Sunday, 17 February 2013

On being an introvert...

When you picture an opera singer, what do you see?  Someone with a larger-than-life personality?  Loud, talkative, exuberant?  The life of the party?  Prone to using Italian hand gestures?

Which are apparently as complicated as baseball signals.

Well, I could see why you would think that.  It's certainly what you see from opera singers onstage!  But offstage is a different story.  Offstage, perhaps a lot of opera singers are the life of the party.  But there's also a lot of us who are rather quiet.  Mild-mannered.  Unassuming.  And yes, introverted.

It may seem like a contradiction in terms, but there are a lot of introverted opera singers.  And I am one of them.

What does it mean to be an introvert?  First of all, let me clarify one big misconception.  It's not the same thing as being shy.  Shyness means being afraid or anxious about social contact, whether you want that social contact or not.  You could be an extrovert who wants to talk to a lot of people but struggles with shyness.  Likewise, you could be an introvert who is confident in approaching people but prefers to be alone most of the time.

It's also not the same as being antisocial.  Introverts don't dislike socialising.  We just prefer to socialise with people one-on-one, or in small groups.  And while we may love socialising, we can find it tiring.  The same party that makes an extrovert feel energised can leave an introvert feeling drained. 

Like one of those Sailor Moon villains has sucked the life force out of you.
Yes.  I am that geeky.
Why is this?  Well, there are a few possible reasons.  First of all, us introverts tend to spend a lot of time in our head, and we like it that way.  We like to reflect on things, and consider our thoughts and feelings in detail.  Often it might seem like an introvert is being quiet, like their mind has gone blank, or their "head is in the clouds".  As a matter of fact they are probably thinking about a million different things at once.  Why did John say that in the meeting?  What will Mary do tomorrow?  Am I really happy with my life?

So when an introvert talks to someone, they aren't just carrying on the conversation on the surface.  Their mind is probably working a million miles a minute, reflecting on what this person is saying, comparing it with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and wondering what point or topic might come up next.  It can be extremely overwhelming!  It's no wonder that an introvert might become quiet in a conversation.  They aren't disengaging, they're just taking time to soak it all in.

I may look like a mindless zombie right now, but I'm just an introvert.
Secondly - and this may seem strange, but bear with me - introverts react more to outer stimuli than extroverts.  In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (great read), Susan Cain describes a study in which a psychologist followed a generation of children from when they were infants.  He believed he could predict which babies would be introverts and which would be extroverts.  He presented the babies with a series of surprising sights and sounds (e.g. a balloon popping or a person in a clown mask).  He predicted that the babies who reacted the most - whether by smiling, crying, or waving their arms and legs - would become introverts when they grew older.  And for the most part, he was right.

How does that make any sense?  Wouldn't the extroverted babies be the ones waving their arms all over the place and making lots of noise?  Well, actually, it makes a lot of sense if you think of it in terms of balance.  You see, since introverted people are more reactive to outer stimuli, they're more likely to become overwhelmed and seek more calm and quiet.  On the other hand, since extroverts are less reactive, they might seek more outer stimuli to "feel alive".  Both types of people are just seeking a happy balance that feels right for them.

Not too loud, not too quiet... juuust right.

If you think about it, it's no wonder that after spending a while at a loud party, the classic introvert wants to go home and get some quiet.  We need this kind of quiet time to reflect, to rejuvenate, and to process everything that's happened.

Introverts and extroverts can get along well, as long as they understand and respect each other's differences.  My boyfriend is a complete extrovert - if you don't believe me, you should have seen us at this party last week.  While he tore up the dance floor and chatted with loads of different people, I sought out quiet corners and had in-depth conversations with a few people.  Sometimes I would come and join him on the dance floor, and sometimes he would join in on one of our conversations.  We know that we both enjoy parties differently, and neither of us would try to force the other to be someone they're not.  Our differences complement each other, and we both bring something special to the relationship.

We're both special.  Mr Rogers told me so.
But how does all of this work with being an opera singer?  You know, like a big, loud, drama-queen opera singer?  How can I be larger-than-life onstage, when I'm a quiet introvert offstage?

This is a question I've struggled with a lot, and I still find it difficult.  Of course, my natural temperament doesn't do me many favours when it comes to acting.  A director once told me I had a "natural reserve" that will always be a challenge for me as a singer.  And it's true - I do tend to be inhibited, understated, a bit slow-to-warm-up.

But then the stage gives me the perfect chance to be someone I'm not.  To unleash my inner extrovert.  I know some truly great introverted singers who do just this, and it's an amazing thing to witness.  See, the great thing about performing is that there's this neat little line you can draw between onstage and offstage.  Onstage, you can fully inhabit another personality without worrying about losing yourself.  Because when the performance is over, the performance is over.  And offstage, you can go back to being you.  It's an incredibly liberating experience!

But sometimes the show isn't quite over yet.  Now we come to one of my biggest nightmares as an introverted singer: the Post-Performance Reception.  I've just finished a show, it's late, I'm exhausted... all I want to do is go home and read my book and go to sleep.  The last thing I want is to schmooze and make small talk with a bunch of strangers, pretending to be all sparkly and outgoing.

Don't get me wrong.  I get the post-show buzz.  I like meeting the audience.  I want to celebrate with everyone.  But by the end of a show, I'm already feeling tired and drained, and talking to a lot of people is just going to drain me even more.  It's not that I don't like the reception.  It's just that I want to hang out there for maybe half an hour, and then go home.  I need quiet and calm to recover.  A glass of wine, yes - but by myself, with my book.

Ah, bliss.
The Post-Performance Reception is a difficult thing to navigate, and there's no avoiding it.  Nobody is going to appreciate me leaving early or staying in a quiet corner.  That will seem rude.  The only thing to do is grin and bear it, and keep on my extrovert mask a little while longer.  I've grown to think of it almost as part of the performance.

But there are definite advantages to being an introverted singer.  Reflective thinking and self-awareness are great attributes for any artist to have.  They're great tools for developing a character, or reaching a deeper understanding of a poem.  An introvert might perhaps have more trouble communicating their thoughts and feelings to the audience, but trust me, they have a lot of thoughts and feelings going on there.  Still waters run deep.

And introverts tend to find it easier, even preferable, to do quiet work on their own.  So skipping that party and staying in to study a score by yourself?  Not a problem for the introverted singer!

As for travelling, which comes part and parcel with this career, I love it.  While many people might dread the "boredom" of spending hours on a train or a bus, I savour this quiet time to myself, when I can read my book, write in my journal, or just think things through.

So is it a disadvantage to be an introverted opera singer?  Only as much as it's a disadvantage to be an extroverted one.  There's no better or worse - they're just different.  And it would be a very boring world if we were all the same!  So whether you're a quiet and reflective introvert, or a loud and kooky extrovert, embrace it.  We all have something unique to offer.


  1. Okay, so I came across your blog by typing in "introverted performer?" into Google. I felt a little silly searching that up.
    I'm 18 and my university/college auditions are coming up and I'm hoping to have a (somewhat) satisfying career in classical music/opera...despite the constant voices in my head saying, "Do you really think you can do this? Being a visible minority, Canadian, introverted, and relatively ordinary-looking?"
    I've read a large portion of your posts and they've really put some things into perspective for me. As well, thanks for telling it how it much as we all want to hear that it will be rainbows and unicorns...haha!
    Basically, I just wanted to thank you for your posts :) They're quite informative and hilarious.
    Oh, and how do you find the European reception of a Canadian singer?
    Wishing you all the best!

    1. Hi Natalie, nice to meet you and thanks for reading! To answer your question, I think it depends which part of Europe you're talking about. In some less cosmopolitan places, people might look at you strangely and ask "so WHY did you come to live here?" But in more cosmopolitan places (usually the big cities) they're used to having lots of 'foreigners' so you'll be par for the course. No matter where you go, the visa application will likely be a long and arduous process that will make you feel like they really want to keep you out of the country, but if you persevere it is a really cool experience to live in another country.

  2. Thanks for this article. I can't tell you how many times I've been told by my teachers things like, "you're very reserved and opera singers have huge, larger than life personalities." First of all, I don't know what is meant by an "over the top" personality. I guess they are referring to people who are consistently loud and high energy. I know that my world inside my head is over the top, so it's very frustrating that I'm automatically labeled as simple or reserved, but I do see what they mean. I think the difference between extroverts and introverts is that extroverts are natural actors because they have the ability to avoid overthinking, which is my biggest fault. Another thing I hear all the time in my opera acting classes is, "BE BIGGER." So my question is, how have you been successful at being "bigger" when it's not in your nature to be that way in every day life? Sometimes I really feel like I'm genuinely pouring my heart out, only to be told to be bigger. I love singing more than anything but it's not just about me and how I feel; effectively communicating to my audience is very important to me so their feedback matters. I often feel a disconnect between my mind and body in performance. Internally, I feel a sincere sense of melancholy, for example, but all an audience sees is a stiff singer who doesn't know what to do with her hands. How have you gotten your body and face to show what you feel on the inside?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mezzo. I can't believe how familiar this all sounds to me. I have heard all of these comments for YEARS from teachers, coaches, and directors. I can't say that I have it all figured out now. I still have a long way to go with my performance in this regard. But I will tell you what has been helpful for me as I have developed and grown as an actor. One thing you can try to be "bigger" onstage is to imagine you're speaking to children. Have you ever told a fairy tale to little kids? Do you remember how you would exaggerate everything, colouring the story by making huge contrasts and using funny voices? That's exactly how expressive you need to be with your audience when you sing. Another thing that helps a LOT is practising in front of the mirror. I know it can be difficult to sing to yourself like this, but if you keep at it, it really helps you to be aware of what your face and your body are actually doing. You may think that you're being really expressive, but the mirror will tell you the truth. You are your own best teacher. Keep playing with different facial expressions and gestures, and TAKE RISKS. After you've practised in front of the mirror for a while, see if you can find opportunities to perform for people in a safe context - somewhere you can take these risks and push your boundaries without any fear of being judged. Eventually, you will be able to feel comfortable being this "over-the-top" in front of any audience. Finally, I want to say that it's simply not true that all opera singers have huge, larger than life personalities. There are plenty of shy and/or introverted opera singers out there. We learn to be larger on life onstage, but offstage might be a completely different story. Don't think of your introversion as a hindrance. Think of it as a gift. As you said, the world inside your head is over the top. You just need to learn how to share that world with others when you perform. Good luck!

  3. Thank you so much for this post!