to recordings can help, but it's still not the same thing as an objective outsider's opinion.

So of course it's important to know what other people are hearing.  To get feedback from other people in the profession.  And people in the singing profession just looOOOooove to speculate about your voice type, especially if it means implying that you're something wildly different than what you think you are.   Yes, it's true - people in the opera business really are drama queens.

Forsooth!  Thou'rt truly a soprano!
All it takes is for someone to notice one characteristic in your voice, and suddenly they could be steering you in a completely different direction.  If you're a baritone with a bright sound, maybe you're actually a tenor.  If you're a mezzo with good high notes, suddenly you're a lazy soprano.  If you're a soprano who sings runs well, you must be a coluratura soprano.

Take my case, for example.  As a young mezzo, I was terrified of high notes.  My teacher at the time didn't want to push me, so I played it safe and only sang low stuff.  I sang a lot of contralto repertoire and developed pretty good low notes.  So naturally some people would suggest that perhaps I was a contralto.  Then I moved to Glasgow and started singing higher repertoire and really working on my high notes.  In fact I have been doing nothing BUT work on my high notes for the past three years.  Needless to say, my high notes have improved a lot and now feel much more comfortable.  But do you think people simply appreciate that I'm a mezzo who's developed a decent top to her range?  No, of course not.  They now say that since my high notes sound so good, perhaps I'm a soprano.

What the what???
It feels like I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.  If I sing good low notes I'm a contralto and if I sing good high notes I'm a soprano.  God forbid that I might just be a mezzo with a wide range.  That's far too simple!

In my experience, some people just love to be shocking and controversial.  They love feeling oh-so-clever as they suggest that actually, you've been wrong all this time about your voice, and you're a completely different creature than you thought you were.  Beware of these people.  Here be dragons.

This issue of voice type is just one example of the many difficult and confusing things singers worry about.  There are millions of other questions keeping us up at night.  What roles should I sing?  What do I need to improve in my technique?  How should I move on stage?  Who should I audition for?  And we're all very eager to hear people's opinions on all of this.

It's been a tough week here at the opera studio. We had two days in a row of audition training, where people in the profession - in this case, an agent and a casting director - came to hear our audition arias and give us some feedback and advice.  Needless to say, it can be rather overwhelming to hear so many opinions about your singing in such a short space of time. Especially when the opinions are unexpected or negative, or when they completely contradict each other. You can start to feel a little bit like this girl:

So. Many. Snowballs.
And if you're not feeling particularly confident or certain about your singing, a couple of comments can throw you completely off-kilter.

Of course, it would be alright if your ego had some time to recover from all this. But it usually doesn't. Before you know it, it's time to do another audition, sing for someone else, hear another opinion. Or to give a concert. Or to go back into rehearsals. And you have to carry on, unphased, as if someone hasn't just shaken the entire foundation of your singing career with a few well-intended remarks.

So how do you do it?  How do you handle all of those snowballs coming at you, while continuing to build your snowman with a smile on your face?  How do you decide which opinions you should pay attention to - which snowballs you should use to help build your snowman and which ones you should allow to just fly past?

I really struggled with this question this week.  After the audition training, I felt confused and conflicted by what I heard from the experts.  Worst of all, after hearing some unexpected negative feedback about one aria, I lost a lot of confidence.  I felt diminished, deflated, tiny.

Me after audition training.
In our staging rehearsals the next day, the director noticed that I'd lost my spark.  Luckily he's a very intuitive and supportive person.  So not only did he know exactly what was going on, but he knew exactly what to say.  "Forget about the last two days," he said.  "As a singer you always have to carry on.  You have to think about today, this moment.  We need you in the here and now."

He was right.  I had to be strong.  I couldn't let myself be shaken so much by what these people had said.  Of course it was important to take it into account and try to follow their suggestions for improvement.  But their opinions were not the be-all and end-all.  They were just that - opinions.  And they shouldn't be blown out of proportion.

It's easy to get caught up in what other people think and to let it affect you too much - especially if you're feeling a bit insecure.  But no matter how famous, important or knowledgeable someone is, there is absolutely no way that they know your voice as well as you do.  After all, you are the one who is singing with it every day.

There are of course many smart people out there who can help you improve your singing.  But there are also people who don't really know what they're talking about.  In fact, even if they DO know what they're talking about, when they're only hearing you sing for 5 or 10 minutes, it can very easy for them to get the wrong end of the stick.

I'm learning now to be careful with opinions.  To listen with an open mind, but to always ALWAYS take things with a grain of salt.  It's important to trust your intuition.  Does what this person is saying ring a bell for you?  Does it perhaps hit a nerve because it's uncomfortably true?  Then it's probably worth thinking about.  Is their opinion wildly different from what you feel, or from what anyone's ever said before?  In that case you should probably take their opinion fairly lightly.

In the end it's all up to you - to know what you do well, to recognise what you need to improve, and to sort through these millions of opinions and decide which ones to trust.  While many people can offer you valuable insight, nobody knows you better than yourself.  You are your own best teacher.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

On listening to your inner child...

This week in the studio we've started staging rehearsals for our first opera.  My character is - wait for it - a pre-pubescent boy.

In case you're not so familiar with opera, I should probably explain that it's not unusual for a female singer to play a boy.  It's a common convention, known as a trouser role.  As a mezzo-soprano, I play a lot of trouser roles.

To be honest, in terms of costumes, it kind of sucks.  While my soprano friends get to wear all kinds of gorgeous and elaborate gowns on stage, I'm usually stuck with... well, trousers.

Or in this case, dungarees.
Yes.  Dungarees.
But playing a little boy is also really fun.  In this production I get to run around, play games, climb and jump, kill imaginary monsters, and make silly faces.  I get to be a little kid again!

Aside from being really really fun, it's a massive learning experience.  Not only am I practising my craft, singing and acting on stage, but I'm connecting with my inner child.  And I think there's a lot that we can learn from children.  For example:

1. Children are curious.  Children always want to know who, what, how, when, where - and most importantly, why?  They're not complacent.  They don't settle for the way things are.  If they feel they're missing out on something or are somehow in the dark, they won't stop until they've figured it out (and asked you a million annoying questions in the process).

2. Children are imaginative.  When's the last time you made up a story about a purple spotted unicorn?  Exactly.  Children are always using their creative little minds to come up with things.  And they never worry if their idea is weird or silly or even stupid.  They just let their mind do its thing.

3. Children are fearless.  Remember when you used to climb ANYTHING and jump off of ANYTHING?  Sure, sometimes it ended in getting stitches, but it was fun, right?  Kids don't let fear get in the way of trying new things.  They're always exploring their limits.

4. Children are free.  Well obviously they're free.  They don't have jobs and mortgages and pensions to worry about.  But that's not what I mean.  I mean they're free from inhibitions.  They're free from self-consciousness.  Just look at this girl:

She doesn't care what she looks like.  She doesn't care what people think.  She isn't even worrying about what will happen at school tomorrow!  She is just living in the moment.  Running.  With bubbles.  And making a ridiculous face.  Now come on, isn't that a little bit awesome?

We all start off this way - curious, imaginative, fearless and free.  But then something happens to us.  We grow up.  And we learn things.  Some things we learn are good, like how to tie a shoelace or how to spell "alligator".  But other things we learn aren't so good.  We learn to be cautious.  We learn to feel guilty.  We learn to worry what other people think.  We learn to put up walls and to follow rules and conventions.  And bit by bit, we start to close ourselves off.

Now I'm not exactly suggesting that we all move to Never-Never Land.  Of course everyone needs to grow up.  We have to face our responsibilities, do our chores, pay our bills, go to work.  We can't all just play on the tire swing and make daisy chains all day.

Although.  That would be amazing.
But don't you ever feel like something's been forgotten, something's gone missing as you got older?  Don't you ever feel like you've stopped really looking at the world?  That you've put up walls where perhaps walls weren't needed?

Speaking of walls.  In this week's rehearsals we were introduced to the most daunting part of the set: The Wall.  It's 2 metres high and only slightly wider than me on a fat day.  Along with the other "boys", I'll be spending a lot of the opera on this wall - climbing on and off of it, sitting, standing, walking, fighting, and striking poses on top of it... I have to be comfortable with heights and really trust my sense of balance.  Not so easy for a klutz like me!  Just to give you an idea of how clumsy I am, within this first week of rehearsals I have managed to twist my knee, stub my toe, and get punched in the nose (that last one wasn't entirely my fault).  Now, 2 metres might not sound very high, but trust me, when you're up there, it feels pretty damn high.  Oh, and also, I'm a big scaredy-cat.  So when I first climbed onto the wall I looked like this:

Actually, this isn't so much a scaredy-cat as a scaredy-llama, but you get the picture.
I only managed to sit on it for a few seconds.  Everyone else managed to stand on it, but I was far too scared.

I told my mom about The Wall in an email, and do you know what she said?  She wrote back "You used to be fearless and dance on rocking rocking chairs. You can do it!"

And you know, she's right.  When I was little I used to do all kinds of crazy things.  Before I learned to be careful.  Before I learned to be scared.  Now that I'm older I'm much more sensible.  But there is such thing as being too sensible.

The great thing about kids is, they don't think "what if I fall?"  They think "wow, it'll be so cool to be up that high!"  They don't think "what if I look stupid?"  They think "this is fun!"  And they don't think "those are the rules".  They think "what if I tried this?"  That's the kind of attitude we can learn from.  Yes, rules are there for a reason.  And we hesitate from taking risks because we know there might be consequences.  But sometimes we let this "being a grown-up" thing go too far.  We let ourselves be closed in by ideas of what's right.  We let ourselves be paralysed by fear - fear of what might happen, or what others might think.  We let our regrets and worries take over and stop living in the moment.  And it's at times like these that we need to let go of some grown-up ideas and start thinking like a child again.

You CAN fly!
Not literally.
Once upon a time, I was very anxious to grow up.  I worried about looking stupid, so I didn't take let go or take risks when I was performing.  I worried about making good money and having a nice place to live, so I went for all the wrong jobs.  I thought constantly about the future and I didn't notice the present as it was slipping into the past.  Where did that kind of thinking get me?  I ended up completely ignoring the person I wanted to be.  I ended up in an office job, when I really wanted to be a singer.  And all because I was so caught up in "being a grown-up".  All because I was too scared to take a risk and chase my dreams.

Now that I'm here at the opera studio I'm so grateful to have a second chance.  I thank my lucky stars every day to be spending my time in rehearsal instead of behind a desk.  And I'm determined to make the most of this opportunity.  I can't let my dreams pass me by again.

So ok.  I've made it this far - I'm here at the studio, being a singer.  But I'm still letting self-consciousness and fear get in the way.  I'm still too caught up in following the rules and making things "perfect".  I worry far too much about what others will think.  If I really want progess and develop as a performer and an actor, I know I need to let myself be vulnerable.  I need to let go of my ideas about what's "good", "correct" or "dignified".  I need to be more like a child.

This kid's got it all figured out.
Friday night, at the end of a long week, I was packing up to go home.  As I was turning to go, I looked up at The Wall and made up my mind.  I would conquer this.  With some help from the director, I climbed to the top, and eventually I worked up the courage to stand up.  I remembered what it felt like to be the little girl dancing on a rocking chair.  Not afraid of falling off, not worried about what might happen.  Just enjoying the thrill of being up so high.  Just living in the moment.

A lot has changed since I was that little girl.  But despite all my delusions of grown-up grandeur, I still have a lot to learn from her.  To let go of self-consciousness.  To be brave.  To ask questions.  To play.  To sprinkle some fairy dust, think a happy thought, and remember that I can fly.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

On body image...

I'd like to take some time to write about something which I think is often on singers' minds.  This is an issue which, for personal reasons, hits very close to my heart.

I am talking about body image.

As singers, as performers, we are subject to constant scrutiny by ourselves as well as others.  And we feel this scrutiny acutely.  Scrutiny of our singing, our acting, and our musicality, of course.  But also scrutiny of our physical appearance.  These days more than ever, it matters what you look like on stage.  And not just because it's good to be physically fit and move well on stage.  And not just because it's easier to believe you're dying of starvation and tuberculosis if you're slim.  And not just because people with your voice type tend to be more petite, athletic, slender, whatever.  We've all heard these arguments, and many more.  But let's be brutally honest here - the truth is, the audience likes to look at something pretty.

Now, I don't think it's entirely a bad thing that singers are encouraged to take care of their appearance.  In moderation, this attitude can encourage us to eat well, exercise, and stay clean and well-groomed.  These are things which will help us feel better about ourselves and be in a better state, mentally, physically, and vocally.

However, taken to extremes, this attitude can lead to all kinds of nasty things.  Crippling self-consciousness.  Obsessive calorie-counting.  Yo-yo dieting.  Grumbling about the "hot" singer who gets all the roles because of their looks.  Speculating that the overweight singer will never get work because they're "too big".  Where does it end?

I have to say, as a singer today, I really worry about the disproportionate emphasis which we put on our outer appearances.  It's really no wonder that this young mezzo got things backwards and asked Joyce DiDonato if she should dye her hair (and by the way, Joyce's response is awesome).  Of course it is good to take care of yourself and present yourself well.  But singers need lots of confidence - true confidence - to succeed.  And true confidence relies on much more than what you look like and how much you weigh.  If we place too much of our self-worth on what we look like, we're putting ourselves in a dangerous position. 

I should know.

My eating disorder was not sudden or dramatic.  I didn't starve myself to the point of crisis.  My parents never had to wheel my skeletal body into the hospital to be force-fed through tubes.  But rather, throughout the course of 4 or 5 years - most of my early twenties - I was addicted to a cycle of binging and purging and self-starvation.  It wasn't continuous.  There were periods lasting several months when I was eating "normally" and was convinced that I was "cured".  But something would always happen - a breakup, a bad mark, or some other perceived failure - to trigger a relapse.

Why was I bulimic?  I have thought about this a lot.  There were some contributing factors you could point at.  I am a perfectionist.  I love to punish myself for perceived shortcomings.  I tend to have an all-or-nothing mentality.  And of course, I have never had a healthy relationship with food.  I overate as a child and dieted as a teenager, and I basked in the praise when people noticed the weight loss.

I began binging and purging in my first year of university.  Looking at it one way, it would seem the whole thing started when my first boyfriend broke up with me.  But really, there was much more to it than that.  I was completely overwhelmed.  From being an over-achieving top student in a small-town high school, I'd been thrown into the unpredictable, competitive world of singing.  Suddenly studying hard would not guarantee me an A+.  I was up against talent and style and looks and gossip, and a million different opinions and criticisms flying about like poison arrows.  I looked around and felt - quite sharply - that I didn't measure up.

Everyone around me seemed so capable, so confident, and yet, no matter how hard I worked on my singing, it was never good enough.  I felt I had no control over it.  Either you were good or you weren't, and I clearly wasn't.

And so, in a twisted leap of logic, I started to control what I could control.  Maybe my voice wasn't as glorious as that other girl, but at least I could run further than her.  At least I could weigh less than her.  At least I could stop the calories from going into my body.

It became an addiction.  It became my way of coping, or not coping, with everything.  I felt that controlling my body was the answer to everything.  I felt that if I lost ten pounds everything would magically get better.  I placed all of my self-worth on the numbers that showed on the scale.  Ironically, the skinnier I was, the fatter I felt.

It is the most unhappy I have ever been in my life.

I wish I could tell you how one day I magically snapped out of it.  How someone said or did the right thing and then it ended.  But it wasn't that simple.  I went to a therapy group.  I left the therapy group.  I came back to the therapy group.  I took a year out of music college.  And after many recoveries and relapses it eventually faded away.

As I recovered from my bulimia and grew stronger, as I learned to accept and deal with who I was, I found that my singing improved dramatically.  I stopped punishing myself and pushing myself to impossible standards and I began to see myself grow.  I released myself from my self-imposed confines and I began to see what I was truly capable of achieving.

My eating disorder wasn't really about food or weight.  It was about avoiding emotions.  It was about hiding from myself.  But I believe it manifested itself this way because we live in a society that's obsessed with appearances.  And the most obvious thing, the easiest thing, was for me to look on the outside of myself instead of within.

The reason I'm sharing this story is that I'm concerned.  I'm concerned that as an insecure young singer under pressure, I found it easier to go on a diet than to address my own thoughts and emotions.  I'm concerned that other insecure young singers under pressure will do the same.  I'm not by any means trying to blame my eating disorder on the pressures of the singing industry.  But I do think it's worth our while to take a step back and examine the messages we're sending to ourselves and other singers about appearance and self-esteem.

As performers it's only natural to want to look as good as we sound on stage.  But to really look good, you have to feel good.  You have to have true confidence in who you are - not just the looks, but the voice, the heart, the whole package.  It might seem easier to focus on the outside, to control something visible and obvious like your weight. But if you don't begin with what's inside you - if you don't learn to develop your mind and your heart first - you may end up an empty shell.

So yes, we should try to look our best.  But the way we look should be the icing on the cake.  There are more important things we need to address to keep ourselves healthy, happy and whole.  Facing yourself, facing your emotions, learning about the world, growing up - these are all painfully difficult things to do, but also extremely important.  And in the end, that is what will shine from your eyes when you're singing.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

On auditioning...

Auditions, auditions.  Can't live with them, can't live without them.

Well obviously you can't live without them.  No auditions means no work.  But living WITH them?  Good God.  I'm pretty sure we can all agree that auditions are terrible ordeals.  (I mean, if you do actually enjoy auditioning, please write to me.  I would be most fascinated to hear about your extremely bizarre take on life.)

I'm pretty sure it's safe to say, the vast majority of us dread auditions.

And oh, the hoops that we jump through!  The fees we pay, the train and plane and bus tickets we buy, the long journeys we make, and the many hours of practising and nail-biting we spend in anticipation of those fifteen minutes of adrenaline-soaked horror. 

Also, sometimes the hoops we jump through are very high and on fire.

For instance, there's the audition trip I went on recently.

Gather 'round my friends, and listen to the tale of what I shall henceforth dub The Most Ridiculous Audition Trip Ever.  (Well, at least, I shall dub it thusly for the time being, until some other audition surpasses it in ridiculousness and usurps the title).

It all started when I saw the auditions advertised for an opera festival in Italy.  It just so happens that their upcoming season includes two operas with roles I'm very interested in singing.  In fact, I've been working on arias from these roles, which means I'd have the perfect pieces to sing for them.  They asked for an audition fee which was a bit higher than reasonable, but I thought it could be a good opportunity and it was worth a shot.  I sent them an email with my CV.  They promptly replied - in Italian - asking if I could come and audition on such-and-such a day.  So with the help of Google Translate and my basic grasp of Italian, I responded that yes, I could.  They gave me an audition appointment and that was that.

Next I had to book my travel.

Before I go on, let me explain something: because I come from a gigantic country where everything is really far apart, I tend to delight in the novelty of how CLOSE everything is in Europe.  It's almost as if - please forgive me - I think of Europe as a smallish country.  In my defence, the entirety of Europe IS less than a third the size of Canada.

No really!  I googled it.

Travelling from Belgium to Italy for an audition?  No problem!  It would probably take about the same time as it used to take my mom to commute to work from the suburbs.  And it wouldn't cost too much either.  After all, there are all these brilliant cheap airlines here.  It should be a piece of cake!

Well.  First of all there's no such thing as a cheap flight and if you don't believe me, ask Fascinating Aida.  It might seem cheap at first, but that's before you factor in all of the hidden extra costs.  And as for not taking too long, let's not forget that the airports for these cheap flights are always in the middle of nowhere.  You always have to take a train and two buses, bare minimum, just to get to the airport.  So already you have more time and money added into the mix.

This airport is probably not even in the same COUNTRY as the city it claims to belong to.
My audition happened to also be in the middle of nowhere, but NOT the same middle-of-nowhere as the airport.  I would have to take a couple of trains to get to a station "near" the town where the auditions were held (remember those quotation marks).  Then I would need to stay overnight in a bed-and-breakfast before the audition, and make the same trip all the way back to Belgium.

All-in-all, it was beginning to look like a very long and expensive trip just for one audition.  I began to have my doubts about the whole thing.  But after all, I had gone as far as buying the "cheap" plane tickets, and as they say, nothing ventured nothing gained.  What if this opera festival actually liked me and cast me in something?  What would be cooler than singing Italian opera in Italy?

So I set off on the morning of my flight.  First mistake: I forgot to factor in that it was a Sunday morning.  Which meant there wasn't an early bus to the train station.  So I missed the first train and had to catch the next one.  For some reason the next train decided to be The Slowest Train In The World, and it took twice as long as it should have to get into the city.

It was the Little Engine that Couldn't.
At this point I had missed the bus to the airport, and my gate would close in 20 minutes.  My only option was to grab a taxi.  Yes, it would be very expensive, but I had come this far and my bags were packed, and dammit, I was going to make it to this audition.  So I jumped into a taxi and asked him to get me to the airport as soon as humanly possible.

I had one bad-ass taxi driver - only slightly less scary than Robert De Niro.  He just stared intensely into the road and drove on at full speed.  As the metre clicked upwards to ever more astronomical costs, my stomach began to twist with anxiety.  I briefly considered flinging myself out of the speeding taxi onto the motorway, then decided it would be slightly less painful to pay the fare.

I am not even going to tell you how much I paid for that taxi.  I never want to speak about it again.  Just the thought of it makes me sick.  But I did make it to the gate just in time and managed to board my flight.

Next came the train journey, which was painless enough.  There were two stations which, according to Googlemaps, were close to the town.  I chose to get off at the second one.

Unfortunately, in all my panic to catch the flight, I had forgotten to bring a map.  And so I found myself lost in the heart of Tuscan countryside.  On a Sunday evening.  Which meant there were no shops open that could sell me a map.  And internet cafes?  Forget it.

Yeah sure, Tuscany's all nice and idyllic.  Until it's a Sunday and EVERYTHING IS CLOSED.

I thought the town must be close though, because Googlemaps had told me so.  So I set off down the side of the road (there was no pavement) with my wheelie suitcase, trying to follow the street signs and praying not to get run over by the cars whizzing by me.

An hour later, I still had no idea where I was.  See, what Googlemaps had failed to mention was that this town was on top of a giant hill, and not at all near the so-called "nearby" train stations.  Getting there would involve an uphill trek of several miles.

After a panicked phone-call to my boyfriend trying to see if he could look up where I was online (I don't even want to think about how much it costs to phone Sweden from Italy on a Belgian phone) I managed to catch a bus into the town and get directions to my bed-and-breakfast.  It was an old convent, and my room was more than a little austere, but by the time I arrived I didn't care.  I collapsed into the tiny narrow bed and was asleep by 9.

The following day, I arrived very early for my audition.  I just barely managed to understand the nice lady who explained everything in Italian and showed me to my warm-up room.  I had plenty of time to warm up and relax.  Finally I ventured out ten minutes before my audition was scheduled, only to find that they were running at least an hour behind.

I waited, paced around, did some stretches, waited, sang a bit more, waited, did more stretches, waited more, chatted to the other singers, sang a bit more, waited more... You get the picture.  In the end my audition was almost 2 hours later than it was meant to be.

And?  After all that?

Well, the director seemed to like me.  I say "seemed" because you never can tell in these situations. Sometimes a director will shower you with compliments only to send a brush-off email a week later.  And sometimes they'll say nothing and then inexplicably hire you.  In any case, he seemed to like me  He complimented the colour of my voice and asked who I'd studied with, and - here's the best part - he said that my voice was very free!  Now, if you know anything about my singing you'll know that that's a Hay-UGE compliment.  Nobody EVER says that my voice is free.  Except maybe at the end of a long lesson, when my teacher might say something like "See?  It sounds a bit more free when you do that".

After complimenting my voice the director said that I looked good for my age.  Which I thought was nice of him to say, until he pointed to my email.  Instead of 1985, I'd typed that I was born in 1895.  Oh.

Apparently I am a contemporary of J. Edgar Hoover.
My trip back to Belgium was uneventful, except for a rather heated discussion with a vending machine (I paid 2 euros for those M&Ms and they never came down!).  However, as one of the other singers gave me a lift to the "nearby" train station he informed me that the financial situation there was bad and in fact they weren't even sure they'd have the funding to do this festival.  So even if the director really did genuinely like me, and was able to overlook my bout of dyslexia, there's a chance this festival won't even happen!

As I sit here, completely exhausted from the two-day voyage and a few hundred euros out of pocket, I have to ask myself: was it worth it?

Let's see here.  At best, I will get offered some singing work in Italy.  And at worst?  I sang in a beautiful old theatre, performed two new audition arias, and got a nice compliment from the director.  And let's not forget having a magnificent cappuccino in the Tuscan sunshine and collecting some fantastic travel stories.

Like I said, nothing ventured nothing gained.  We jump through all kinds of hoops for auditions.  Because aside from the possibility of work, there's always something to be learned from doing an audition.  Even if it's something simple.  For instance?  Always check your emails for typos.  Also, make sure to bring a map with you.

Was I crazy to do this audition?  Probably.  But there's no time to think about that - I have another audition tomorrow.

Thank goodness, this one's in Belgium!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

On being in the middle...

I really wasn't sure what to write about this week.

It's not because I don't have anything to write about.  In fact there have been a more than a few things running through my mind.  But with each of these things, I thought - no, I'm not finished learning that lesson yet.  I'm not ready to draw any conclusions.  I'm still in the middle.

And that's when I realised what I should write about.

You see, every week I write a blog post that has a real sense of finality to it.  This is what happened, and this is what I learned from it, and this is how things are going to be different now.  As a perfectionist, this is a very satisfying thing to do.  Bam!  Lesson learned.  End of story.

But life doesn't always work that way.  Unless you are a character in a well-scripted sitcom, you don't learn one clear-cut life lesson every week.  Sometimes you learn nothing, sometimes you learn the same thing again, and sometimes you learn several things at once.  Sometimes something really messed up happens and you have absolutely no idea what you're supposed to take away from it.  Sometimes you have a feeling you're learning something but you're not sure what.  Sometimes you have absolutely no idea that you're in the middle of learning something very important.

I like to keep a journal of my experiences at the opera studio. I jot down notes about what people said in coachings and lessons, and sometimes I write a few sentences when I feel I've realised something significant. Well this week I've had a difficult time with one particular project, and I thought I should write about it in my journal.  But I kept putting off writing about it. I thought that if I just gave myself some more time to reflect on it I would be able to make some kind of ground-breaking conclusion from what had happened.

A day passed.  And then another day.  And still I had no big revelation.  I had no idea what to write about it, except for what had happened and how it had made me feel.

This really maddened the perfectionist in me. It was just so.. messy! So unfinished!

Why was it still not tied up in a neat little package??
And suddenly I thought to myself, you know what, that's ok. I don't need to draw a conclusion here. Maybe I'll be able to look back on it in a week or two and be able to say exactly what I've learned from it, but right now it's still unclear. Right now all I can do is take a step back and be aware of how it makes me feel and why. Which is enough for now. I'm still in the middle, and that's exactly where I need to be.

We all love to focus on the product of our work.  There's no better feeling than saying "I made that" or "I learned this" or "I won that award".  Which is why it can be very difficult to stay motivated when you aren't seeing any clear results from your efforts.

Some days it's really obvious why you're doing what you're doing.  Those are the good days.  But there are also a lot of days when you just keep struggling on and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  It's really frustrating.  You begin to think you're doing all of this for nothing.  That you're never going to get there.  Maybe yesterday you felt like you were getting somewhere, but today you feel like you're stuck in one place or even going backwards.

I'm very familiar with this feeling, as I'm sure a lot of musicians are.  My singing technique has never improved on a steady incline.  I've often reached plateaus.  Very long, very flat plateaus.  For ages it felt like nothing was getting better - until suddenly it did.  Don't ask me why.  Maybe I had a sudden "Eureka" moment, or maybe I just needed that bit of time to process things subconsciously.  But the point is, it has never been - and probably never will be - a straightforward path.

It's not always obvious where you're going, or how and when you'll ever get there.  But chances are - unless you're doing something really really weird - you will end up there eventually.

So true.

Ok, fair enough.  But what do you do in the meantime, when you're stuck in the middle of that tangle?

This is how I felt this week.  Right in the middle of it.  I'm aware that certain things are challenging and that I'm struggling with them, but I haven't had any big breakthroughs or epiphanies.  I haven't learned lessons or drawn conclusions from anything.  In fact I can't really see where all of this is going.

I would just love to be able to sum it all up for you.  I would love to tell you exactly what happened and why, and what I've learned from my mistakes.  I would love to smile knowingly with a smug twinkle in my eye and say "ah yes" to myself as I look back on my past foolishness. 

But I can't.  It's still unclear.  It's still difficult.  And I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Oh boy.  Still a long way to go here.
So what should I do at a time like this?  Should I obsess over my problem?  Should I crane my head from side to side, trying to see ahead to the end?  I could do that, but it would probably only make matters worse.  Should I give up?  Should I go and find another, shorter tunnel?  It's tempting, but that's the coward's way out.

I actually think that the best thing to do at a time like this is to accept where you are.

It's ok if you don't have it all figured out just yet.  It's ok if you haven't made it.  The point is that you're on your way.  It may not look like you are, but you are.

You know the expression "can't see the forest for the trees"?  Well sometimes that happens.  Sometimes you're right in the middle of the forest, and you won't see the whole thing until weeks later when you come out of it.  That's when it will all make sense.

But in the meantime, why not enjoy the trees?  Why not ACCEPT that you're in the middle of the forest, and have a look around?  You might even find that the scenery is quite nice here!

Trees are pretty!
It's hard not to worry about the future.  Where are you going?  When will you get there?  Why aren't you there yet?  But sometimes you just need to take a step back, relax and enjoy where you are.  Right here, right now.  You won't always be here.  But at the moment, here is where you are.  And worrying is not going to change that.

We're often so obsessed with the end that we forget to enjoy the journey.  You can't always control where you are or how fast you're going.  But you CAN always sit back and admire the view.

So go ahead.  Accept where you are.  Stop worrying about the future.  Stop beating yourself up for moving too slowly.  Be gentle with yourself.  Be patient.  Just be.

And who knows - something amazing might be just around the corner.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

On staying disciplined...

When I worked in an office, I would wake up every morning at 7:30 so I could get to work at 9:00 sharp.

Ok.  That's a lie.  My alarm would go off at 7:30.  Then I would press the snooze button a million times before finally rolling out of bed around 8:00.  And stumble into the office around 9:15 or so.

I've never been a morning person.

Anyway, the point is, I had a pretty regular schedule.  And despite my daily 9 to 5 office hours, I still managed to fit in singing lessons, auditions, gigs and coachings and find time to practise every day.  It was not easy, and I often felt frustrated and constricted by my office hours, but I did manage to get a satisfactory amount of singing work done every day.

So now that I don't have an office job, and I'm able to be a singer 100% of the time, I should be getting tons of work done.  I should be listening to lots of music, improving my technique, translating my texts, learning new roles and working on my acting.  I should be improving exponentially faster than I did when I had the office job.  Right?


I've just finished my first official week as a student, and let me tell you, I have wasted a LOT of time.  I have slept in numerous times, I have spent two mornings of the week being hungover - one time I even went home IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY to take a nap!  And honestly?  I'm not doing any more practising than I did before.  In fact I may even be doing less.

What on earth is going on??

Don't get me wrong here.  I mean, I remember what it was like being a student.  I remember the whole staying-up-until-2:00-then-rolling-out-of-bed-for-my-12:00-class thing.  I remember drinking on weekdays.

But I'm not an 18-year-old kid anymore.  I'm a 27-year-old adult.  I thought being a student would be different now that I'm older!  I thought I would approach this with maturity and discipline.  I thought I would know how to manage my time wisely.

I did not think I would be drinking an entire bottle of red wine on a Wednesday night.  Or sleeping in until noon just because I can.  Those are things you do when you're young and you don't know any better.  I should be more sensible than this!

Well, apparently I'm not.

I think there's a few reasons for my lapse in discipline here.  First of all, it's easier to stay disciplined when you have consistency.  When I worked in an office I had a regular, structured schedule.  So I practised at the same time every day.  It was an easy habit to keep because it was consistent.

Secondly - and this one might sound strange, bear with me - I think it's actually easier to get something done when you have less time to do it.  When I worked in an office I had a limited window of time in which to practise.  Which meant I was highly motivated to practise within that time.

I only have until 7:30 to sing so this better be good!!

Now that I'm a student my schedule is all over the place! Some days I might have a class from 10:00 to 1:00 and a 45-minute coaching at 3:00. Other days I might have a lesson at 2:00 and then a 3-hour class after dinner.  So there's no way I can practise at the same time every day.  I have to fit it around this random, sporadic schedule.  And on top of that, I have long stretches of unstructured time when I can do ANYTHING I WANT.  And that is a very dangerous thing.  Because in my experience, when you have anything more than, say, an hour free, it suddenly feels like INFINITE TIME.  And why should I practise now when I have infinite time in which to do so?  Especially when facebook and youtube are just a few clicks away on my laptop!

It gets worse when I don't have a morning class.  Yes, I COULD get up early and practise before class, but technically I don't HAVE to be at school until 12:00.  And when I don't HAVE to, it's hard to convince myself that I should.

Sometimes I think I have trouble motivating myself because I get overwhelmed by my unrealistic expectations.  It`s like I have two voices in my head.  One is this crazy drill sargeant who thinks I should work out, do an hour of vocalising, and learn three roles, all before noon.

Give me 20 well-supported high A's!  NOW!!
And the other is a lethargic sloth who just wants to sit around eating grilled cheese sandwiches and watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother.  And come on, which of those two voices sounds more appealing?

C'mon man, it'll be fun!  We can even have ice cream!
Thus, I finish the week feeling terribly guilty for having killed a lot of valuable time.  Time which could have been productive, but was instead devoted to crap tv, chocolate and facebook.  So how do I avoid this in the future?

Well I think this is a challenge faced by most students - and by most freelancers.  You have to make your own schedule.  There's lots of work to do, and you're well aware of it, but there`s no boss breathing down your neck telling you when to work.  So you have to motivate yourself.  You have to set your own hours and you have to follow them.

Mind you, it`s best to be careful when setting your own hours.  It might sound appealing to you now to sleep in late and work late into the evening, but this can make it pretty difficult to carry on any kind of social life with people who keeps normal hours.  And once you start working later in the day, it's a slippery slope.  Before you know it you`ll have some bizarre sleep schedule which has you going to bed at 3am and waking up at 1pm.

I don't care if it is 2 in the afternoon, this still counts as my morning coffee.

If you enjoy having a sleep schedule like this and you don`t mind never seeing your non-student/non-freelancer friends, by all means carry on.  But personally I`ve found that staying up late and sleeping in late all the time makes me feel pretty yucky.  There is something to all that circadian rhythm stuff after all.  Besides, if you`re used to sleeping until noon, you`re going to have a heck of a time getting up for an audition/interview/test/what-have-you at 9 in the morning.

It's not easy being your own boss, no matter how motivated you are.  Nobody tells you what to do when, and while this may sound fabulous at first, it really is a mixed blessing.  It means you have to create your own schedule and make sure that you follow it.  And if you aren't getting enough done, it's nobody's fault but your own.

Beck got that one right.
I still have a lot to learn about being disciplined.  Case in point: I meant to write this blog post yesterday, and despite loads of free time I still didn't manage to finish it last night.  In any case, after realising how much time I wasted last week, this week I'm really making an effort to approach things differently.  Sure, I may not HAVE to get up early, but I'll certainly feel better and get more done if I do.  I may even be able to have a proper evening every now and then!  So it's definitely worth it to keep myself on at least a halfway-sensible schedule.

And on that note, it's getting to be past midnight now.  Better get to bed so I can have a productive day tomorrow!