Monday, 28 January 2013

On having no regrets...

Do you ever have one of those moments when you take a step back, look at your life, and think... "What the #$?%-ing #$?% am I doing???"

Well, I was having one of those moments last week.  Being back in Canada, seeing all those familiar faces and places, I couldn't help but re-evaluate the choices I've made in the last few years.  Choices which have brought me further and further away from the girl I was when I lived in Toronto.

It was completely random that I ended up in Glasgow in the first place.  I had never thought of applying to the conservatoire there.  But as it happened, my teacher had taught a someone who came over from there on an Erasmus exchange.  She still had vivid memories of this singer (now a world-class mezzo) and what she had said about the conservatoire in Glasgow.  At my teacher's urging, I applied and flew to Glasgow for the audition.  The audition went well and they offered me a generous scholarship.  I accepted the scholarship, but I still wasn't sure if I wanted to go.  It was an excellent conservatoire and from my visit I could see it had a warm friendly atmosphere.  But I didn't know if I could make such a big move, all the way across the Atlantic.  Anyway, I had some auditions later in the year and if those went well I might move to the States to study instead.

As fate would have it, as the auditions in the States approached I was struck by a nasty cold.  The cold kept getting worse until it turned into bronchitis.  When the time came for my other auditions I hardly had a voice at all.  Needless to say, these schools were not so eager to have me.  And so it was that destiny brought me to Scotland.

And so it must be, for so it is written on the doorways to paradise..

Was it fate?  Kismet?  A random act of the universe?  Or just my run-down immune system?  Whatever the reason, I ended up moving to Scotland and changing my life forever.  After finishing my degree I thought it would make sense to stay there and explore the work opportunities.  Before I knew it I'd been living in Scotland for 3 years and was on my way to Belgium to study opera.

Well.  It didn't quite happen like that.  This is a highly-edited version I'm telling.  A lot of surprises, disappointments, failed relationships, and other twists in the path happened along the way.  But the point is, here I am now.  And I never thought this was where I would be.

If you met my 20-year-old self what I'm doing right now, she would probably be completely dumbstruck.  She would have expected to stay in Toronto, and go down the same career path that she'd seen older generations of Canadian singers travel.  Or perhaps she would have considered moving south to the States and going to one of the big name schools there.  But Europe?  Europe was kind of a far-off dream of a place, where famous singers travelled to sing at Covent Garden or La Scala.  The 20-year-old Brynne would not have pictured a future in Europe.

She would also think that my life sounded very exciting and glamorous.  Living in Belgium, studying opera, jetsetting about Europe for auditions, visiting a Scottish boyfriend in Sweden, flying back to visit family in Canada... what an adventure!

Kind of like Carmen Sandiego, but with less crime and more singing.

But honestly?  Although it might look like an adventure from the outside, most of the time my life is just really complicated and stressful.  I'm always trying to plan the next trip, struggling to find the cheapest deal (which normally means taking a very long and convoluted journey that starts at 3 in the morning).  Most of these trips are to sing audition after audition for hundreds of people, most of whom won't hire me.  The most meaningful conversations in my life take place over skype.  I'm always missing my boyfriend, or my family, or (most of the time) both.  I am on my third European visa.  I have no idea what I will be doing or where I will be living in 6 months, never mind a year from now.  I don't have a tv, an oven, a microwave, or even a real bed.  I have bank accounts in three countries and mobile phones in two. One of my phones just got blocked because with all the travelling I've been doing lately, I haven't had time to take out cash from my Canadian account and put it into my Belgian account to pay the phone bill (yes, this is how I have to pay my phone bill, and incidentally, also my rent).  My laptop is currently plugged in with a Canadian plug attached to a British adaptor attached to a European adaptor. I don't even know how that works, but somehow it does.  In short... my life is ridiculous!

And no, not in that fun Harry Potter way.

I only wish that travelling still held the same novelty it used to when I was younger.  The other day my niece was telling me lamentably how long it's been since she's flown anywhere.  "I'm just desperate to go on a plane!" she exclaimed.

And she sounded exactly like Anne of Green Gables.
Bless her wee melodramatic soul!
Ah yes, I remember those halcyon days of youth, when going on a plane was something fun.  Now it's just an annoying necessity, a way to get from A to B.  It makes me sick and tired and stressed out.  And as if that wasn't bad enough, it's also making me stupider.  No, I'm not joking!  Jetlag actually makes you stupid!

What might seem like an adventure from the outside often feels like aimless wandering.  I'm not really sure if I'm in the right place, or if I'm going in the right direction.  I feel lost.  What if this whole thing is just one big wrong turn?

Each time I've moved country, I've had to start over again.  I've had to throw away my hard-earned professional contacts from the previous country and work on making new ones.  I've had to explain my background to people who aren't familiar with the Canadian music world (or the British music world), and I've had to convince them that I am actually worth hearing, even though they don't know me from Adam.

Or in this case... Eve??
I see singers who stayed in Canada who are doing really well, and I ask myself, should I have stayed?  If I had stayed in one place, perhaps I would have established myself by now.  Perhaps people would know who I was, and my background would be worth more to them, because they would actually recognise everything on my CV.  Perhaps my life would make much more sense, having everything and everyone in one place.

It was in the midst of all these doubts and misgivings last week that I had a lesson with my old teacher in Toronto.  She hadn't heard me in 3 years, and I was curious to see what she would think of my singing now.

The lesson was a revelation.  My teacher and my coach were both thrilled at how my voice has grown.  And all at once everything rushed into perspective.  I remembered who I was when I left and how far I've come since then.  Not just as a singer, but as a person.  How I've matured, grown braver, learned about myself and the world.  I would not be the person I am today if I hadn't moved abroad.  Nor would I be singing the way that I am now.

I don't know if moving abroad was the right decision or the wrong decision.  But then again, perhaps there is no absolute right and wrong with a decision like that.  It is what it is, and it's shaped my life.  The important thing is not the decision itself, but how I deal with its consequences in the years to come.  And when I see the bigger picture and realise how far I've come - and not just in air miles - I can see it was a good thing to do.

There's no point in looking backwards, wondering what if.  The important thing is to keep looking forwards and make the most of where you are now.  And if you do choose to look backwards, always remember: every decision you've made has led you to become the person you are now.  Once you realise that, you'll probably discover that you have no regrets at all.

Monday, 14 January 2013

On coming home...

I’m on the bus from Kingston to Toronto and my laptop is officially confused.

Poor little laptop - her life has been full of surprises.  First she was purchased in Canada, where she was given to me as a Christmas present.  For a brief but blissful sojourn, she was allowed to plug into lovely Canadian walls and connect to lovely Canadian wifi, just as nature (or the laptop manufacturer) intended.  But before she knew what was what, she was whisked away to the wilds of Scotland.  Everything was different, from the shape of the plugs to the funny accents to the source of the internet provider.  However, much as she tried to resist her unexpected new home, she did eventually adapt to British ways.

But just as my laptop grew accustomed to British ways, she was carried over the English Channel and deep into the heart of the European continent.  Once again she has had to adapt, plugging into Belgian walls and using Belgian wifi.

Now, only months after her latest move, she has been flown all the way back to Canada again!  Despite the lovely Canadian walls and lovely Canadian wifi, it must be very disconcerting.  What is a laptop to think of all this?  I mean really, it’s no wonder that she’s now refusing to connect to the wifi on this bus, and suggesting that I instead connect to the opera studio’s wifi in Ghent.
Yes, computer, even though Ghent is over 5000 km away, that would totally work.
I suppose you could say that I’m visiting home.  We have a long winter holiday before the studio resumes, and having spent Christmas in Scotland with my boyfriend, I’m now spending some time in Toronto with my family.

But then again, is Toronto really my home anymore?  And if Toronto isn’t home, what is?
They say that home is where the heart is.  In that case, I have no idea where my home should be.  Is it in Canada with my family?  Is it in Scotland, where I lived for the last three years and where I met my boyfriend?  Is it in Belgium where I’m studying, or in Sweden where he’s studying?

When I first moved from Toronto to Glasgow, I used to get homesick all the time.  I missed my family, I missed my dog, and I missed the Canadian weather.
Yes, that's right.  I like snow.

But with time, I got settled.  I met new friends, found a job, found a nice place to live.  I got used to the British banter, and even learned to decipher some of the thicker Scottish accents.  I discovered favourite foods and tv shows that I didn’t have at home.  I learned where to get a lovely meal when you can’t be bothered cooking (Marks and Spencers) and where to get moisturiser and toothpaste (Boots) and where to get chocolate at 3 in the morning (the newsagents, or, if you’ve planned ahead, the cupboard).  I learned to use words like “lovely”.   I learned to navigate the train system, the subway system, and the bus routes.  So when my family came to visit me this summer, I was able to show them around easily and suggest great places for coffee, curry, drinks, or whatever they fancied.

When I left Glasgow in September, I kept my gaze fixed firmly forward.  I had enjoyed my time there, but it was time to move on.  I didn't think I would miss it.
Fast forward a few months and I’m leaving Ghent for the Christmas holidays.  First stop: Scotland. 

As soon as I arrive back in the UK, I feel a rush of relief.  Everything feels so familiar.  I mean first of all, people here speak English.  I can actually assume this when I meet them, without doing the whole awkward do-you-don’t-you dance and feeling terribly guilty for not speaking Flemish/French/German.  But it’s not just the language.  It’s the little things.  Costa coffee and Minstrels and Scotrail tickets and Hello magazine…

With gossip in English about celebrities I actually know!
Every little detail I used to take for granted now gives me a little tug of nostalgia.
The feeling intensifies when I visit Glasgow.  This pub, that bus stop, that street corner… everything is infused with memories.  And suddenly I feel really sentimental.  Suddenly this feels like home.

It’s not that I don’t like Ghent.  It’s just that I’m still so new to it.  Having moved only four months ago, I still don’t really know the city.  With time, who knows?  It may grow to feel like home.  But right now I’m still finding my way, and it still feels very unfamiliar.  So it’s not just Glasgow that I miss.  It’s that feeling of being settled, of knowing my way around.  It’s the comfort and familiarity in my day-to-day life.
And now I’m back in Toronto, where I lived the first 24 years of my life.  Surely this should feel like home, even more than Glasgow did.  Right?  Well, it does and it doesn’t.

I haven’t lived in Toronto for 3 years, and a lot can happen in 3 years.  Shops can close down and be replaced.  Prices can go up.  People can move.  Nieces and nephews can grow up.  And even the things that used to feel normal can become distant and strange.
For example.  When I first moved to Glasgow, I remember thinking everything was very small and quaint.  Well, at some point I must have gotten used to things being on a smaller, more European scale.  Because now when I come back to Toronto I’m overwhelmed by just how big everything is!  Canadians have lots of space, and we use it to live large.  Six-lane highways, skyscrapers, endless fields… everything seems to be on growth hormones!  And it’s not just the size of things, it’s the extent of them.  The millions and millions of options.  You don’t just watch tv, you choose from thousands of satellite channels.  You don’t just buy your food at a shop, you go to a giant supermarket the size of a city block and choose your breakfast cereal from about 900 different brand names.

I recommend the Apple Jacks.

Did I used to think this was normal?  Apparently yes.  But now I feel a sort of reverse culture shock when I visit my family.  It all feels very familiar, and yet very unfamiliar at the same time.
And what about me?  Am I now unfamiliar for Canada?  Have I changed too much?  Having spent so long away, I can’t help but wonder if there is a place for me here anymore.  My family and friends enjoy seeing me and catching up.  But can we really catch up?  Or is there just too much to catch up on?  We all like to think there would always be a place for us if we returned to where we came from.  But perhaps it’s unfair to expect everyone to keep the home fires burning.

The truth is, I can never really return to the Toronto I know.  Not the way I'd like to.  Because nothing ever stays the same.  Just like I’m not the same person who left Toronto, Toronto is not the same city I left behind.  And perhaps it’s moved on just as much as I have.
So where is my home now?  Where do I belong?  Perhaps I don’t have a home.  And perhaps I have many homes.  I will always feel deep ties to my Canadian family and background.  But I’ll also enjoy reminiscing with British ex-pats about things like X Factor and Tunnock’s teacakes.  In time, I will settle into my place in Belgium, and this will start to feel like home too.  And who knows how many other countries I might live in, in the years to come?

Sometimes, like my laptop, I feel confused.  I wish my life was simpler.  I wish I was like Dorothy, and I only had one home and there was no place like it.  And instead of planning complicated trips with trains and airport changes, I could just click my heels and be there.
Beats Easyjet any day!

But I’m grateful for all the homes I’ve had, and the memories they’ve given me.  Because there’s no place like Toronto, but there’s also no place like Glasgow.  And there’s no place like Ghent, or even like Gothenburg.  Each of these places has become part of who I am, and they have made my life all the richer.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

On staying positive...

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Well, not necessarily.  Depending on who you are, it may be the most terrible time of the year.

It's the time when, after sending out millions of CVs and CDs and application forms, singers are starting to hear back from people.  It might be good news, it might be bad news, or it might be no news at all.

Perhaps you've been accepted into a postgrad programme.  Perhaps you've got an audition for an opera studio.  Perhaps an agent wants to hear you.  And perhaps... none of the above.

For me, unfortunately, this season has yielded me a healthy crop of "no thank you" emails.  Emails which, on their own, are unpleasant enough to read, but in batches, can pack a powerful punch straight to the gut of the old self-esteem.

At times like this, it's difficult not to get a bit down.  And it's especially difficult not to "look sideways", as my Scottish teacher calls it.  Wherever you are in your own progress, there always seem to be people around you who are doing so much better.  People who are getting accepted to courses, invited to auditions, getting contracts, getting concerts, getting their big break.  In comparison, you might feel like you're going nowhere.  You might feel lost, forgotten, left behind.

Like a sad little teddy bear in the woods.
Looking sideways is never helpful in my experience.  If you're already feeling down, comparing yourself to others will almost certainly make you feel worse.  Especially with online media like facebook, which allows people to filter their lives so that they only share the good news.  You won't hear very much on facebook about your friends' failures, disappointments, or nights spent at home eating ice cream and sobbing along to the latest Michael Buble album.  But you will definitely hear about their successes.

Some people like to celebrate their successes with a bit of gloating, and I can't say that I blame them.  If I got some awesome news, I would feel pretty awesome, and I would want to share that awesomeness with others.  Granted, some people take the gloating too far and get a bit, well, obnoxious...

I am so amazing that I'm going to do a dance about how amazing I am!

But when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter how people around you react to their good news.  Whether they tiptoe around it sensitively or rub it in your face, the fact remains that you feel bad about your own disappointment.

At times like this, when you're feeling down in the dumps, your friends, colleagues, teachers, coaches, mentors, family members, and pretty much everyone you meet will chime in with that old familiar chorus: "STAY POSITIVE!"

This chorus will often alternate with verse after verse of sports metaphors, inspirational quotes from famous people, anecdotes of people who didn't make it big until they were 50, and recycled cliches about the long, hard road to success.  Now, if you're really feeling discouraged, and if you're anything like me, you probably reach a point in all this motivational blethering when you feel like this:

I mean come on, when you're feeling really down, that kind of oversweetened Pollyanna-style optimisim is the last thing you want to hear.  Am I right?


Much as I hate to admit it, cliches are cliches for a reason.  And there is some truth in all that inspirational nonsense that people are throwing your way.

Now, before I go any further, I should point out that I am writing this for the same reason that I usually write my blog.  What is that, you might ask?  Basically, I'm giving myself a pep talk. I mean, I do hope that anyone reading this is able to get something from it as well, but most of what I'm writing here is directed to myself.  I tend to keep a fairly positive and chirpy overall tone in this blog - or at least, I try to.  As a matter of fact, the reason I make such an effort to do so is that in real life I am terrible at practising what I preach. I am terrible at staying positive!

Hey, you!  Buck up!
In the past, I have really let rejection get me down. I know that it's an inevitable part of the career, and I know that I need to develop a thick skin to survive in the music world. But knowing that has never really changed the fact that I have a thin skin. I'm oversensitive, I'm a worrier, I'm a pessimist. I hold myself to high standards and I am easily discouraged by perceived failures.

There have been times when I've really wallowed in my disappointment.  I spent days, even weeks, beating myself up.  Telling myself I would never make it.  I'm a failure.  I may as well give up.  What came from all of that?  Well I certainly didn't feel any better.  And when I finally emerged from my haze of self-pity, I looked back and saw how much I had sabotaged myself.  How I had let my low confidence get in the way of performing well at auditions and gigs.  How I had wasted loads of precious time, time that could have been spent practising and getting better, so that the next time perhaps I wouldn't get a "no".

An ex-boyfriend of mine used to tell me "a bad review can ruin your breakfast, but never let it ruin your lunch".  Another recycled cliche, I know.  But those are actually pretty wise words to live by.  Because we all need a bit of time to mourn and sulk after bad news.  But if you let the sulking carry on for too long, it will really hold you back.

There are two ways you can react to a rejection.  You can decide to give up, or you can decide to keep trying.  And if you have any intention at all to keep trying, then for God's sakes don't waste all your time feeling sorry for yourself!  You have work to do!

This lemur just remembered how much music he has to learn.
As much as I'm sick of people telling me to stay positive - and trust me, I have heard it all, a million times over - they do have a point.  Because if I don't stay positive, the alternatives are pretty grim.  The alternatives to staying positive are: 1) give up, or 2) keep trying, but feel so discouraged and negative about things that I do a totally half-assed job and I may as well have just given up in the first place.  So basically, I would be choosing between letting my hopes and dreams die a quick and painful death, or letting them die a slow and painful death.  Not very good options there.

The real reason to stay positive?  It's the only way to keep moving forward.  There's no way to stay motivated and keep working hard if you don't really believe it's going to lead somewhere.  So basically, you have no choice here: you can't stop believing!

Listen to Journey, kids.  They were right about this one.

I'm not ready to give up yet.  And if I'm going to go for something, I want to really go for it.  Not just pretend to myself that I'm really going for it, while I'm actually letting low confidence and lack of motivation get in the way.

So yes, I will let myself feel disappointed when I get a "no".  And yes, I will even cry about it if I need to.  And while I'm sulking, I might hate people a little bit for giving me corny motivational speeches.  But this time, once I've had my sulk, I will pick myself up, I will dust myself off, and I will keep going.  And damn it all, I WILL STAY POSITIVE.