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.