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!