Sunday, 8 December 2013

On speaking like a German...

This week in Stuttgart I’ve enjoyed hanging out with a lot of other English speakers.  The choir has two Americans, a Brit, and, including myself, three Canadians.  When we expats get together, of course we enjoy speaking English.  But we still find ourselves throwing in the odd German word or phrase.  German is such a colourful language, so full of character.  And some German words are just so apt.  There is no English word that will express quite the same thing.  Here are some of my favourite idiomatic phrases which are useful in German:

Bitte – An essential word if you want to be polite, especially in restaurants and hotels.  Depending on context, “bitte” can mean “please”, “here you go”, “pardon me?” or “you’re welcome”.  Just imagine this absurd exchange: “Can I have the cheese, bitte?” "Bitte?" "I said can I have the cheese, bitte?" “Bitte.”  “Thank you.”  “Bitte.”  I’m not joking, this conversation could actually happen.  If you don’t learn any other German word, bitte learn bitte!

Danke – Don’t worry, while “bitte” has several meanings, “danke” just means “thank you”.  If you want to emphasise it further, you could say “Danke sehr” (thanks very much), “vielen Dank” (many thanks), or danke schön” (pretty thanks??  I’m just as confused as you are).

Pretty thanks???
Entschuldigung – An essential for navigating busy streets and train stations.  “Entschuldigung”, or the more formal “Entschuldigungen Sie” means “excuse me”.  It can also be used as a more casual form of “I’m sorry” (if you want to be really apologetic, you would say “es tut mir Leid” – literally “it does me pain”).  Before you know it, “entschuldigung” will become an automatic reflex when you bump into someone or push past them in a crowd.  I often forget myself when I’m in an English-speaking country, and say “entschuldigung” when bumping into someone.  That’s how much it’s ingrained in me.

Genau – This is my favourite word in German.  It’s a kind of all-around positive response.  It can mean “yes”, “exactly”, “I agree”, or “totally”.  If you want to really emphasise it, you can nod vigorously and say “ganz genau”.

GANZ genau!!!
Lust haben – Germans don’t say they “feel like” doing something.  Instead they “have Lust” to do it.  The desire or motivation to say, go shopping, is seen as an object which you either have or don’t have.  If you don’t feel like doing something, you might say “ich habe kein Lust”: “I have no inclination.”  In Cologne, some people say “ich habe Bock”, which is funny, because it literally means “I have goat”.

I have goat to go shopping???
Gern – This is a handy little word.  Similar to “having Lust”, it implies an enthusiasm or a desire for something.  It is usually used to qualify a verb.  “Ich hätte gern” roughly translates as “I would like to have”.  You might tell someone that you enjoy knitting: “ich stricke gern”.  “Gern” can also stand alone as a statement of enthusiasm and/or willingness.  If someone asks if you would like to go for a beer, you might respond with an enthusiastic “gern”!  Waiters also use this as a polite response when you say “thank you” – sort of like saying “my pleasure” in English.

Stimmt – Another sort of agreement word.  “Stimmt” is a combination of “ok”, “that’s right”, and “I agree”.  If you want to tip your waiter, instead of telling them to keep the change you can say “stimmt so”.

Eben - A strong expression of agreement.  In my friend's words, it's like saying "you said it, sister".  Not to be confused with "eben so", which means "likewise".

Ebennn!!
Oder – This is a strange one, and I’m still getting used to it.  Technically, “oder” means “or”.  But Germans love to use it at the end of a sentence.  “That was great pizza, oder?”  “We should get going, oder?”  The first time you hear this, you will probably wait for the rest of the sentence.  We should get going or what??  But don't be fooled - there is no rest of the sentence.  It’s a rhetorical question, like asking someone to confirm their agreement, even though you already know that they agree.  Basically equivalent to the Canadian “eh”.

-Es ist ganz kalt, oder?
-It sure is cold out here, eh?
Alles klar – Similar to oder, this is often asked as a rhetorical question.  It literally means “all clear”.  People might ask “alles klar” to make sure you understand something.  But it’s a polite formality: usually they don’t want to hear an answer.  You might also say “alles klar” as a statement, like “got it”.

Doch – A funny little interjection.  It can be used the way English-speakers say “like”, to fill a space in conversation.  It can also mean “rather” or “on the contrary”.  “I don’t have any brothers – doch I have three sisters.”  Or it can be used as a simple agreement, like "yeah".

Günstig – This has been an extremely important word for me as a penniless singer in Germany.  “Günstig” means “affordable” or “sensible”.  Whether you are buying a mattress or making plans with friends, you probably want to find the most “günstig” option available.

Praktisch – A word very dear to the German heart.  It means “practical” and it is seen as a very important quality.  Probably the highest praise a German could give something is to call it “praktisch”.  But if it is “unpraktisch” or even, heaven forbid, “unlogisch” (illogical), you can expect some disapproving tutting and shaking of heads.

Pünktlich – Another word very dear to the German heart.  Germans are renowned for their “Pünktlichkeit”: their punctuality.  German culture places high importance on being on time and strictly following a schedule.  Germans will usually show up exactly on time for their appointments, if not earlier, and they will expect the same from others.  Most of the time this is awesome – after all, don’t you hate waiting for latecomers?  But sometimes it leads to an irritating kind of inflexibility.  If you change a schedule, be prepared for Germans to get flustered and make such a fuss that you’ll feel you have committed a cardinal sin.

Schade – This one-word phrase is used to express regret when something goes wrong or can’t go as planned.  Your friend can’t meet you for coffee because they were called into a last-minute meeting?  Schade.  Sometimes Germans translate this into English as “it’s a pity”, and you have to remind them that we are no longer in Jane Austen’s time.  Simply saying “too bad” will suffice.

"It's a pity."
Tja – Sometimes this is a thinking sound, like “hmm…”  Other times it’s used to express judgement and disapproval.  “Tja, of course he’s going out to smoke again.”

Na ja – A philosophical sound, like the thinking man’s “well”.  It implies that you are thinking rather deeply on the subject.  You can use it to begin a sentence: “Na ja, she is a good colleague”.  Or you can just say it thoughtfully and trail off, like saying “oh well”.  “Na ja…”

Guten Appetit – I don’t understand why we don’t have an English equivalent for this.  The French say “bon appetit”, and the Dutch say “smakelijk”.  The German say “guten Appetit”.  Do English people just not want their friends to enjoy their meals?  Or are they too fixated on scarfing their food down to even think about it?  In any case.  “Guten Appetit” is a lovely little phrase to use when sharing a meal with German friends.

Prost – If you’re in Germany, chances are that you’ll be enjoying some beer.  Or a nice dry Riesling, if that’s more your thing.  Anyway, the essential word at the German Kneipe is not “cheers” or “chin chin” but “Prost”.  For extra points, try to say it with a super-closed “O” and a hearty guttural “r” which brings up all the phlegm at the back of your throat.

PRRRRRRRROOOOOOST!!

Keine Ahnung – When all else fails, and you’re at a total loss, this is the phrase you’ll need.  “Keine Ahnung”.  “No idea”.  Said with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders, with a hope that whoever asked you will go elsewhere for the answer.

These are just a sample of the many useful Deutsch expressions which I’ve come to know and love.  Try peppering your speech with these words as much as possible, and before you know it you’ll sound as German as Sauerkraut!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

On being brave...

Last weekend I had the pleasure of singing Bach’s motet “Jesu meine Freude”.  This is one of my favourite pieces of music in the world.  I first sang it in Stuttgart with Helmuth Rilling, and have since sung it in Toronto, and again in Edinburgh.  So I was very happy to have the opportunity to sing it once again in Cologne.  “Jesu meine Freude” is a masterpiece of beauty and unity: it holds together exquisitely as a whole.  But beyond the music, I love the piece’s message of bravery and steadfastness.  My favourite movement is the dramatic “Trotz dem alten Drachen”:

Trotz dem alten Drachen,
Trotz des Todes Rachen,
Trotz der Furcht darzu!
Tobe, Welt, und springe,
Ich steh hier und singe in gar sichrer Ruh

…which roughly translates as:

“I defy the old dragon,
I defy the jaws of death,
I defy fear as well!
Rage, World, and spring to attack:
I stand here and sing in secure peace”

Turns out Bach is kind of a badass.
I just love this statement.  It’s so strong and defiant.  It reminds me of the incredible act of bravery which singing is.  How many destructive forces to we have to battle every time we get up on stage to perform?  How many inner voices of worry and doubt do we have to ignore in order to let our own voice be heard?  It’s got me thinking about the negative thoughts and feelings which we often fight with when singing...

*

Trotz dem alten Drachen…

Obviously, the old dragon looks like Smaug from The Hobbit.
We all have an old dragon within us.  He may be a bit tired and slow, but he still likes to rear his ugly head every once in a while and make us shake in our boots.  The old dragon is an accumulation of all your past baggage.  Every bad memory, every negative belief about yourself, every piece of criticism you’ve ever heard.  As much as you try to keep this old dragon hidden away in a cave, he can still come back to haunt you.  You might be in the middle of giving a winning performance in a competition, and suddenly the old dragon will be at your ear.  “Remember that time you fluffed the coloratura in that audition?  Remember the teacher who told you you can’t act?”  If you let him, he will keep going.  He won’t stop until he’s paralysed you completely.  The old dragon always has to be kept at bay.  He is old news, and he doesn’t belong in the here and now.  You have to fight him back with everything you’ve got.

Trotz des Todes Rachen

This zebra doesn't seem too bothered about the jaws of death.
While the old dragon represents ghosts from yours past, the jaws of death represent phantoms in your future.  The future doesn't exist yet, but that doesn't mean you can't imagine it in all kinds of horrible ways.  Every time you get up to perform, there is a certain amount of risk involved.  You can't help but think that this time you might not manage it.  This time you might falter.  No matter how much you practise, there is always a very real possibility that something might go wrong.  It might be a small slip, and it might be a total disaster.  There is only so much we can control in performance.   But thinking "what if" is like looking down when you're crossing a tightrope: it will only make you waver and stumble, when you were doing perfectly fine before.  Thinking about making mistakes will only encourage them to happen.  And you can’t let some imagined version of the future mess up the reality of the present.

Trotz der Furcht darzu!

Trudy was having difficulty overcoming her fear of hands.
When you worry about the past or the future, you are letting yourself be driven by fear.  What else are you afraid of when you walk onstage?  I don’t know about you, but I’m usually afraid of judgement.  I’m afraid of what the audience or the audition panel might think of me.  This is one of the hardest things about being a performer: you are constantly making yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to others’ opinions.  But if you're afraid of judgement, you'll never take the kinds of bold risks that will make you an exciting artist.  The best performers are the authentic ones.  The ones who do their own thing, without worrying about what other people think.  If you want to make great art, you can’t always be afraid of being judged.  You have to dare to be yourself.  You have to be fearless.

Tobe, Welt, und springe, ich steh hier und singe in gar sichrer Ruh.

Calm in the eye of the storm
Ever had one of those days?  When everything seems to be going wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it?  Life is unpredictable.  And it can certainly throw you a few curveballs when you least expect it.  You may be faced with a practical problem, like a delayed train making you late for an audition.  Or you may be dealing with difficulties in your personal life, like arguing with your parents.  Whatever it is, it should never interfere with your performance.  The show, as they say, must go on.  Any worries and distractions have to be pushed aside.  Any inner turmoil must be stilled.  The moment you step onstage, you exist only for the performance.  You have to be able to sing from a place of calm and peace.

*

The mind is a powerful thing, and it can have a huge impact on our ability to perform well.  You can be the most talented singer in the world, but you won't get anywhere if your mind isn't on your side.  So how do we defeat these demons?  How do we overcome our inner turmoil? How do we deliver a showstopping performance against all odds? 

In her Q&A session at Juilliard (I highly recommend watching the whole thing on youtube), Joyce DiDonato talks about these negative inner voices which can interfere with your singing.  As she points out, you just don’t have the time to listen to these voices!  There are so many things to think about when you’re performing: the meaning of the text, the dramatic context of the music, your musical interpretation, your technical approach to each phrase… Why would you waste any time listening to a voice telling you that you messed up the high note, or that you might have a run in your stocking?  Joyce suggests you should dismiss these voices – tell them to go get a coffee, and you’ll talk to them after the show.

But sometimes it's not enough just to tell negative thoughts to go away.  Sometimes they keep shouting at you and won't be ignored.  This is extremely dangerous, because negative thoughts can be have a huge influence on your performance.  If you keep imagining things going wrong, they probably will.

An old teacher of mine used to encourage me to combat this with "positive mental practice".  Any time I had a performance coming up, she would tell me to spend time going through the performance in my mind.  She told me to imagine giving the best performance possible.  Every little detail, down to the last note, would go exactly as planned.  I would be full of energy and spark, and the audience would love me.  This exercise served as a powerful affirmation.  The more I envisioned things going well, the more I felt that they really would, and the more that they actually did.  Sometimes it's not enough just to banish negative thoughts.  Sometimes you have to fight back by cultivating positive thoughts instead.

Get back, you evil old dragon!
Singers have to be superheroes.  Every day that we perform, we battle with powerful evil forces: bad memories, old insecurities, worries about the future, fears of being judged, and problems from outside the practice room.  When you stop and think about it, it's a wonder that we're able to sing at all!  But with the positivity and presence of mind, we can overcome almost anything.  We just have to remember to draw on our inner strength.  To be focused and fearless.  Only then can we stand here and sing in gar sichrer Ruh.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

On being patient...

I am an impatient person.  Most people who know me are aware of this.  Whether it’s ordering my coffee, getting my internet to work, or advancing my career, I have no time to wait.  I want to be there NOW.  I want to get that NOW.  Like those annoying kids in the back of a car on a road trip, I’m always asking “are we there yet?”  On one of my worse days, I might be asking with bitter frustration, “why the hell aren’t we there yet??”


It’s a strange thing, this impatience of mine.  It’s a unique mixture of ambition and laziness.  I really want to get somewhere.  But I don’t want to take the time to do the work it takes to get there.

Right now, I'm struggling a lot with my impatience.  I’m starting with a new teacher, and as is often the case with a new teacher, we are rebuilding my technique from the ground up.  It’s back to basics for me.  After years of doing back flips and cartwheels, I’m learning to walk again.  The process is extremely painstaking and slow.  And I hate it.

I don’t want to take the time to breathe deep and low.  I don’t want to take the time to engage my support.  I just want to sing the note already.  I just want to get there!  And so I sabotage myself.  I block myself with my own ambition.  I’m in such a rush to sing that I don’t bother to make sure I’m singing well.

I am not alone in my impatience.  We live in an impatient age.  Thanks to high-speed internet and pre-recorded television, we’re all used to instant gratification.  Skipping the commercials.  Switching tabs on our internet browser when we’re bored.  Putting every thought into 140 characters or less.  We, as a society, have extremely short attention spans.  We can't seem to focus on anything in the long-term.


What’s wrong with doing things so quickly?  There’s nothing wrong with speed, per se.  Instant noodles and high-speed wifi don’t exactly spell the end of civilisation.  But this obsession we have with getting everything right now might land us in a lot of trouble.  Because, as they say, good things come to those who wait.

There was a great article recently by James Clear about deliberate practice and the “ten year silence”.  Apparently, most artists produce their most successful work after ten years of relative obscurity.  In other words, it takes about ten years of deliberate, focused practice, ten years of trying and failing, ten years of perseverance and gradual progress, before you finally achieve something great.

Can you imagine?  Ten years without recognition!  Ten years without gratification!  Ten years of working away, never knowing for certain if you’re actually going to get anywhere.  That doesn't just take a lot of perseverance and faith in yourself - it also takes an inconceivable amount of patience.  How many of us would be able to endure that decade?

Last week I did a 5km race.  5 kilometres is not a very long distance, but for me right now it’s just long enough to be a challenge.  The thing about running long distances is, it’s just as psychological as it is physical.  You have to have the mental fortitude to keep going.  The first kilometre is easy enough.  You think “this is no problem, I just need to do [X amount] more of these”.  But as you keep running, the kilometres get longer and longer, until the last kilometre feels like it will never end.

The temptation, of course, is to run fast at the beginning.  But if you start off too fast at the beginning, you’ll never make it to the finish line.  You have to learn to pace yourself.  I don’t mean being lazy and jogging as slowly as possible.  I mean finding an ideal speed – a speed which is challenging for you, but which you can sustain in the long term.

Getting ready to run the Downsview 5k in Toronto
The same goes for any long-term process.  If you start by rushing yourself, soon enough you will burn out and stop short of meeting your goal.  The trick is to work slowly and steadily, taking the time to do things thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Pop culture loves to sell us the story of the overnight success.  Shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice" show us that it only takes one audition, one song, to turn your life around.  This is utter nonsense!  Overnight successes never happen in the real world.  There are of course some cases where singers are “discovered” by a conductor or director, and their career takes off like a shooting star.  But even in these cases, we don’t see the years of hard work and perseverance that led to their “overnight success”.  The overnight success is an illusion.  Success comes gradually, with steady, focused work.  What seems like overnight is usually the result of years of dedication.

We only see the chick once it's hatched - we don't see what happened inside the egg.
Most singers have to play the long game.  We keep plugging away, making steady progress and developing a career bit by bit.  We might see colleagues who succeed at an early age, and we might feel pangs of jealousy.  But the truth is that most of these young prodigies don’t sustain long-term careers.  They are a “flash-in-the-pan” phenomenon.  Their talent may be exciting while they are young and attractive, but as they get older it often becomes apparent that there’s nothing behind the pretty face and the pretty voice.  They don’t have the three-dimensional artistry it takes to keep an audience’s attention in the long run.  It’s not because they aren’t talented – it’s because they weren’t given time to nurture their talents fully and develop into mature artists.  They were thrust out onto the stage before they were ready.

Most of us take a lot more time to develop our careers.  And this is hardly a bad thing.  We need this time to do the necessary work on our voices and ourselves.  We need to develop into emotionally mature adults who can handle the ups and downs of a music career.  We need to grow into colourful, thoughtful, expressive, and skilful singers.  The kinds of singers who will sustain and audience’s interest for years to come.  If we rush ourselves, we risk becoming shallow singers.  Singers who display more style than substance.  If we take the time to do the necessary work, we can become singers of depth and quality.


The problem is, singers are ambitious people.  We're always obsessed with “getting there”.  But the truth is, there is no “there”.  The future doesn’t exist!  The only reality is the present moment.

Every minute that we spend in the “future” is another minute not spent on the present.  Another moment not focused on the work at hand.  Spend too much time thinking like this, and you could dream your whole life away.

If you spend all your time trying to “get there”, you will go nowhere fast.  If you focus on the now, if you take the time to work thoughtfully and thoroughly, you can go somewhere slowly.  Which would you rather do?

Slow and steady wins the race.
Back to me in the practice room.  I’m learning the difference it makes when I give myself time.  If I rush to sing, my voice sounds shallow and light.  If I take the time to breathe and support properly, the sound is richer, fuller, and deeper.  It may be driving me crazy to work this slowly, but it’s worth it to take the time I need to produce a higher quality sound.  Bit by bit, I’m hearing the difference it makes.

It’s not huge improvement.  It’s not a dramatic improvement.  It’s a slow and gradual improvement.  A focused, thoughtful process.  There are no magical solutions or overnight successes here.  I'm learning to be patient, to take my time.  After all, good things come to those who wait.

Friday, 8 November 2013

On applying for a visa...

You may have noticed that I've been writing the last few posts from Toronto.  I'm back in Canada for a while, and doing a few different things while I'm here.  Visiting family, catching up with friends, having various lessons and coachings, taking a masterclass with Tafelmusik... and applying for my visa to stay in Germany.

This is the fourth visa that I have applied for in  five years.  I have applied for student visas in the UK and Belgium, and I have applied for a post-study work visa which allowed me to stay in the UK for two years after graduating.  You would think that after applying for this many visas, I would get the hang of it.  You would think that it would get easier every time.

You would think wrong.

This is me applying for a visa.
Every time that I apply for a visa, it is a stressful, complicated, and enraging process.  It is probably taking several years off of my life.  I swear I'm not being overdramatic here.  You have not fully experienced the absurdities of government bureaucracy until you have applied for a visa to stay in a foreign country.

If you want to stay in another country in the long-term, chances are that you will need to apply for a visa.  I have written before about the process of applying for a visa, but I thought this time I might write something a bit more realistic and practical, with less humorous exaggerations and references to dodos.

Here is a dodo.  I promise not to mention him anymore in this post.
Like I said, it's not an easy process.  But I have learned some things that are helpful to know:

1. Start early.  I can't stress this one enough.  You should start looking into your visa as soon as possible - at least 6 months in advance.  This is because you will probably need to do things which require long-term planning.  You might need to hold a certain amount of money in an account for several months.  You might need to apply from the embassy or consulate in a particular city, which means planning some travel.  Or you might need documents which will take a very long time to process.  When it comes to visas, the early bird will get the worm.

Mmmmm worm.
2. Do your research.  What kind of visa do you need?  What can you qualify for?  You may be eligible for some kind of special consideration.  For instance, if your spouse, parents, or grandparents are citizens of this country, you may qualify for citizenship, or an ancestry visa.  If you are under 35, you may qualify for a youth mobility scheme, which allows young adults to spend time living and working in certain countries.  Make sure you understand the rights and restrictions for the type of visa you are applying for.  Will you be able to work?  Which kinds of work will you be able to do?  How many hours per week?  Will you be able to receive benefits such as healthcare and insurance, or should you make sure that's covered via your home country?  Make sure you know exactly what you're getting yourself into.

3. Make a list.  Check it twice.  Then check it twice again.  You will have various requirements for your visa application.  Some will be very easy, and some will be more complicated.  Make sure you understand exactly what is required for your application.  It's so easy to miss a little detail about how something has to be officially signed and stamped.  So be extra-careful with your list.

Santa doesn't need to check his list as much as you do.
4. Assemble all your requirements.  Keep track of everything carefully.  Use a specially designated folder or box to organise all of your documents.  Print out the list of what you need, and check things off as you go.  Make sure you keep everything in one place.

5. It's all about the money, money, money.  Applying for a visa is expensive.  Expect to pay large amounts of money for things like postage, administration fees, and travel as you prepare your application.  And unless you are applying for a full-time work visa (i.e. you can prove that you have a full-time job with a salary waiting for you when you arrive) you will also need to show that you have a certain amount of money to support yourself while you are abroad.  This is probably the most important requirement for your visa application.  The last thing this country wants is for you to end up broke and unemployed, and become a drain on their economy.  So make sure you have your finances sorted out and you can afford everything you need.

Sorry, Jessie J.  We can't forget about the cha-ching, cha-ching.

6. Plan your travel carefully.  For your application, you will need to know exactly when you are leaving and how long you will stay.  You will probably be required to show tickets as evidence of your travel dates.  You will also need to know where you are staying once you arrive, so make sure that you have your accommodation sorted out.

7. Even when you think you have everything in order, you probably don't.  Check that list again.  And again.  There might be something in fine print which you've missed.  If you're in doubt, find a phone number and call to ask for clarification.  It may take some time before you're able to talk to someone; chances are that the visa helpline will only be open for one hour, one day a week.  But it's worth the hassle just to make sure.

8. Bring a good book.  Once you arrive at the embassy or consulate to formally apply for your visa, you may have to wait a long time before seeing someone - even if you have made an appointment.  Last week I had an appointment, and I still waited 90 minutes to speak to someone at the German Consulate.  And this is Germany, the country that's supposed to be renowned for its punctuality!

9. Allow for the maximum application processing time.  When you are told that your application will take up to 6 weeks to process, it probably won't take 6 weeks to process.  The maximum processing time is something the visa office tells you to cover their backs.  In other words, it doesn't usually take this long, but there have been some cases - when the office was very busy, or there were complications - where it has taken this long.  Obviously you hope that your application will be processed quickly.  Nonetheless, you should prepare for the worst.  You will be giving up your passport with your application, which means that you will be landlocked until your application is processed and you have your visa.  The last thing you want is to book an early plane ticket, only to discover that you won't be able to leave when you were planning.  Changing flights can cost a fortune.  So pay attention to the maximum processing time, and be prepared to stay put for a while.

10. Surrender to the absurdity.  You will be asked to provide some completely unreasonable things for your visa application.  For example, my visa application required me to book a flight back to Canada in a year's time.  Which is understandable, right?  They wanted to make sure I wouldn't just stay in Germany illegally after my visa expires.  The problem is, it's virtually impossible to buy a flight this far in advance!  Most airlines will only let you book a flight up to 8 months ahead of time.
You will be asked for all kinds of unreasonable things like this as you're applying for your visa.  And once you have collected all of these unreasonable things, it will turn out that they didn't need half of them in the first place.  After spending all that time and money, after going through all that stress, they will airily hand it back to you.
You could get annoyed by this.  You could get indignant.  But really, what is the point?  When it comes down to it, the visa office has all the power to accept or deny your application.  If they ask you to jump through a hoop, you will jump through that hoop, and no amount of complaining will change that.  Trust me, for the sake of your sanity - do not get worked up about all this irrational bureaucracy.  Do not rage against the machine.  Be a Zen master and go with the flow.  Accept the absurdity.  Surrender to it.  Laugh about it if you can.  It's the only way to cope.

Be at one with the red tape ridiculousness.
As for me, I handed in my visa application last week, and immediately collapsed in a heap of exhaustion.  I hadn't realised until then just how much it had been stressing me out.  But once I handed in the application and the decision was out of my hands, I relaxed a bit.  I sat down and I couldn't get up.  (Luckily, it happened to be Halloween, which meant it was socially acceptable to spend all evening on the couch eating candy and watching scary movies.)

Another visa application has been sent off.  All that's left now is to wait, and to hope I haven't missed any details.  I should also find some hair dye to cover up all these grey hairs I seem to be sprouting...

Friday, 1 November 2013

On being a good colleague...

In my last post, I touched on how lonely this profession can be.  And it's true - as a soloist, especially a freelance soloist, it can feel like you're the only person looking out for yourself.  But life doesn't have to be so lonely.  There are millions of colleagues out there going through all of the same things.  People who can be an invaluable source of information, help, and support.  This is why it's important to reach out to others and form alliances within the music profession.  This is why it's important to be a good colleague.

What does it mean to be a good colleague?  A good colleague is helpful: they offer advice, give recommendations for good teachers and coaches, or endorse you to someone for future work.  A good colleague is sympathetic: they listen when you're having a hard time, and they understand what you're going through.  And finally, a good colleague is considerate: they consider how their words and actions affect other people.  In other words, they aren't an asshole.

Surprisingly difficult advice to follow.
Now, that is a lot to expect from one person.  And you probably shouldn't expect everyone to be all of these things for you all of the time.  After all, singers are very busy people working in a very difficult and competitive field.  But I believe that if you want to be a happy singer, you should seek out and befriend other singers who have these qualities.  And the more that you emulate these qualities yourself, the easier you will find it to surround yourself with like-minded people.

There are, of course, certain types of colleagues that you should avoid.  Some of them are more dangerous than others, but none of them are particularly helpful.  So try not to spend too much time with these people - and try not to become one of them yourself.

The Apathetic Colleague is the honey badger of colleagues.  They don't give a shit.  They don't wish you ill, but they don't particularly wish you any good either.  If you get in touch with the Apathetic Colleague and ask for help or advice, don't expect an answer.  The Apathetic Colleague doesn't have time for you - they only want to look out for number one.  You can sort of understand where the Apathetic Colleague is coming from.  After all, their life is busy, and they can't be expected to drop everything whenever someone needs their help.  But the Apathetic Colleague tends to ignore everyone all the time.  And what goes around comes around: when they need help, they're usually met with a taste of their own apathetic medicine.

If you honey badger someone, they will honey badger you right back.
The Negative Colleague is a total downer, man.  Always feeling sorry for their self for bombing that audition or not winning that job.  Always speaking doom and gloom about how it's impossible to get anywhere in the industry these days.  The Negative Colleague likes to play the victim - they don't take responsibility for anything that happens in their life.  Instead they choose to believe that for some reason, bad things are always happening *to* them.

Everything happens to Eeyore...
The Negative Colleague has absolutely nothing good to say about anyone or anything.  It's amazing really -you can almost feel the positivity seeping out of you as you speak to them.  Everyone goes through phases where they feel bad about life.  But the Negative Colleague isn't going through a phase - they're like this all the time.  And nobody wants to hang around a person who's always bringing them down.

The Selfish Colleague might act very friendly and pleasant toward you, but make no mistake - they don't actually care.  The Selfish Colleague will use you for all you're worth, and give nothing back.  They can be extremely needy.  They will call at any hour to ask for advice, or whine about their terrible lesson.  But the minute you ask them for a bit of help, they will suddenly become very busy.  Beware of the Selfish Colleague: they are a constant drain on your energy.

The Toxic Colleague is the most dangerous kind of colleague.  Like the Selfish Colleague, they will act like they're your BFF.  But the minute you turn your back, you can guarantee that they will be gossiping about you to someone else.   They will find ways to make subtle little comments that poke at your insecurities and chip away your confidence, all the while pretending to be on your side.  The Toxic Colleague is insidious and extremely clever - they know just how to get under your skin.

"Did you hear that Cindy got the role?  Omigod that is like, sooo sad for you."
Don't be fooled by the Toxic Colleague's tough exterior.  Chances are, they behave this way because they are incredibly, painfully insecure.  They see life as a competition with only one winner.  And they think they have to play dirty to win.  The reason the Toxic Colleague plays so many mind games is that deep down inside, they don't believe they can get ahead on their merit alone.  They think they have to sabotage their rivals in order to succeed.  When you look at it this way, it's actually pretty sad.  There's no need to be mean to the Toxic Colleague, but there's no reason to let them mistreat you either.  Just stay friendly and try not to get sucked in.

I'm often shocked by the way some singers behave toward each other.  But then again, I'm not really shocked at all.  If I'm being completely honest, I have been guilty of all of these types of behaviour at some point in my life.  And I bet that you have too.  Why?  Because we work in a difficult and competitive industry, and these are all various (admittedly unhealthy) ways of coping with it.  It's hard to separate the personal from the professional.  It's hard to be friendly with people who you consider to be your rivals.  And it's hard not to let your setbacks bring you down.

But like I said, what goes around comes around.  The music industry is a small world, and when you behave badly word spreads pretty fast.  You'll find that people are less likely to hire you back, or help you out, or even answer your calls.

More importantly, all of this kind of behaviour sucks up a lot of energy.  Energy which could be spent improving your singing, or your stagecraft, or your knowledge of the repertoire.  You have a lot of work to do!  So why waste yourself on negativity?


There is really no need to be dishonest or unkind towards our colleagues.  It makes life more difficult and unpleasant for everyone.  We all learned the same Golden Rule in Kindergarten: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Why do so many of us forget it when we grow up?

Being a good colleague just makes good sense.  We are the only ones who truly understand this career and what it entails.  So why not help each other out?  Why not lend a bit of help and support to a comrade-in-arms?  This industry is hard enough without making it harder for each other!  I know I might sound a bit naive here, but I really do believe the world will be a better place if we are kind to our fellow singers.


In the end, you have two choices: you can keep your toys to yourself, or you can share them.  If you keep them to yourself, nobody wins.  If you share them around, there's more for everyone.  We can all accomplish so much more if we pool our resources.  There are millions of fantastic websites, blogs, and online communities which demonstrate just how much singers can do when they get together.

But on a smaller, more personal scale, life is so much easier when you have friends in the industry who you can trust.  Friends who can give you an honest opinion, or a valuable recommendation.  Friends who will meet you for a beer when you're in town, or even let you crash on their couch.  True friends, with no ulterior motives, who have your back and know you have theirs.  These kinds of friends are invaluable in our profession.  And you will only get as much as you give.

I have met some people in this profession who are unhelpful or just downright nasty.  But I have also had the pleasure knowing some fantastic colleagues who have helped me in countless ways.  I am extremely grateful for everything I've received from these thoughtful and generous people.  And knowing how much their kindness has meant to me, I see how important it is to do the same for others.  Because every time we are helpful, generous, and considerate to our colleagues, we are changing this profession for the better.  We are making the music world a friendlier place.  And isn't that something we all should want?

Friday, 18 October 2013

On being a freelancer...

I used to love the word "freelance."  It sounded so exciting, so daring, so full of possibilities.  I was thrilled when I was finally able to attach the title "freelance" to my own name.  I thought "freelance" meant freedom.  It meant following your passion and not being tied down.  Life was a big adventure.  The sky was the limit.

In reality, being a "free"-lancer doesn't feel very free at all.  If anything, it can feel more stifling, more difficult, and more oppressive than any full-time job ever could.

Freelancing is a special kind of stress unto itself.  First of all, there is the insecurity.  You can't really count on anything.  Even if a company is giving you regular work, they have no long-term commitment to you.  They could change their mind at any point and start hiring someone else instead.

Then there is the irregularity of work - it hardly ever comes in a steady flow.  Sometimes you may be extremely busy with various gigs and contracts, and other times, well...


So you have to always think ahead.  Save in times of feast to survive in times of famine.  And to make things even harder, you don't always know when those times of feast and famine will come around.  Life is ever-changing and unpredictable.

I was recently reading an article on the daily habits of creative geniuses.  As I read on, something began to dawn on me.  I am not a creative genius.  I don't have any of the right habits: I don't get up early, I don't go for long walks, and I haven't kept my day job.  I'm also not really into substance abuse - but then again, that's probably a good thing.

Does chocolate count as substance abuse?
This is what the article has to say about artists forming regular habits: It was William James, the progenitor of modern psychology, who best articulated the mechanism by which a strict routine might help unleash the imagination. Only by rendering many aspects of daily life automatic and habitual, he argued, could we "free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action".

It sounds great, doesn't it?  Except - wait a minute - how can a freelancing musician form regular habits?  We may be masters of our own hours between gigs, but then we have days, weeks, even months at a time where we are completely at the mercy of someone else's rehearsal schedule.  You can't get up at 10 every morning when your call is at 9:30.  And good luck having the exact same thing for breakfast every day when you're travelling and living out of hotels!

Still, travelling around and following a rehearsal schedule is not the worst of it.  I think the most challenging part of freelancing is the time between gigs - the unstructured time, when you have to make your own work schedule.  At first this freedom can feel like a luxury, but that feeling doesn't last for long.  The problem is that there are no boundaries between work and free time: the two constantly morph and bleed into each other.  When you're working, you want to be doing something else.  And when you're doing something else, you feel bad for not working.  It's impossible to designate a chunk of time for "just relaxing", because there's always this vague notion at the back of your head that you should be doing something.

The guilt trip running through every musician's mind.
Every night feels like a Friday night and a Sunday night all at once.  On the one hand, you don't have to be somewhere the next morning; theoretically, you can stay up late and drink beer like there's no tomorrow.  But on the other hand, you have to work the next day.  Because, well, you always have to work the next day.

 
Lately, I've begun to look forward to a week of booked work with an urgent kind of desperation.  Not because of the money (although money is nice).  But because I know someone else will be creating boundaries for me.  Someone else will be giving me a schedule, and drawing clear lines: this is when you work, and this is when you don't work.  It can be such a massive relief when someone else has the responsibility of deciding that for you.

So how do you cope with this time between gigs?  How do you avoid letting the lack of boundaries drive you crazy?  Well, I think it is possible to use this time productively if you approach it the right way.  Give yourself some focus: set a goal for yourself, like learning a new role, or preparing for an audition, and use your time between gigs to work on it.  Create a schedule for yourself, or write a to-do list.  Find consistency and regularity wherever you can: try to always practise at the same time, or in the same space.  Personally, I like to practise away from home.  I find that it helps me to focus on my practice and draw lines between my home space and my work space.  This way I know when I am practising and when I am not - I get distracted less, and I don't feel guilty when I'm not practising.  It is possible to use your unstructured time to create some positive habits like this.  You may not be able to stick to these habits every day, but if you stick to them when you can, you will find it easier to slip back into them after each gig.

Of course, there are ways that you can your use flexibility to your advantage.  The fact is that some days you will feel more or less motivated to work.  The unmotivated days are the worst.  You feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall.  I think it's best on these days to just do some work - the bare minimum - and not beat yourself up about it.  It's only natural that motivation will come in waves, not in a steady flow.  But when the motivation is there, use it!  "Ride the wave" to get more done when you can.  For example, last week's blog post was written almost a week in advance.  I had a sudden burst of motivation, and wrote the whole thing in one coffee-fueled Sunday afternoon.  It felt great to press "publish" a few days later, knowing the post was ready-made, and all my hard work had been done well in advance.

Ride that wave, baby!
Another advantage of this flexibility is that you can choose your own hours - find your own rhythm, and figure out which times you work best.  I used to try to practise every morning, first thing in the day.  I felt good about "getting it done" before lunch - I thought I was being proactive and productive.  But in time I realised I wasn't doing myself any favours.  The truth is that I'm not a morning person.  I have a much better practice session if I work in the afternoon or the early evening.  Once I changed my routine to practise in the afternoons, I found that I was doing much better quality work in the practice room.

Freelancing can get lonely.  You don't have a regular boss or set of colleagues, and often it feels like you're the only person looking out for yourself.  This is why it's important to network and find allies.  Just paying more attention to others can make a big difference: you learn a lot from watching how someone else builds their career.  And don't be afraid to reach out to people and ask for advice.  Other freelancers can be an invaluable source of information, and you can really help to motivate each other.  When I first moved to Cologne, I started meeting a friend for coffee and "application blitzing".  We would sit with our laptops and egg each other on as we sent our CVs to various companies, suggesting contacts to each other as we went.  I found that I was really motivated by having a colleague there who was doing the exact same thing.  Then again, maybe it was all the coffee.

"I'm feeling r-r-realllly motivated!!!"
Some freelancers thrive on chaos, and like to take things as they come.  Others need to plan ahead and set their lives in a rigid structure.  Most of us fall somewhere in between.  The trick is to find your own rhythm, your own balance, and work with it.  I'm still pretty new to being my own boss, and I have a lot to figure out.  But I do think I'm starting to find work patterns that work for me.  Freelancing isn't easy, but it's certainly never boring!  Once you get used to the balancing act, discover your own working style, and surround yourself with colleagues you can trust, freelancing can become an exciting and fulfilling way to live.

Friday, 11 October 2013

On working out...

Some people may be surprised to know that I work out.  After all, I don't exactly look like a shining example of physical fitness.

Not me.
Nor am I one of those people who posts on facebook and twitter every time I go for a run.  Nevertheless, I do make exercise a priority in my life.  Ideally, I try to do something physical every day.  If I can't manage every day, I aim for 2 or 3 times a week.  Even if it's just 10 minutes of yoga here or there, I always try to fit something in.

Why do I think exercising is important?  I have many reasons.  Mainly, I think it's an important part of my work.  I think that exercising makes me a better singer.

I'm not talking about how exercise affects my physical appearance.  Yes, exercising can make you slimmer and more toned, and (sadly) this can increase your chances of landing a job.  But that shouldn't be the reason you exercise.

Soprano Heidi Melton recently gave a fantastic interview about what it's like to be an opera singer.  And what she said about fitness really resonated with me:

"I just want girls to be healthy. I want everyone to be healthy! To me, opera is first and foremost about voices. It is about incredible voices that have taken a lifetime of devotion, sweat and tears to train. It is about voices and bodies being able to communicate with the audience. Trust me, I have seen and heard plenty of horrible skinny opera singers. I’ve also seen a lot of fantastic ones. All humans are capable of portraying, expressing and communicating. There is the argument that we have to modernize and make opera more believable and relatable and appealing to the masses. First of all, I wasn’t aware that only thin people fall in love or have interesting stories to tell. This is news to me. As a woman who is not categorized by the rest of society as “thin,” I can tell you that men have fallen in love with me, and that I have fallen in love with men. The fact that I have some wobbly bits hasn’t made that experience less real or less important to me or to them. In addition, I think talent is HOT. Really hot. Sexy comes in all sorts of different packages and what is sexy to me, may not be sexy to you and that’s the way it should be. That makes things interesting and dynamic and HUMAN. I think our boundaries need to be expanded. I don’t think we need to conform to what we are supposed to think sexy is or isn’t. Can’t we come to those decisions on our own? Opera needs to showcase talent. If it comes in a thin package, fine. If it comes with wobbly bits included, also fine. Just sing the crap out of it."

Heidi is absolutely right - singers shouldn't all be thin.  Singers should be whatever shape and size is healthy for them.  And honestly, all this crap pressuring us to look thin and fit doesn't motivate us to take better care of ourselves.  It just makes us feel bad and reach for the cupcakes.  So I thought I would write about some good, positive reasons to exercise - reasons that have nothing to do with your dress size.

1. It boosts your energy.
Have you ever woken up feeling groggy and lethargic?  Exercise is like a big cup of coffee.  It gives you a burst of adrenaline that help you get through the day.  When I start the day with a run, I always feel like I have so much more energy to bring to the practice room and the stage.  It's the difference between starting with a full tank of gas or running on fumes.

Ready and raring to go!

2. It's great stress relief
What singer doesn't need stress relief?  Between auditions, performances, travel, and heavy rehearsal schedules, we are stressed up to our eyeballs.  So blow off some steam in a kickboxing class, or do some relaxing yoga.  I promise that the exercise will help get the stress out of your system.  It will probably help you sleep better too.

3. It makes you happy
Feeling bummed out about a bad audition?  Go to the gym!  Endorphins give you a nice boost of that happy feeling, which we all need every once in a while.



4. It helps your mental focus
Many people come up with their best ideas when they're on a walk.  Why is this?  Exercise helps you to focus your mind.  I often go through music in my head when I run - I find the physical activity really helps me think clearly.  It's the best way I've found so far to memorise music.

5. It warms you up
Singing uses your whole body.  If you come into a practice room "cold", without having done anything physical that day, it will take a long time to warm up.  Exercising warms up the body, and prepares it for singing.  I always find that it takes me far less time to warm up if I have already exercised that day.

6. It keeps you fit
The days of "park and bark" are over.  Modern directors want singers to run, jump, climb, and dance onstage.  If you want to be an opera singer, you have to be fit enough to do all of these things and still have the breath control to sing beautifully.  This may have little or no relation to which size of costume you wear: I've known some very unfit skinny people and some very fit fat people.  Fitness is not what you look like, it's what you can do.  And fit singers can do some amazing things.

Cartwheel on a high C?  No problem!

7. It keeps you healthy
Your body is your instrument, and you have a responsibility to take care of it.  Exercising can increase your lifespan and decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.  A healthy body means a healthy voice and a longer singing career.

8. It improves your body awareness
I was recently having a lesson with a new teacher, and he was doing some work with me on breathing and support.  He was very happy with how well I responded to his direction, and said it was great that I was so "in my body".  I think what he was noticing was the effects of regular exercise.  Singing involves controlling and coordinating specific groups of muscles, and you need to be connected to your body to do that.  These days with TV and internet, we're more sedentary - we often lose our connection with our bodies and become floating brains.  Exercising helps you stay aware of your body and how it works.  This is essential if you want to learn a new technique, or follow someone's stage directions, or just assess what is happening with your voice today.  You need to be highly sensitive to every movement and change in your body.  You can't do this if you're always stuck in your head.


"Bend my knees.. which ones are my knees again?"
9. It boosts your confidence
Exercising helps you feel good about yourself.  Again, I'm not talking about what you look like.  I'm talking about what you can do.  Whether it's because you added 5 minutes onto your run, or because you added 5 pounds onto your weights, or because you just motivated yourself to go to the gym at all today, nothing beats that smug feeling you get after a workout.  And why shouldn't you feel smug?  You're doing something good for yourself - go you!!

10. It balances you out
Singers have an intense career.  We spend countless hours practising, performing, and studying music.  Our schedules are irregular, and we travel all the time.  All of this time spent focusing on one thing is stressful and exhausting.  Which is why it's great to find something you love to do outside of singing - whether it's salsa-dancing, rock-climbing, or marathon-running.  It adds dimension to an otherwise singularly-focused life, and brings some regularity to an otherwise chaotic schedule.  One thing I love about running is that no matter where I am, no matter which piece I'm rehearsing, I can always put on a pair of running shoes and step outside.  It's one of the only things in my life that I can always count on.

It's all about finding balance.
Exercise is a great thing to have in your life.  It can keep you sane when everything else is insane.  If you want to exercise to lose weight or tone up, that's great.  But don't forget that there are so many other fabulous benefits that come with regular exercise.  Benefits which - in my opinion, at least - are way more important than the size of your waistline.  In the end, it's not about how you look - it's about how you feel!

Friday, 4 October 2013

On going the distance (part 2)

It's past midnight on a Monday, and I'm talking to my boyfriend.  It's been over a week since we've last been able to talk - he's been on tour with his orchestra, and they didn't have internet or phone signal at his hotel.  But now he's on a bus to Venice, and thanks to a German phone borrowed from a friend, we are finally able to have a conversation without racking up astronomical long distance charges.

The last week has been difficult.  A series of missed calls, Tolstoy-novel-length texts, and desperate searches for wifi.  We have both felt the absence of our regular Skype chats.  And every time I send an email or a facebook message, it feels like sending a message out to sea - I have no idea when or if it will be received.


Sadly, he would never get to see that hilarious youtube clip...
I don't have a perfect relationship.  I don't even have a perfect long-distance relationship.  In the perfect long-distance relationship, we would have bottomless bank accounts so we could jet over to see each other every weekend.  We would have limitless access to internet and mobile phone networks, so that we could constantly stay in touch.  We would have near-identical schedules, so that it would be easy to find time to talk.

But nothing, as we know, is ever perfect.  Especially when it comes to relationships.

It's been over a year now since my relationship became long-distance.  In the year since I last wrote about it, a lot has happened.  I have learned things about myself and my boyfriend, and about relationships in general.  At times it has been challenging, hilarious, heartbreaking, ridiculous, inspiring, and joyful.  And I thought I'd take the time to share what I've observed and learned.

I always knew that I was going to miss my boyfriend.  I expected to feel sad and lonely when he wasn't around.  And I was right about that.  I always miss my boyfriend - it's a dull kind pain that's with me every day.  What I didn't expect was that I would get used to this pain, that I would stop noticing it.  What I didn't expect was that we would both get used to being apart, and this was a much bigger problem.

In a long-distance relationship, as you spend time apart from each other, you both become more independent.  I mean, of course you do.  You have to.  If you spent all your evenings at home pining for your other half, you'd be on the short track to clinical depression.  So you go out, you make new friends, you find new hobbies.  You get used to doing your own thing, following your own schedule.  And eventually you fall into a rhythm that works for you.  Which is great.  Until of course, your other half comes to visit.

Suddenly, everything changes again.  You can't just follow your own schedule anymore - there's another person to consider.  You've spent all this time filling up the big gaping hole they left behind, and now you have to fit them in again.  Of course, they were a part of your life when they were away too.  But there's a big difference between an scheduled hour's chat on Skype, and being together 24/7.


And then there's the jealousy.  Not romantic jealousy, but friendship jealousy.  I've struggled with this a few times on visits to Sweden.  You see, my boyfriend has this whole social life apart from me.  Of course he needs this social life, and I'm very happy he has it.  But when I come to visit, I can't help feeling a bit left out.  I can't catch up on all the bonhomie these people have shared.  These are people who can take him for granted, who get to hang out with him every day.  They share banter and dance tunes and drinks and inside jokes with him.  They probably even get to hug him more than I do.  How is it fair that he hugs his buddies more than his girlfriend?

At this point, I'm sure a lot of people would love to chime in and tell me that I'm fighting a losing battle.  That long-distance relationships never work.  Well, as my brother says, scratch any cynic and you'll find a wounded romantic.  In my experience, most of the nay-sayers out there seem to be hurt, embittered, or angry about a failed long-distance relationship in their past.  I have also been in unsuccessful long-distance relationships.  Nonetheless, I do think a long-distance relationship can work.  Maybe not for every couple.  Maybe not in any given set of circumstances.  But it can work.

I think a big key to making a long-distance relationship work is to fight the two romance-killers: routine and lack of communication.

I know you're probably sick to death of hearing how important communication is in a relationship.  Well I hate to break it to you, but it's true.  Almost any problem in a relationship is surmountable - if you talk about it openly.  If you don't talk about the problem, it will only get bigger, breeding resentment and misunderstanding.

Now I know what you're thinking.  It's really, really hard to talk about relationship problems when you hardly ever see each other.  The problem is that you want every visit to be nice.  You want to make the most of your time together, and leave with lots of happy idyllic memories.  Memories of strolling down the street hand-in-hand, visiting the zoo, or having a snowball fight.  The kinds of things couples do in a romantic comedy montage.  You don't want to leave with memories of having long, emotional discussions about your relationship problems.  And so it's very tempting to just stick on a smile and pretend that everything is fine.

Yes, everything is just wonderful!

But trust me on this one.  It is always better, if possible, to talk about these things face-to-face.  No technology in your way.  No sketchy wifi connections or crackling phones.  Just the two of you, looking each other in the eye and speaking honestly.

It's also important to communicate with each other about the relationship as a whole.  What kind of relationship is this?  Where is it going?  What do you both want?  You need to be on the same page about these things.  Otherwise you'll discover - far too late - that you are in two completely different relationships.

"Monogamy?!  I thought you said mahogany!"
Which brings us to the second romance killer: routine.  Yes, things can get routine, even when your significant other lives on another continent.  Maybe it's not the routine of ordering in Chinese every Friday, or quibbling over who makes the coffee every morning.  But even routines like talking on Skype every night can put your relationship in a rut.  You start to think of your conversations as an obligation.  You start to let your attention wander, and do things like checking facebook mid-conversation.

I will never forget a particularly cathartic conversation in which my boyfriend and I finally told each other how sick we were of talking on Skype.  Not that there's anything wrong with Skype per se.  It's just that after a while, anything can get boring.  And after all, what is natural about sitting down to speak to each other at an appointed hour, for an appointed period of time?  This should be a relationship, not a business meeting!

So what did we do?  We took away the pressure of talking on Skype all the time.  Instead, we tried talking more through instant messaging, spontaneously, when we felt like it.  And we got creative.  We looked for other ways to reach out to each other.  Whether it was writing romantic texts, sending silly photos, or composing the odd limerick, we found millions of little ways to say "thinking of you".  One of my latest discoveries?  You can send a video message up to 3 minutes long over Skype.  It's a great way to send a message when the other person is offline.  And if you happen to be under the influence of alcohol whilst recording your message, I assure you that hilarity will ensue. 

I am not at all speaking from personal experience.  Nope.  Not me.
Some people will tell you that a long-distance relationship is not a real relationship.  It's just a delusion, a fantasy.  In a way, these people are right.  A long-distance relationship can never be the same as a real relationship.  There is no replacement for being together in person.  Of course, your feelings for each other may be very powerful and very real.  But most of the time, your relationship is more like a promise of a relationship.  A promise of what will be the next time you're together.  This is why it's important to always look ahead.  Plan your next visit.  Get excited about it.  And more importantly, have an end point.  Know that at some point, one or both of you will move so you can be together.

Like any relationship, a long-distance relationship takes work.  You can't just sit back and expect things to run smoothly.  The Beatles say that love is all you need, but I don't think it's that simple.  You also need honesty, trust, kindness, and respect.  You need to never take each other for granted.  Keep showing each other how you feel, whether with romantic surprises or small everyday gestures.  And you need to keep the lines of communication open - if you're not happy, for God's sakes talk about it!

Am I a hopeless romantic for believing in long-distance relationships?  Probably, yes.  But so what if I am?  I'd rather be a hopeless romantic than just plain hopeless.  Call me crazy, call me naive, call me deluded.  But I think that when two people really love each other, and they really want to make it work, anything is possible.