Tuesday, 10 September 2013

On finding your own way...

Life after graduation.  The great beyond.  How do we visualise it?  And how does reality measure up?  If you're anything like me, as a young singer you pictured some kind of fairytale ending, where all of your hard work and diligence would be rewarded with a contract, an agent, or a coveted place in a prestigious young artist programme.  You thought that if you worked hard enough, did all the right things, auditioned for all the right people, eventually someone would hand you a career on a silver platter.

"Your career, ma'am - careful, it's piping hot"
As an undergrad student, I used to look at singers in the opera school with great reverence.  I heard their glorious voices and I expected great things of them.  I was often shocked and disappointed when they didn't live up to my expectations.  "What do you mean you're still living with your parents," I might say, "aren't you supposed to be singing at the Met by now?"  I remember seeing older singers, singers with masters degrees and years of training, singers with heaps of talent and ambition - and they were still struggling to survive.  Secretly I thought to myself, they must be doing something wrong.  That won't be me.

As the years rolled by, I lost some of my high hopes and naïveté.  I saw how competitive it was in the music world.  I learned that it took most people several years to build a career, and that even the most talented singer might struggle just to make a living.  And yet, in my heart of hearts, I still hoped that I would be different.  I would be special.

I think that deep down inside, I believed the world was a fair and logical place.  If you put in enough work, you reap the rewards - simple.  And so as I began my year at the opera studio, I didn't worry too much about the future.  I would audition for as many things as possible, and surely at one point someone would give me an obvious answer.  Someone would offer me an opportunity, and my future would be all mapped out.

"Follow me - your career goes that way!"
But the truth is, for most of us it's not so straightforward.  Yes, there are people who win contracts right out of school and transition smoothly into a singing career.  But those people are the exception to the rule.  Most of us finish school with a blank page and no idea how to fill it.  We have to find our own way.

It was around springtime this year when I realised that no one was going to offer me any easy answers.  I hadn't won a place in any young artist programmes, and no agents or opera companies had signed me on.  The future was a big blank.  I was all by myself.

My immediate reaction was panic and despair.  I couldn't believe that after all my hard work this year, all the progress I had made on my voice and my acting, nobody was going to scoop me up and take care of me.  How was I going to make a living?  Where was I going to live?  What was the next step?  How would I know if I was doing the right thing?

I'm not so good at making decisions.
Nonetheless, bit by bit, I started to ask myself some questions.  What kind of music did I want to sing?  Who did I want to sing it with?  What kind of life did I want to have?  And eventually the answer became clear to me.  In fact, it had been staring me in the face the whole time.  I wanted to move to Germany.

I have been thinking about moving to Germany for a long time.  And yet I've always been afraid to take the leap.  Perhaps because the prospect of a foreign language daunted me.  Perhaps because it seemed unoriginal - so many other young singers had done it before me.  Or perhaps because I had heard horror stories of singers arriving in Germany full of hopes and dreams, only to leave a few months later with an empty wallet and their tails between their legs.

But I had a few advantages over those singers in the horror stories.  First of all, I already knew some German.  Secondly - miraculously - one of my auditions this year had actually paid off, and I had some choir work lined up in Stuttgart.  It wasn't much, but it would pay the rent, which was a good start.

After ordering a refresher audio course online (I hadn't studied any German since undergrad, which was - *cringe* - almost 10 years ago) I started thinking about where exactly in Germany I would live.  Eventually I settled on Cologne.

Why Cologne?  It wasn't exactly a scientifically calculated choice.  I could have easily decided to move to any German city.  But I did consider a few factors in my decision: cost of living, accessibility, and proximity to Stuttgart.  Cologne is close to 3 major airports, and is only a few hours away from Stuttgart by train.  It's also pretty close to Gent, meaning it would be easy to come back to Belgium for work or visiting friends.  Compared to most major German cities, it's not an expensive place to live.  And, most helpful of all, I already had a couple of friends living there.  In other words, I wouldn't be completely alone when I arrived.

"Hello?..... Anybody there???"
It's a scary prospect, this move to Cologne.  I've moved country before (twice), but both times I was landing safe and sound in a postgraduate course, where I would have a readymade group of peers and a schedule of classes to follow.  This time, apart from the bit of choir work, I have no idea what will happen in the next few months.  My only plan is to find a flat, take German classes, and start auditioning.  The future is one big question mark.  Anything could happen.

And yet, there's something thrilling about this question mark.  It's a blank canvas which I have the power to fill however I like.  I don't have to follow someone else's path.  I can make a new one.  I'm my own boss, in control of my own destiny.

I know these next few months will be scary, difficult, confusing, and often lonely.  But they are also an opportunity to make my own career, in my own way, tailored to a shape and size that suits me.

"Yep, this career will fit my voice perfectly."
So often we singers are seduced by the career paths which have been prescribed to us.  We pressure ourselves to get into this opera school or that young artist programme, and we beat ourselves up when we don't.  We never seem to stop and think, is this really good for me, or is it just what I've been told is good for me?  What if other people's idea of success is not your true calling?  What if there are other ways, other paths, which might be better for you, which might ultimately make you happier?  You'll never find out unless you look.

I have many friends whose career paths don't fit into the preconceived notion of a budding young opera star.  They are successful freelance singers, and so much more.  They are educators, directors, administrators, writers, conductors, coaches, and founders of brand new ensembles and opera companies.  Are they living the life they envisioned for themselves?  No.  They are living something far more interesting than they ever could have imagined.

Life after graduation is hard.  Whatever our dreams are, however hard we work for them, most of us don't transfer seamlessly into our ideal career.  But what we do achieve can be so much more exciting.  With creativity, determination, resourcefulness and vision, we forge ahead.  We find our own path, and we're often delighted to discover where it leads.

Here I am, foot poised, about to start out on my own path.  And I can't wait to find out what comes next.


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