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.

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