Tuesday, 11 September 2012

On gaining confidence...

The past week has been both amazing and terrifying.

I’ve been participating in a series of masterclasses in Stuttgart.  I already know Stuttgart pretty well.  I used to come here every summer to sing in a festival choir.  But this visit was very different.

When I was in the festival choir, I usually travelled with other Canadian singers.  And even if I did fly out alone, by the time I arrived at Stuttgart airport I would be surrounded by old friends, most of whom spoke fluent English.  We would all stay in the same hotels and explore the city together and have an awesome time.  Don’t get me wrong, we worked hard (in rehearsals that were led in English), but as we were in the choir it was a pretty low-pressure gig. 

There was a lot of this.
This time, I travelled alone and arrived alone.  I stayed in a flat with a German couple.  Thankfully, I wasn’t the only English speaker in the flat – there was a girl from New York staying there with me – but conversations at the breakfast table were never fluid and almost always involved a German-English dictionary.  In the masterclasses, although our brilliant teacher was able to speak to one girl in French and to myself and the New Yorker in English, everyone else was taught in German.  And this time I wasn’t there as a chorister.  I was there as a soloist.
All in all, it was a pretty daunting experience.  Travelling alone, singing alone, and on top of it all dealing with a foreign language.  I had to be independent, I had to have my wits about me, and most of all, I had to be extremely confident.

Confidence has never come easily to me.  I’m the kind of girl who agonises over making decisions.  Who asks for people’s opinions on everything.  Who hesitates at every corner.  Who shies away from confrontation.  Who constantly compares herself to others and worries about what people think of her.
I’m not entirely sure where this has come from. 

I have a few theories.  Maybe it’s because of my nationality.  As an overly-polite Canadian my first instinct is always to blurt out “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” (sometimes followed by “eh”). 

It might also be because I come from a family of reserved introverts whose idea of a holiday is sitting around reading books.  Or maybe it’s because I absolutely detest obnoxious people, and my worst fear is to become one of them.
But really?  Those aren’t so much explanations as excuses.  The fact is that, like many people, I struggle with self-confidence.  And if I want to accomplish everything I hope to accomplish, I need to overcome this.  I need to start believing in myself.

Right.  Ok if you’re anything me, at this point you are banging your head against the wall.  Because you’ve heard this sentence a million times before.  “You need to start believing in yourself”.  “YES!” you may scream, “I KNOW I do!!  But HOW???!”
Ah.  Therein lies the real question.  How do you start believing in yourself?  Where does confidence come from?  Well I can certainly tell you where it doesn’t come from.  It doesn’t come from other people.  It doesn’t come from new makeup/hair/shoes/whatever.  It doesn’t come from losing weight or getting a new boyfriend.  And if you go around whinging to people that you don’t believe in yourself, that’s not going to help either.  In fact it will probably make matters much worse.
The fact is, people can tell you a million times that you’re awesome, but in the end the real confidence has to come from yourself.  So how do you get it in the first place?
Well, I don’t know if I have the perfect answer, but I think I’ve learned a lot about confidence this week.

The most exciting part of these masterclasses was that we had the opportunity to sing solos with a very well-respected German conductor.  I’m more than a little bit in awe of this conductor.  He conducted the festival choir I sang in.  From the time I was 19 I would hide in the safety of the alto section while he reigned over all of us from his podium.  Not that I was scared of him per se.  He was just this distant, revered authority figure.  Working with him as a soloist was something completely different, and I wasn’t really prepared for it.

The first day we saw the conductor, we greeted him with a standing ovation.  Then we got a chance to run through our arias and ask questions about tempo and articulation.  Naturally he spoke to all the others in German.  And when the time came for me to sing, guess what?  He spoke in German.  Very fast German.  And my reaction was kind of like this:

I stood there frozen.  I knew I should ask him to speak English, but I was too scared to say anything.  So I concentrated as hard as I could and tried to take it all in.  Understand him, I willed myself.  Come on, you have to understand him!  I knew every word coming out of his mouth was a pearl of wisdom, and I had to catch them all.  I knew some German – surely if I tried hard enough I would get it.

Finally the teacher saw that I was lost and started translating everything into English for me.  Then the penny dropped.  He paused and said “auf English, oder?” then switched to flawless English.  I was really embarrassed.
The next time I saw the conductor was the rehearsal for my aria.  He was no longer a distant figure on the podium – he was up close and personal.  I had to stand right next to him as he conducted, and immediately I changed from a 27-year-old soloist back to a 19-year-old chorister.  I kept my head in my score.  I giggled and smiled apologetically, and answered his questions with a voice like a mouse.

Kinda like this mouse, but not as cute.
He was not happy.  He asked if I could sing it any louder.  I was baffled.  I was singing with full voice, and I have a pretty loud voice.  So I answered honestly that no, I didn’t think I could sing it louder.  Then, like one of those slow-motion moments in a horror film, he asked to hear another singer do the aria. 

I was devastated to realise that this conductor, who I worshipped like a demigod, didn’t like my singing.

In the end he did let me keep my aria.  And the real problem was explained to me.  He didn’t think I was too quiet – he thought I was too shy.
The next day was the performance, and I gave myself a big pep-talk.  Come on, I said.  You’re no longer a little chorister in the alto section.  You’re an experienced soloist.  You’ve done this a million times.  This is just like any other concert.  Smile, hold your head high, project to the audience.  You know what you have to offer, so show it!

This time I sang very differently.  I didn’t hide behind my folder.  I sang out.  It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was a performance.  I acted like a soloist.  And it felt great.

Like this.  Only it was Bach not Wagner.

Afterwards, the conductor said that “the shy girl sang beautifully.”
The concerts and masterclasses are over now, and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned.  But more importantly, I feel I’ve gained loads of confidence.  It’s not like I think I’m amazing and I can conquer the world.  But I have made significant progress.  And here’s the weird part: it wasn’t just despite my mistakes, but in part because of them.  See, I didn’t just prove to myself that I could do stuff.  I also showed myself that when things went wrong, it was still ok.  I could handle failures as well as successes.

Sometimes confidence eludes you.  Sometimes it’s there, and sometimes you have to fake it.  But most of the time you just have to go for it and show yourself what you’re capable of doing.  You can’t just decide one day that you believe in yourself.  You have to prove that there’s something to believe in.  So don’t sit there worrying if you can do it.  Do it!


  1. Hey babes!! Love your blog <3. Brynne, thx for being such an inspiration. And yes Canadians have a culture of non-confrontation that is making me miserable. Where are you off to next?

    1. Thanks Flor :) Yes that's so true about Canadians, and I think it adds to a bit of passive-aggressive behaviour sometimes, unfortunately. I'm in Gent now getting settled, finding a place and getting a phone and everything. Hope you're well xoxo

  2. Great writing, good to be able to hear what you're up to, congrats on singing for Rilling, blah blah blah. Really, though, your choice of pictures is mindblowingly awesome. :D

    1. Hahaha thanks! Yeah I enjoy adding in the pictures.. this post didn't have as many pop culture references but I guess the pictures are still fun :P

  3. "It doesn’t come from other people. It doesn’t come from new makeup/hair/shoes/whatever. It doesn’t come from losing weight or getting a new boyfriend."

    Never were truer words written!

  4. Wifey-poo, you're amazing ^__^"
    I'm so proud of you and I'm having a wonderful time reading your blog, catching up on what you've been up to and living vicariously through your musical adventures!