Sunday, 21 April 2013

On believing in yourself...

I have always been a singer first and an actor second.  I started developing my musicianship and my singing technique long before I started to act on stage.  I took piano lessons and sang in choirs, and later on I began private voice lessons.  But I never took acting classes or joined a drama club.  In the course of my singing career, acting was something that just kind of happened to me.  It was like those parents that teach their kids to swim by throwing them into a pool.  At one point someone just plopped me on a stage and said "act".

I suppose some people would respond to this approach well.  They would act naturally, using their intuition.  But not me.  My response was more like this...

Uhhh... what?
I'm not the kind of person who listens to their intuition.  I like to learn things methodically.  I like to know exactly how I'm doing something, and why.  So when I was told to act, without any tools or method, without any guidance or technique, I got scared.  I didn't understand what to do.  I guess I saw that there was no one right answer and that kind of freaked me out.

As I continued my singing education, I never felt confident about my acting.  I thought some lucky people were just naturals at it, and I wasn't one of them.  People were always telling me that my acting was a weak spot.  And so I kept telling myself the same deadly words. 

"I can't."

These insidious words stayed with me all the time.  Eventually, they were what caused me to shy away from opera and pursue concert singing instead.  By singing in concerts, I could avoid the scary prospect of running around onstage, doing all kinds of crazy things and acting all kinds of crazy emotions.  I could essentially isolate my technique and musicianship and just be a "singing head".

Park and bark - sounds pretty good to me!
Eventually it dawned on me that nobody makes an entire career singing concerts anymore, and I began seriously pursuing opera.  But by this point it was too late.  I already had a firm idea fixed into my head: I can't act.  And so, even now that I am in an opera studio, this idea holds me back every day.

It's not that I don't try to act.  Of course I know it's something I have to do.  But I never do it with any amount of conviction.  I never take risks.  I never really go for it.  And it shows.  I'm always being told that I wasn't expressive enough, I didn't go far enough, I didn't make it big enough.  It frustrates me to no end.  I want so much to be that powerful actor that gives the audience goosebumps.  But what really happens is that I try just hard enough so that I can tell myself I'm trying.  I'm too afraid to really do it.  I'm too afraid to take the plunge.

This week we did some sessions with a fantastic Belgian director, and he saw right through me.  He knew there was a step to be taken and I didn't dare to take it.  He asked me about my background, and I explained it to him.  I told him how I had worked in an office and sung in concerts, and I hadn't had much experience in opera.  I told him that acting was still very new to me.  I told him I wasn't a natural like some people were.  I told him that nobody had ever properly taught me how to act.

Basically, I told him a load of excuses.  And he dismissed them all.

This director told me a difficult truth.  A truth that's always been somewhere, tickling at the back of my mind.  A truth I've always brushed away, because I didn't want to believe it, because I couldn't bear facing it, because I couldn't stand thinking about what it implied.  The difficult truth is this: nobody can teach me to act.  It's just something that I do.  And either I do it or I don't.

In fact, the difference between acting and not acting lies in two very powerful words.

"I can".

President Obama's advice on acting.
The director told me it was very simple - either I go for it all the way, or I never dare and I never learn to act.  After this moment of truth, he asked me to sing Prince Orlovsky's aria, and to go as far with it as I could.

For those of you who don't know, Prince Orlovsky is the host of the big party in Die Fledermaus.  He's a very strange man, and a complete alcoholic.  In his aria, he explains that if his guests don't keep up with his drinking he will throw them out the door.  So basically I had to act drunk and aggressive, and make my imaginary guests feel as uncomfortable as possible.

I had a long table and some chairs to work with.  And as a starting point - this is just a starting point, mind you - the director told me to try prowling around on top of the table like a lion.

Prince Orlovsky meets the Lion King.
Normally I would freeze up in this situation.  I hate doing crazy things like this.  I always feel like I'm going to "do it wrong" and end up looking stupid.  But this time was different.  This time I told myself "I can".  I gave myself permission to act as stupid and weird and drunk as I could possibly imagine.

I prowled around like a lion on top of the table.  I swiped at imaginary guests with my paws.  I took off my shoes and threw them away.  I rolled around in a drunken stupor.

I stopped worrying about doing things right and lived in the moment.  And you know what?  It was pretty good fun.

In retrospect, I think it was the first time that I really acted.

Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Stage.
All this time, I have been trying to act, but at the same time I've been saying to myself, "I can't".  I can't, I can't, I can't.  These may seem like only words, but they are actually extremely dangerous weapons.  If you say the words "I can't" to yourself enough times, the words turn into a belief.  As the belief strengthens, it turns into the type of action - or lack of action - which reinforces itself.  The more you tell yourself "I can't", the more true those words become.

The words you say to yourself are incredibly powerful.  They have a strong influence on how you think and act.  If you turn "I can't" into "I can", eventually you will start to think and act like someone who can.  But only you have the power to make this change.

When I gave up singing and went into arts administration, I remember that a small part of me hoped that someone would try to stop me.  A small part of me wanted someone to say "no, you are a really good singer and you can't give up".  But nobody did this for me.  Nobody told me I should keep pursuing singing.  That was something I had to figure out on my own.

When it comes down to it, there is only so much encouragement and motivation that you can expect from your friends, your teachers, and your mentors.  When it comes down to it, you have to be the ones who believes in yourself.  You have to be the one who says "I can".  Once you say that, and really believe it, you will be amazed by just how true it is.

Monday, 15 April 2013

On travelling...

If you read this blog you'll be aware that I travel pretty often.  Just yesterday I returned from a trip to Gothenburg, via a long bus trip through Oslo and Rygge (hey, it saved a lot of cash).  With all the jet-setting I've done over the past few years, I've been able to get a few things right - and a lot of things wrong.  Which is exactly why I feel qualified enough to share a bit of travelling wisdom with you.  Ladies and gentlemen, here are my very own Do's and Don't's of travelling cheaply through Europe...

DO plan your trip carefully.  Print out maps.  Look up timetables.  Make sure you have detailed directions.  Otherwise you might end up experiencing something like my Italian audition trip fiasco.

DO compare prices. Use price comparison sites such as to find the cheapest flights - and if you're flexible with your schedule, you can also choose the cheapest days and times to travel.  A word about accommodation: if you aren't lucky enough to have a friend to stay with for free, find a cheap place to stay at a website like or  My friend tells me that Ibis hotels are always good - they're clean, safe, inexpensive, and can be found everywhere.

DON'T stay overnight at the airport.  Unless it's completely unavoidable - and I mean completely unavoidable - just don't do it.  Yes, it may seem smart to save money by sleeping rough and catching that cheap flight that leaves at evil o'clock in the morning.  But trust me, the sleepless night curled up on the airport bench is NOT worth the difference in price.  Especially if you're at London Stansted - or, as it's better known, Purgatory.

DO pack lightly.  Ok, so I haven't always been great at this, as friends and family will attest...

Simulation.  Not writer's actual suitcase.
But after being on several flights with strict carry-on weight limits, I have learned to hone down to the essentials.  One pair of smart shoes in the suitcase, one comfy pair worn on the plane.  Makeup bag, phone charger, toothbrush, and a couple of outfits - that's all you need.  Remember: unless you are travelling to the wilds of the Saharan desert, you will probably be able to do laundry.

DON'T assume buses and trains always run on the same schedule.  Travelling on a Sunday is a dangerous thing, as I discovered yesterday.  Buses that usually come every ten minutes suddenly get very lazy.  They may decide instead to only come every thirty minutes, or every hour, or two or three times in the day on a random whim.  Be prepared for lazy Sunday buses!

DO invest in the future.  Think ahead.  Will you be taking this same bus back to the airport?  Then get a return ticket.  If you'll be using a bus/train/tram/rickshaw regularly on this trip, think about getting something like a ten-ride ticket or a weekly or monthly pass.  It may seem not seem like much, but all those single ride tickets add up to a lot of extra money you don't need to spend.

DO stay hydrated. Planes are extremely dry, and it's easy to get dehydrated or even get sick if you don't drink lots of water. Yes, it might be embarrassing to be that guy who's always asking his neighbour to get up so he can squeeze past and go to the toilet. But trust me, it's worth it to not feel like this the next day...

Evian, why have you forsaken me??!
DON'T be a sheep.  I can't believe how many times I've seen people rush to line up for boarding just because they saw one guy stand up. 

And then they end up standing there for ages while nothing happens.  Why, why, WHY??  What are you actually achieving by lining up like that??  If you have an assigned seat, you will be sitting there whether you board the plane first or last.  If you don't have an assigned seat, get this - being the last to board is actually not the end of the world!  In fact, it probably means you will get an aisle seat, which means you can get up for the toilet as much as you want without bothering your neighbours (see hydration, above).

DO be smart about money.  Did you know Norwegian coins have holes in the middle of them?

They're like fancy metal Norwegian doughnuts.
That's pretty cool.  It's also cool to know that you'll need to carry cash in Norway - whereas in Sweden and Denmark you can pay for virtually anything with a debit card.  It's always good to know how money works wherever you're going, and to be prepared accordingly.

DO try to eat well.  Yes, it can be hard to find proper food at airports and train stations.  But if you eat real meals you'll be less likely to waste money filling up on crisps and chocolate.

Well, ok... maybe you can still have a bit of chocolate...
DON'T let your temper get away with you.  Here's a little story for you.  The last time I flew to Canada, I had an early morning and was feeling very tired and grumpy.  And to make matters worse, the person behind me kept punching the back of my headrest.  As I sat there fuming, and the punching continued, I built up a very clear image in my head of this obnoxious headrest puncher.  It must be a teenage boy, drunk or possible stoned.  He would be wearing some kind of sports jersey and baggy jeans.  And he was sitting there with his friend, laughing at me, punching my headrest, knowing I was too polite to confront him about it.  After several hours of torment, my anger and resentment towards this headrest puncher grew to such an extent that I finally exploded.  I whipped my head around in rage -

Not a simulation.  Writer's actual face.
- only to discover a meek and apologetic older woman cowering behind me.  She was not in fact punching the back of my headrest on purpose, as my sleep-deprived, travel-enraged mind had led me to believe.  She was just trying to turn up the volume of her movie on a rather unresponsive touch screen.  The lesson?  It's easy with all the stress of travel to get extremely irrational and angry.  So when you feel your temper getting the best of you, take a deep breath and count to ten.  Things are probably not as terrible as you think they are.

DO bring something to fight the boredom.  Whether it's a book or a magazine or the latest season of your favourite show - just make sure you keep it light and fluffy.  This is not the time to try to read War and Peace.  You will be stressed out, sleep deprived, and distracted by boarding announcements.  Basically, you should prepare to have about half of your usual IQ.

DO plan for recovery time.  Travelling is tiring, especially if you're crossing time zones.  And in my experience, jetlag only gets worse as you get older.  I recently made the mistake of scheduling a singing lesson just two days after arriving on a cross-atlantic flight.  I was still exhausted and jet-lagged, and I was completely useless in the lesson.  Know your limits and give yourself time to rest after a trip.  You'll need some time to be useless before you can be useful again.

DO bring a notebook.  Sometimes I get my best ideas when I'm travelling.  I zone out, look out the window at the scenery, and BOOM - I get a Eureka moment.  Maybe this is just me being an introvert, but I think the best thing about long trips is it can give you time to think.  So make sure you have somewhere to record your ideas and insights.

These are the most helpful tips I can think of now, although I'm sure that more will come to me the next time I'm travelling,  For now I'll leave you with one more tip: once you've booked the flight, printed the maps, and packed your bags - have fun!  After all, travelling is only worth all this stress if you get an adventure out of it.  So wherever you are in the world, take some time to enjoy the experience!

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

On being far away...

This year for Christmas, my boyfriend gave me a wallet.  Perhaps it doesn't sound to you like the most romantic gift in the world, but I love it.  Not just because it's made by a label called "Puccini".  And not just because it has lots of little compartments that help me organise my various foreign currencies and bank cards.  I love the wallet because I use it all the time, and every time I use it, I think of him.  I don't know about you but I think that's pretty romantic.

Every day I feel lucky to be where I am, to be following my dreams.  But every day I also deal with the fact that I am far away from the people I love.  Even now, when I am visiting my boyfriend in Sweden, I am far away from my family in Canada.  People often ask me if I miss Canada.  To be honest, I don't often miss Canada.  But I always miss my family.

I consider myself very lucky to have been born into such a large and loving family.  My family is full of character, curiosity, and passion.  Many of us are musical, and most of us are avid readers.  And although we don't always agree on everything, most of the time we get on very well.  We love to gather, usually over loads of food, and talk each other's ears off.  I love my family and I love spending time with them.  This is a part of my life that I miss very much now that I'm living abroad.

I also miss my boyfriend, who understands me in a way most people don't, and who always knows how to make me laugh.  When we were living in Glasgow I knew he was the right guy because I felt at home when I was with him.  Now that we live in different countries, he's still my home away from home - but he's no longer a 20 minute bus ride away.

Despite their absence, I have found many ways to surround myself with the people I love.  Of course, like anyone living abroad I stay in touch with my family over email and skype.  Obviously I can't stay in touch with everyone this way (there are a LOT of us), but I find that facebook is another great way to keep track of people.  I'm always grateful for the regular updaters in the family, who post pictures and videos and status updates, keeping me up to speed on my nieces and nephews' latest escapades, my cousins' latest projects, or my brothers' latest concerts.  But while the internet is a wonderful thing, the most beloved connections I keep with my family are the tangible ones.

I have a collection of keepsakes scattered around my flat.  There are the photos from my brother's wedding, and the homemade keychain and pencil case from my niece.  There are cards and letters from my boyfriend, and a photo of him which his mother framed for me.  There's a crystal hanging by my window which turns the sunlight into rainbows - a beautiful gift from my parents.  There are letters and postcards from friends and family, and countless trinkets and souvenirs from all the places I've been.

But my all-time favourite keepsake is a sign that says in colourful bubble letters "Welcome home Brynne".  It's from a difficult Christmas a couple of years ago, when I came home a complete mess.  I had just been dumped.  I had also been rejected several times in a run of unsuccessful auditions.  I had lost all my confidence and conviction.  And when I arrived home from the airport, feeling heartbroken and downtrodden, this cheerful sign was stuck on the door.  Waiting for me.  Welcoming me.  Letting me know that no matter what happened, my home and my family were always there.

I now put that sign up on my door -  that is, the door of wherever I'm living at the moment.  It's a reminder that I am home no matter where I am.  I am home because I am always surrounded by the unconditional love and support of my family.

This weekend was my grandma's memorial, an event that I was sadly unable to attend.  But while the prices of plane tickets kept me from crossing the Atlantic, I found other ways to be with my family at this time.  My mom has been sending me regular email updates these last few months, from the time Grandma went into the hospital, to when she went into palliative care, to her final hours.  So I had some time to prepare for her passing, and to think about how I could send my love in a tangible way.  I knew how much my keepsakes from the family meant to me, and I wanted to be able to send something similar to my family.

Naturally, if I was there, I would be singing at the memorial service.  I always sing at family weddings and funerals.  And it would mean a lot for my grandma because she was a singer too.  I decided that the best way to send my love was to record one of my grandma's favourite hymns and send it to my parents so it could be played in the service.

I wasn't able to be at my grandma's memorial, or at the big family gathering that surrounded it.  But I was able to read the text of my dad's eulogy, and to see pictures of my nephews emailed through my mom's BlackBerry.  I was able to skype with the family, getting passed around the sitting room on my brother's iphone.  I even "met" my new baby nephew for the first time (we had a fascinating conversation involving lots of squeals and flailing arms).  My uncle made a video of the service for myself and other absent family members, and I look forward to watching it and "being there" in my own way.

It's not the same as really being there, of course.  And I still get pangs of guilt about that sometimes.  But that's just the way it is right now.

The saddest part of going on an adventure is the people you leave behind.  Every birthday, every anniversary, every wedding and funeral that you miss - it stings.  But real love is more than a physical presence.  It's something that can cross borders and oceans, that can be felt from far away.  I feel the love and support from my family every day.  And I hope they feel it too.

These keepsakes I treasure so much, they aren't important in themselves.  They're important because they remind me of something that's already there.  Every day, no matter where I am and no matter what I am doing, I am surrounded by love.  And my boyfriend and my family are surrounded by it too.  We can't always be there for each other physically.  But we are always there for each other in spirit.

Monday, 1 April 2013

On staying strong...

Some singers I know have a certain hardness to them, a certain toughness.  They are extremely focused and ambitious and they don't seem to let anything get in their way.  If something bad happens, it doesn't phase them - they just keep going.  They are bulletproof.  Unstoppable.

I am not one of those singers.

I'm not hard or tough.  In fact, I'm really very soft.

I keep thinking that with time, with more rejections and challenges, I will grow a thicker skin.  But after years of hard falls and disappointment, the fact remains that I can cry at the drop of a hat.  And I often do.

"Oh my God!  That man - just - dropped his hat!"

Maybe it's something unchangeable about me, an intrinsic part of my nature.  Like my terrible sense of direction (despite all the travelling I've done, I still get lost ALL THE TIME).  I don't know.  But I really wish I was tougher than I am.  After all, the singing business is a school of hard knocks.  We have to face rejection and harsh criticism all the time.  Surely toughness is a quality you need in order to survive in the music world.

I was chatting about this recently with a visiting teacher at the studio, and lamenting my lack of toughness.  I mentioned certain successful singers I know who have this bulletproof quality to them, and expounded on how much I wished I had their hardness.  "But," he said quite reasonably, "you don't.  That's not who you are.  You need to embrace who you are and learn to work with it."

Sounds like pretty sensible advice, right?  But I wasn't so sure.  How can my softness be a good thing?  How can I "work with" the fact that I'm so easily reduced to tears by criticism and negative feedback?

How is it positive that I'm so easily wounded?  That instead of walking through life like this...

I'm essentially walking through life like this...?

It's been an emotional couple of weeks.  I've had an important audition, a recording, and a recital, and I've been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform well in all three.  On top of this, my grandmother passed away recently and I'm probably the only person in the family who won't be able to attend the memorial.  And as luck would have it, I haven't been feeling well.  I tend to get pretty weepy when I'm not feeling well.

The first breaking point came when we did audition training with a visiting director.  I saw this audition training as a practice run for my audition the following week, and I was anxious to sing well.

I did not sing well.  And the director didn't pull any punches in his criticism.  He was very harsh.

Maybe he wasn't that harsh.  Maybe I was too sensitive, and I took it too personally.  In any case, I cried.  A lot.

Then there was the audition itself.  I was so anxious to do well in this audition that I think I may have made myself sick.  Stress, tension, and sleepless nights led to a bout of tonsilitis.  Which led to antibiotics.  Which made me sick to my stomach.  When I arrived at the audition I was exhausted and nauseous, and although I gave it all I had, I probably wasn't at my best.

After all that anxiety and preparation, I didn't get the callback.

I was heartbroken.  Of course I had tried not to get my hopes up too much.  But I had really wanted this, I had really thought I had a good chance.  The rejection was a huge disappointment and a major blow to my confidence.

I cried.  I drank beer.  I cried some more.  I talked to friends.  I cried some more.  Basically, I stayed up all night being sad.  It was not fun.

At times like this, when it really gets to me, I can't help but wonder if maybe I don't have what it takes.  If I'm not tough enough to roll with the punches.  Not cut out for this school of hard knocks.

But you know what?  In each of these instances, after I mourned the disappointment, I moved on.  After the audition training, I spent some time sniffling in the washroom.  But then I wiped away my tears, ate my lunch, and ended up having two very good coaching sessions.  After feeling heartbroken about the unsuccessful audition, I had a terrible beer-soaked sleepless night.  But the next morning I got on my computer and started looking for more auditions.

It is possible to be sensitive and resilient.  To keep going when you're hurt.  You can be soft and strong at the same time.

These qualities are not just for toilet roll.
Look, it sucks to be the one who cries all the time.  It's embarrassing.  I would love to be made of steel and never show emotion.  But that's not who I am.  I'm soft.  I'm vulnerable.  I feel things deeply.  Do I care too much?  Perhaps.  But perhaps that's not entirely a bad thing.

Singers are emotional creatures by nature.  We sing all the time about love and hate, hope and despair, misery and joy - the biggest, most powerful human emotions.  We need to feel things deeply so we can channel it into our singing.  We are all emotional people.  The difference lies in how we handle our emotions.

Personally, I wear my heart on my sleeve.  Sometimes it's a helpful quality to have.  It means that I'm sensitive and open, and people can see that I care deeply about things.  Other times it works against me, and I get overwhelmed by my feelings.  But I have learned that the best way to deal with this is not to repress or hide my feelings.  I need to feel them to their full extent, exorcise them if you will - and then move on.

Hopefully, when I exorcise my feelings, they don't look quite this bad.
Over the years I've found some good outlets for my feelings.  Sometimes I need to sing.  Sometimes I need to blow off some steam by going for a run.  Sometimes I need to calm down with some yoga or a hot bath.  Sometimes I need to have a drink and vent to a friend.  And sometimes I need to write in my blog.  These are all things that help me stay sane and work through my emotions in a constructive way.

It's not easy being sensitive, but beating myself up about it will only make matters worse.  It's better to accept that it's the way I work, and learn how to cope with it.  It might be embarrassing when people hear me blubbering in the next toilet stall.  It might seem that I'm "falling apart", or losing control.  But does it really matter how much I react?  Does it really matter, when in the end I'm still able to pick myself up and carry on?

There's more than one way to survive getting hit.  You can protect yourself by being hard and unyielding.  Or you can be a rubber ball.

Rubber is soft.  When it hits a hard surface, it changes shape.  It absorbs the pressure.  But then it bounces back.

Right now, I am learning to be a rubber ball.  To work with my softness, and to let it help me bounce back.  I may be easily hurt.  But that doesn't mean I can't easily recover.