Monday, 18 March 2013

On running your own race...

I was in Sweden this week auditioning for a position in an opera chorus.  It was a rather intimidating experience, to say the least.  Walking into the giant opera house, navigating a labyrinth of stairways and floors, wandering past all the costumes and wigs from past productions, following the millions of signs to the warm-up rooms, and all the time feeling really stupid for not speaking Swedish.  As I warmed up and waited for my appointed audition time, I found myself checking out the other singers and hearing a very familiar internal monologue...

"Oh my God, her voice is so much bigger than mine!  What if my voice isn't big enough?"
"She seems to really know what she's doing - maybe I'm not experienced enough to apply for this."
"She has a nice dark sound - maybe that's more what they're looking for."
"Oh God, she already knows everyone in the company, they're like BEST FRIENDS.  I don't stand a chance."

Then suddenly, I heard my Scottish teacher's wise words in my head: "Stop looking sideways.  Put on your blinkers and run your own race!"

This horse ain't getting distracted by his competition!
And I knew she was right.  Here I was, about to sing an audition for a major opera company.  I needed all the focus, energy and confidence I could muster.  So what on earth was I doing thinking about the other singers??

Unfortunately, this is something we singers do all the time.  It's hard not to pay attention to the competition - especially when you are in an inherently competitive field.  The fact is, these are the people you're up against.  For jobs, for roles, for concerts, for places in courses and opera studios, for scholarships, and for competition prizes.  It's only natural to be curious about other singers.  And so we size them up.  And we play the Comparison Game.

"She's got such better high notes than me."
"He's younger than me and he's so much further ahead."
"How come everyone else in my year is doing better?"

And if you don't watch out, the Comparison Game gets bitter and ugly.

"Why does she get all the roles when I work so much harder?"
"This is so unfair.  I deserve that job more than him."

What does it lead to in the end?  At best, you'll waste a lot of energy that's better used in your singing.  At worst, you'll totally psych yourself out and ruin all chances of success.

The Comparison Game: like the Hunger Games, only deadlier.
Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we obsess over other singers and let ourselves succumb to fear, jealousy, and feelings of inferiority?

Most of the time, I think, it stems from insecurity.  We worry that we're not good enough, so we look for confirmation around us.  Or we're so desperate to be "the best" that we don't think anyone else should succeed.  Wanting to succeed is great.  But not wanting others to succeed?  That's just stupid, not to mention needlessly cruel.  What does someone else's success have to do with you, anyway?  It's their success.

If you think about it, what does comparing yourself to others actually achieve?  Does it make them any worse?  Of course not!  Does it make you any better?  Don't be ridiculous!

If you "go compare", strangely enough, you won't magically become a better singer.
In the end you are just different singers, on different paths.

Notice that I said "different", not "better" or "worse".  We are brought up in a world that loves using words like "better" and "worse".  But these words are hardly accurate, or helpful, when it comes to singing.

My friend once told me that she feels optimistic about her career because nobody else has her voice.  She knows she has something unique to offer, and someone out there is going to really like it.  I had never really thought about it that way.  But once I did think about it that way, I felt a lot better about the idea of competition.  Don't you?  I mean, every singer is a completely unique individual, with a unique voice and personality.  And every director, conductor, and agent out there has their own unique taste.  When it comes down to it, it's not so much a matter of being a better or worse singer.  It's a matter of who you are and what that person likes.

If you spend all your time comparing yourself to other singers, trying to emulate what they do well, or getting discouraged when they succeed and you don't, you stop cultivating your own unique talent.  You stop focusing on your own journey.  You start trying to fit into a cookie-cutter idea of what a "good singer" is.  And that is exactly what every director, conductor, and agent hates.  They don't want a cheap imitation of another singer.  They don't want a pretty porcelain doll who sings with perfect technique (unless they are casting Olympia for the Tales of Hoffmann).  They want YOU.  They want to hear what makes you special.

Here's another thing about "running your own race": your race is completely different from everyone else's.  You have your own unique path to follow, with its own bends and dips.  So maybe the singer next to you is at a peak right now, and you're not.  So what?  That doesn't mean you won't reach your own peak at a different time.  Everyone progresses at different rates.  Everyone experiences highs and lows at different times.  And maybe the job that someone else won just isn't part of your path.  You have other jobs ahead of you.  Different jobs.  Not better or worse, just different.

There's no point in focusing on what someone else is doing.  They're doing what's right for them, and you're doing what's right for you.  If you tried to follow their path it would be like forcing a square peg into a round hole.  And that's just uncomfortable for everyone.

It's so easy to get caught up in what others are doing, in wondering how you measure up.  But imagine if you took all that energy you spend thinking about others' paths and focused on your own?  Surely you would achieve so much more.  And in the immortal words of Frank Sinatra, much more than this, you would do it your way.

We don't need more jealousy and insecurity in this profession.  We need individuals.  Individuals who can bring their own unique experience, talent, and personality to the table.  Every moment you spend thinking about other singers is a moment you don't spend focusing on your own progress.  Your own path.  So let's all try to stop playing the Comparison Game.  Let's put on our blinkers and run our own race.

Monday, 11 March 2013

On the Dream Team...

My singing life in Glasgow was pretty simple.  I had lessons every week with the same teacher, and I trusted her with everything.  Whatever I was working on, whatever I had trouble with, I would bring it to her.  As far as I was concerned, her word was gospel.  I didn't quite go so far as making a bracelet that said "What Would Kath Do" - but trust me, I came pretty close.
It was nice, having that consistency.  One teacher, once a week, for everything.  But here in Ghent things are more complicated.  First of all, we are not assigned private singing teachers at the opera studio.  If we feel we need private lessons, we're expected to arrange them for ourselves independently.  Secondly, this is almost impossible to do!  The nature of our irregular and ever-shifting schedule makes it quite difficult to fit in regular lessons with one person. 
Nonetheless, I have found a couple of good teachers here, and between the private lessons I arrange with them, and my various lessons and coachings at the studio, I get a rich and varied education from an assortment of teachers.  Unlike Glasgow, where I relied on one teacher for everything, in Ghent I'm learning to consult with different people depending on what I need. 

Here is a brief catalogue of my Dream Team - all the various teachers I work with.  Some of these are specific teachers, and some are more like a category of teacher.  They each play their own role and have their unique teaching style.  You may recognise a few of them yourself...
The Technician

This is the person I trust to work with me on the fundamentals - the nuts and bolts of singing.  She teaches me how to use my instrument.  In her words, she shows me when to change gears, so that the next time I'm driving through traffic, I can look straight ahead with confidence instead of constantly looking down trying to figure out what I'm doing.  Our work is very physical, and also very analytical.  I sing a lot, and I think a lot about how I'm singing.  There is much drawing of diagrams.  I try to see The Technician regularly to work on my overall technique.  I also might go to her for help with vocally challenging repertoire, or when I need to solve a specific technical problem.

The Psychologist

This teacher deals with the psychology of singing, rather than the physical reality of it.  The philosophical rather than the practical.  She is very wise, and loves to say deep things like "there are no intervals - there are only pitches and breath".  The Psychologist wants me to stop listening to myself, stop analysing every note I sing.  She trains me to trust that my voice will work for me.  I used to think The Psychologist was the polar opposite of The Technician, and I had to choose either one approach or the other.  But then I realised that this is just the next step - the one I can take once I've done the necessary work with The Technician.  The Psychologist helps me progress from practice to performance, start trusting my technique, stop micromanaging, and let go.

The Musician

In other words, my coach.  Every singer works with at least one of these.  I work with quite a few coaches at the opera studio, but there is one in particular who I see regularly and who I would trust beyond anything.  He is my second pair of ears, and he helps me to realise what I want to do musically.  He isn't really concerned with how I produce my sound - he just wants to see what I do with that sound to make music. The Musician is a musical encyclopedia, full of knowledge about the history and background of the repertoire.  He uses this knowledge and his excellent musical taste to advise me on how to sing expressively and stylishly.

The GP

The opera studio calls this woman "the vocal consultant", and she sees us every once in a while for sort of a "check-up" session.  She has a more gentle and holistic approach to teaching: she's not there as a surgeon to pick apart the details of our technique - she's just the friendly family doctor who wants to make sure everything's ok.  Since most of us have our own individual teachers, she doesn't want to interfere too much with the specific technique we're learning with them.  Rather, she listens to what we're doing and makes small adjustments and suggestions here and there.  She points out bad habits, things we don't realise we're doing.  She makes sure we're singing healthily, and diagnoses any problems we might want to address.

The Dramatist

This one's pretty obvious.  Because it's one thing to sing musically and confidently with good technique, but you have to say something with all that beautiful singing.  The Dramatist works with me on my dramatic interpretation.  Just like The Musician is my second pair of ears, The Dramatist is my second pair of eyes.  He makes sure I'm actually being as expressive as I think I am.  And if I'm not, he jumps around like a caffeinated ferret until I am.  I've had a few different people fill this role - some are directors, some are teachers, some are both.  Since acting is not my biggest strength, there's often a lot of jumping around like a caffeinated ferret.

The Visiting Master

Like Yoda, this is a master of the craft who comes into your life for a short duration to impart their wisdom to you.  Unlike Yoda, they don't die after imparting their wisdom - they just move on to impart their wisdom elsewhere.  At the opera studio we are lucky enough to have masterclasses with various singers, conductors and repetiteurs who are working at the top of their field.  Although these teachers won't work with us regularly, in a very short time they can make an enormous impact.  A good masterclass can be an amazing, mind-blowing, heart-stopping, and inspiring experience.  Imagine working on your aria with someone who has sung it at the Metropolitan Opera or at Covent Garden.  They have seen it all, they have done it all, and they know their stuff like nobody else does.  If these masters are as articulate, energetic and passionate as they are talented (and most of them are) they can change your life with their teachings.

The Peer

Of course I cannot neglect to mention a very important teacher for all singers: other singers.  Whether through classes, rehearsals, performances, or discussions over lunch and coffee, we are constantly learning from each other.  Everyone has their unique strengths and weaknesses.  If you're struggling with something and you see someone who does it well, pay attention.  Chances are they're learning something from you too.  It's a shame that the opera industry so often turns singers against each other.  We start to see each other only as The Competition, rather than as friends and colleagues.  The truth is we can achieve more if we work together.  Learning from your peers is invaluable.

The Teacher-in-Disguise

Ok, this might sound a bit corny.  You know that person who's really annoying you?  The one you don't really like, who always seems to disagree with you?  Well they're a teacher too.  The fact that they're bringing up such strong feelings is probably an indication that there's something to be learned from them.  Perhaps they irk you because they're actually reflecting a part of you that you don't like.  Or perhaps they're confronting you with some truths that are really hard to swallow.  Or perhaps this is just an opportunity to learn more patience, kindness and understanding.  In any case, pay attention to this person.  Like everyone else in your life, they have something to teach you.  I've encountered more than a few Teachers-In-Disguise, and I'm sure there are plenty still to come.

So there it is, a brief overview of my Dream Team.  Not exactly simple, is it?  But I'm starting to get the hang of it.  The trick is to know who I need when.  Sometimes I need an intense session with The Technician, and sometimes I need The Psychologist to get my mind in the game.  I might want to polish something with The Musician, or I might want The Dramatist to help me bring life to an aria.  Maybe the GP will flag up something I'm doing poorly, or the Visiting Master will give some much-needed inspiration.  Or perhaps I'll get a powerful lesson from a Peer or a Teacher-In-Disguise.  Whatever the case, I'm extremely lucky to have such a team of teachers and advisors helping me out.  With them on my side, I feel like I can conquer anything.

Monday, 4 March 2013

On taking care of your instrument...

I didn't sing a note yesterday, or the day before.  No, I wasn't sick.  And no, I wasn't on holiday.  I was on vocal rest.

I know what you're thinking.  Another singer on "vocal rest".  She's being lazy.  She's being precious.  She's being a diva.  But before you judge, let me explain what led up to this...

The past two weeks have been pretty vocally intense.  Just as I was getting over a bad cold, I was into rehearsals for a French baroque opera, where I was singing in the chorus and belting out the ball-busting role of Juno.  We were rehearsing ten hours a day and I was singing full voice the whole time.  Singing through a cold is no easy task.  When you're trying to blast through all that congestion, it's easy to push your voice too much and tire yourself out.  Which is exactly what I did.

But there's no rest for the wicked!  As soon as we had finished two performances of the opera, we plunged right into a series of masterclasses on Italian repertoire.  And naturally, being the kind of over-ambitious idiot that I am, I had chosen to work on one of the most difficult coluratura mezzo arias in existence: Non piu mesta from Rossini's La Cenerentola.  As well as the usual runs, cadenzas, and high notes, this aria features a series of rapid scales all the way from the top of the range down to the depths of the chest voice.  The words "vocally tiring" are an understatement.  It's more like the vocal equivalent of running a marathon.

And unless you're an Olympic athlete, you'll look like this by the end.
I did my best to push on, despite being in bad shape after the cold and feeling tired from the opera.  But I did not feel good.  Even when I started a day feeling fresh, by the time I'd sung for twenty minutes I had a very sore throat.

I knew this was not a good sign.  My singing teacher in Toronto used to warn me to back off if anything hurt.  "Dancers feel pain," she'd tell me, "but singers never should."

Ooft.  Poor dancers.
I tried to take it easy, only singing in the masterclasses and resting as much as I could.  At the end of the week we gave a concert to present all the repertoire we'd worked on.  I sang Non piu mesta.  I didn't feel pain anymore, but I didn't feel in shape either.  And I didn't sing well.  In fact, it was a Non piu MESS. 

(Funny story, afterwards I said "well at least the Rigoletto quartet will be good".  The Rigoletto quartet fell apart in a spectacular manner.  Wow.  Way to jinx it, Brynne.)

At times like this, there's only one sensible course of action.

Wine.  Lots and lots of wine.
Seriously, though.  After I'd sufficiently drowned my sorrows, and the ensuing hangover had worn off, I took a step back and assessed the situation.  And I decided I needed a couple of days off of singing.

Not singing is harder than it sounds.  I always have trouble justifying it to myself.  I come from a family of string players who put in countless hours in the practice room.  My tuba player boyfriend frets about losing his embouchure if he misses a day.  I'm surrounded by people with a strong work ethic, and a firm philosophy of "use it or lose it".  That is to say, if you want to maintain your technique, you have to practise constantly.

I also know that singers are always getting flack for being lazy because they don't spend as much time practising as instrumentalists do.  I know that people roll their eyes at us for being so neurotic about our health, for saving our voices by marking in rehearsal, and for taking days of "vocal rest" where we don't speak or sing.

But here's the thing about being a singer.  You can't see your instrument.  You have no idea what's going on in there.

Unless you have someone constantly sticking a laryngoscope down your throat when you sing.
In which case, you have more problems to worry about.

If you sing too much, or sing when you shouldn't, you could easily be damaging your instrument without knowing it.  And you can't take a damaged voice to an instrument repair shop, or buy a new one.  A damaged voice may need extensive surgery.  In some extreme cases, it may even be irrevocably ruined.

I'm not trying to scare anyone here.  I'm just trying to explain why it makes sense for singers to err on the side of caution.  Our instruments aren't made of wood or metal.  They're human bodies that need to be treated with care to avoid injury.  And when they get tired they need to rest.

So ok, it's smart to rest up when my voice isn't feeling good.  But isn't it kind of... lazy?

Well it is if you want it to be.  But there is a lot of work a singer can do without singing.  Although I didn't sing in the last two days, I did study German and listen to recordings.  And I did a lot of silent practice, studying scores and reviewing the pronunciation and meaning of the text.  Silent practice is surprisingly effective.  I'm always amazed to see how much I've improved vocally after reviewing a piece mentally.  And the best part is, you can do it literally anywhere.  On the train, on the couch, or even in bed.  I often think through my music when I run.  I find the exercise helps me think clearly and really cement things in my brain.  Of course, as everyone knows, the very best way to study a score is at a cafe with a good cappuccino.

Scientifically proven to help you learn arias.
And here's another thing.  I know it feels great to put in X number of hours in the practice room, but what are you actually accomplishing with that time?  Are you practising, or are you just repeating?  Are you getting in better shape or are you burning yourself out?  When it comes to practising, quality is better than quantity.  If you take the time to rest and recover, you'll find you have more focus and energy available to you the next time you sing.

So while I may feel guilty about not singing for a while (and trust me, I do) I am doing something positive for myself.  I'm giving my body time to recover while I focus my mind for the next practice session.  And when I do sing again I'm sure I'll be pleasantly surprised by how all that rest and mental work has paid off.  Sometimes it takes just as much discipline to not sing as it does to practise regularly.

Look, in an ideal world, I wouldn't have had two weeks like that with no rest in between.  But we don't live in an ideal world.  We live in the real world, where singers have to deal with crazy schedules like this all the time.  You can't always control the timing of your schedule.  But you can create your own balance.  Be smart.  Don't sing full voice in all the rehearsals.  Don't take on demanding arias when you're in bad shape.  And when you have the time and you feel you need it, take some rest.  Trust me.  You and your voice will thank you for it.