Saturday, 23 November 2013

On being patient...

I am an impatient person.  Most people who know me are aware of this.  Whether it’s ordering my coffee, getting my internet to work, or advancing my career, I have no time to wait.  I want to be there NOW.  I want to get that NOW.  Like those annoying kids in the back of a car on a road trip, I’m always asking “are we there yet?”  On one of my worse days, I might be asking with bitter frustration, “why the hell aren’t we there yet??”

It’s a strange thing, this impatience of mine.  It’s a unique mixture of ambition and laziness.  I really want to get somewhere.  But I don’t want to take the time to do the work it takes to get there.

Right now, I'm struggling a lot with my impatience.  I’m starting with a new teacher, and as is often the case with a new teacher, we are rebuilding my technique from the ground up.  It’s back to basics for me.  After years of doing back flips and cartwheels, I’m learning to walk again.  The process is extremely painstaking and slow.  And I hate it.

I don’t want to take the time to breathe deep and low.  I don’t want to take the time to engage my support.  I just want to sing the note already.  I just want to get there!  And so I sabotage myself.  I block myself with my own ambition.  I’m in such a rush to sing that I don’t bother to make sure I’m singing well.

I am not alone in my impatience.  We live in an impatient age.  Thanks to high-speed internet and pre-recorded television, we’re all used to instant gratification.  Skipping the commercials.  Switching tabs on our internet browser when we’re bored.  Putting every thought into 140 characters or less.  We, as a society, have extremely short attention spans.  We can't seem to focus on anything in the long-term.

What’s wrong with doing things so quickly?  There’s nothing wrong with speed, per se.  Instant noodles and high-speed wifi don’t exactly spell the end of civilisation.  But this obsession we have with getting everything right now might land us in a lot of trouble.  Because, as they say, good things come to those who wait.

There was a great article recently by James Clear about deliberate practice and the “ten year silence”.  Apparently, most artists produce their most successful work after ten years of relative obscurity.  In other words, it takes about ten years of deliberate, focused practice, ten years of trying and failing, ten years of perseverance and gradual progress, before you finally achieve something great.

Can you imagine?  Ten years without recognition!  Ten years without gratification!  Ten years of working away, never knowing for certain if you’re actually going to get anywhere.  That doesn't just take a lot of perseverance and faith in yourself - it also takes an inconceivable amount of patience.  How many of us would be able to endure that decade?

Last week I did a 5km race.  5 kilometres is not a very long distance, but for me right now it’s just long enough to be a challenge.  The thing about running long distances is, it’s just as psychological as it is physical.  You have to have the mental fortitude to keep going.  The first kilometre is easy enough.  You think “this is no problem, I just need to do [X amount] more of these”.  But as you keep running, the kilometres get longer and longer, until the last kilometre feels like it will never end.

The temptation, of course, is to run fast at the beginning.  But if you start off too fast at the beginning, you’ll never make it to the finish line.  You have to learn to pace yourself.  I don’t mean being lazy and jogging as slowly as possible.  I mean finding an ideal speed – a speed which is challenging for you, but which you can sustain in the long term.

Getting ready to run the Downsview 5k in Toronto
The same goes for any long-term process.  If you start by rushing yourself, soon enough you will burn out and stop short of meeting your goal.  The trick is to work slowly and steadily, taking the time to do things thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Pop culture loves to sell us the story of the overnight success.  Shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice" show us that it only takes one audition, one song, to turn your life around.  This is utter nonsense!  Overnight successes never happen in the real world.  There are of course some cases where singers are “discovered” by a conductor or director, and their career takes off like a shooting star.  But even in these cases, we don’t see the years of hard work and perseverance that led to their “overnight success”.  The overnight success is an illusion.  Success comes gradually, with steady, focused work.  What seems like overnight is usually the result of years of dedication.

We only see the chick once it's hatched - we don't see what happened inside the egg.
Most singers have to play the long game.  We keep plugging away, making steady progress and developing a career bit by bit.  We might see colleagues who succeed at an early age, and we might feel pangs of jealousy.  But the truth is that most of these young prodigies don’t sustain long-term careers.  They are a “flash-in-the-pan” phenomenon.  Their talent may be exciting while they are young and attractive, but as they get older it often becomes apparent that there’s nothing behind the pretty face and the pretty voice.  They don’t have the three-dimensional artistry it takes to keep an audience’s attention in the long run.  It’s not because they aren’t talented – it’s because they weren’t given time to nurture their talents fully and develop into mature artists.  They were thrust out onto the stage before they were ready.

Most of us take a lot more time to develop our careers.  And this is hardly a bad thing.  We need this time to do the necessary work on our voices and ourselves.  We need to develop into emotionally mature adults who can handle the ups and downs of a music career.  We need to grow into colourful, thoughtful, expressive, and skilful singers.  The kinds of singers who will sustain and audience’s interest for years to come.  If we rush ourselves, we risk becoming shallow singers.  Singers who display more style than substance.  If we take the time to do the necessary work, we can become singers of depth and quality.

The problem is, singers are ambitious people.  We're always obsessed with “getting there”.  But the truth is, there is no “there”.  The future doesn’t exist!  The only reality is the present moment.

Every minute that we spend in the “future” is another minute not spent on the present.  Another moment not focused on the work at hand.  Spend too much time thinking like this, and you could dream your whole life away.

If you spend all your time trying to “get there”, you will go nowhere fast.  If you focus on the now, if you take the time to work thoughtfully and thoroughly, you can go somewhere slowly.  Which would you rather do?

Slow and steady wins the race.
Back to me in the practice room.  I’m learning the difference it makes when I give myself time.  If I rush to sing, my voice sounds shallow and light.  If I take the time to breathe and support properly, the sound is richer, fuller, and deeper.  It may be driving me crazy to work this slowly, but it’s worth it to take the time I need to produce a higher quality sound.  Bit by bit, I’m hearing the difference it makes.

It’s not huge improvement.  It’s not a dramatic improvement.  It’s a slow and gradual improvement.  A focused, thoughtful process.  There are no magical solutions or overnight successes here.  I'm learning to be patient, to take my time.  After all, good things come to those who wait.

Friday, 8 November 2013

On applying for a visa...

You may have noticed that I've been writing the last few posts from Toronto.  I'm back in Canada for a while, and doing a few different things while I'm here.  Visiting family, catching up with friends, having various lessons and coachings, taking a masterclass with Tafelmusik... and applying for my visa to stay in Germany.

This is the fourth visa that I have applied for in  five years.  I have applied for student visas in the UK and Belgium, and I have applied for a post-study work visa which allowed me to stay in the UK for two years after graduating.  You would think that after applying for this many visas, I would get the hang of it.  You would think that it would get easier every time.

You would think wrong.

This is me applying for a visa.
Every time that I apply for a visa, it is a stressful, complicated, and enraging process.  It is probably taking several years off of my life.  I swear I'm not being overdramatic here.  You have not fully experienced the absurdities of government bureaucracy until you have applied for a visa to stay in a foreign country.

If you want to stay in another country in the long-term, chances are that you will need to apply for a visa.  I have written before about the process of applying for a visa, but I thought this time I might write something a bit more realistic and practical, with less humorous exaggerations and references to dodos.

Here is a dodo.  I promise not to mention him anymore in this post.
Like I said, it's not an easy process.  But I have learned some things that are helpful to know:

1. Start early.  I can't stress this one enough.  You should start looking into your visa as soon as possible - at least 6 months in advance.  This is because you will probably need to do things which require long-term planning.  You might need to hold a certain amount of money in an account for several months.  You might need to apply from the embassy or consulate in a particular city, which means planning some travel.  Or you might need documents which will take a very long time to process.  When it comes to visas, the early bird will get the worm.

Mmmmm worm.
2. Do your research.  What kind of visa do you need?  What can you qualify for?  You may be eligible for some kind of special consideration.  For instance, if your spouse, parents, or grandparents are citizens of this country, you may qualify for citizenship, or an ancestry visa.  If you are under 35, you may qualify for a youth mobility scheme, which allows young adults to spend time living and working in certain countries.  Make sure you understand the rights and restrictions for the type of visa you are applying for.  Will you be able to work?  Which kinds of work will you be able to do?  How many hours per week?  Will you be able to receive benefits such as healthcare and insurance, or should you make sure that's covered via your home country?  Make sure you know exactly what you're getting yourself into.

3. Make a list.  Check it twice.  Then check it twice again.  You will have various requirements for your visa application.  Some will be very easy, and some will be more complicated.  Make sure you understand exactly what is required for your application.  It's so easy to miss a little detail about how something has to be officially signed and stamped.  So be extra-careful with your list.

Santa doesn't need to check his list as much as you do.
4. Assemble all your requirements.  Keep track of everything carefully.  Use a specially designated folder or box to organise all of your documents.  Print out the list of what you need, and check things off as you go.  Make sure you keep everything in one place.

5. It's all about the money, money, money.  Applying for a visa is expensive.  Expect to pay large amounts of money for things like postage, administration fees, and travel as you prepare your application.  And unless you are applying for a full-time work visa (i.e. you can prove that you have a full-time job with a salary waiting for you when you arrive) you will also need to show that you have a certain amount of money to support yourself while you are abroad.  This is probably the most important requirement for your visa application.  The last thing this country wants is for you to end up broke and unemployed, and become a drain on their economy.  So make sure you have your finances sorted out and you can afford everything you need.

Sorry, Jessie J.  We can't forget about the cha-ching, cha-ching.

6. Plan your travel carefully.  For your application, you will need to know exactly when you are leaving and how long you will stay.  You will probably be required to show tickets as evidence of your travel dates.  You will also need to know where you are staying once you arrive, so make sure that you have your accommodation sorted out.

7. Even when you think you have everything in order, you probably don't.  Check that list again.  And again.  There might be something in fine print which you've missed.  If you're in doubt, find a phone number and call to ask for clarification.  It may take some time before you're able to talk to someone; chances are that the visa helpline will only be open for one hour, one day a week.  But it's worth the hassle just to make sure.

8. Bring a good book.  Once you arrive at the embassy or consulate to formally apply for your visa, you may have to wait a long time before seeing someone - even if you have made an appointment.  Last week I had an appointment, and I still waited 90 minutes to speak to someone at the German Consulate.  And this is Germany, the country that's supposed to be renowned for its punctuality!

9. Allow for the maximum application processing time.  When you are told that your application will take up to 6 weeks to process, it probably won't take 6 weeks to process.  The maximum processing time is something the visa office tells you to cover their backs.  In other words, it doesn't usually take this long, but there have been some cases - when the office was very busy, or there were complications - where it has taken this long.  Obviously you hope that your application will be processed quickly.  Nonetheless, you should prepare for the worst.  You will be giving up your passport with your application, which means that you will be landlocked until your application is processed and you have your visa.  The last thing you want is to book an early plane ticket, only to discover that you won't be able to leave when you were planning.  Changing flights can cost a fortune.  So pay attention to the maximum processing time, and be prepared to stay put for a while.

10. Surrender to the absurdity.  You will be asked to provide some completely unreasonable things for your visa application.  For example, my visa application required me to book a flight back to Canada in a year's time.  Which is understandable, right?  They wanted to make sure I wouldn't just stay in Germany illegally after my visa expires.  The problem is, it's virtually impossible to buy a flight this far in advance!  Most airlines will only let you book a flight up to 8 months ahead of time.
You will be asked for all kinds of unreasonable things like this as you're applying for your visa.  And once you have collected all of these unreasonable things, it will turn out that they didn't need half of them in the first place.  After spending all that time and money, after going through all that stress, they will airily hand it back to you.
You could get annoyed by this.  You could get indignant.  But really, what is the point?  When it comes down to it, the visa office has all the power to accept or deny your application.  If they ask you to jump through a hoop, you will jump through that hoop, and no amount of complaining will change that.  Trust me, for the sake of your sanity - do not get worked up about all this irrational bureaucracy.  Do not rage against the machine.  Be a Zen master and go with the flow.  Accept the absurdity.  Surrender to it.  Laugh about it if you can.  It's the only way to cope.

Be at one with the red tape ridiculousness.
As for me, I handed in my visa application last week, and immediately collapsed in a heap of exhaustion.  I hadn't realised until then just how much it had been stressing me out.  But once I handed in the application and the decision was out of my hands, I relaxed a bit.  I sat down and I couldn't get up.  (Luckily, it happened to be Halloween, which meant it was socially acceptable to spend all evening on the couch eating candy and watching scary movies.)

Another visa application has been sent off.  All that's left now is to wait, and to hope I haven't missed any details.  I should also find some hair dye to cover up all these grey hairs I seem to be sprouting...

Friday, 1 November 2013

On being a good colleague...

In my last post, I touched on how lonely this profession can be.  And it's true - as a soloist, especially a freelance soloist, it can feel like you're the only person looking out for yourself.  But life doesn't have to be so lonely.  There are millions of colleagues out there going through all of the same things.  People who can be an invaluable source of information, help, and support.  This is why it's important to reach out to others and form alliances within the music profession.  This is why it's important to be a good colleague.

What does it mean to be a good colleague?  A good colleague is helpful: they offer advice, give recommendations for good teachers and coaches, or endorse you to someone for future work.  A good colleague is sympathetic: they listen when you're having a hard time, and they understand what you're going through.  And finally, a good colleague is considerate: they consider how their words and actions affect other people.  In other words, they aren't an asshole.

Surprisingly difficult advice to follow.
Now, that is a lot to expect from one person.  And you probably shouldn't expect everyone to be all of these things for you all of the time.  After all, singers are very busy people working in a very difficult and competitive field.  But I believe that if you want to be a happy singer, you should seek out and befriend other singers who have these qualities.  And the more that you emulate these qualities yourself, the easier you will find it to surround yourself with like-minded people.

There are, of course, certain types of colleagues that you should avoid.  Some of them are more dangerous than others, but none of them are particularly helpful.  So try not to spend too much time with these people - and try not to become one of them yourself.

The Apathetic Colleague is the honey badger of colleagues.  They don't give a shit.  They don't wish you ill, but they don't particularly wish you any good either.  If you get in touch with the Apathetic Colleague and ask for help or advice, don't expect an answer.  The Apathetic Colleague doesn't have time for you - they only want to look out for number one.  You can sort of understand where the Apathetic Colleague is coming from.  After all, their life is busy, and they can't be expected to drop everything whenever someone needs their help.  But the Apathetic Colleague tends to ignore everyone all the time.  And what goes around comes around: when they need help, they're usually met with a taste of their own apathetic medicine.

If you honey badger someone, they will honey badger you right back.
The Negative Colleague is a total downer, man.  Always feeling sorry for their self for bombing that audition or not winning that job.  Always speaking doom and gloom about how it's impossible to get anywhere in the industry these days.  The Negative Colleague likes to play the victim - they don't take responsibility for anything that happens in their life.  Instead they choose to believe that for some reason, bad things are always happening *to* them.

Everything happens to Eeyore...
The Negative Colleague has absolutely nothing good to say about anyone or anything.  It's amazing really -you can almost feel the positivity seeping out of you as you speak to them.  Everyone goes through phases where they feel bad about life.  But the Negative Colleague isn't going through a phase - they're like this all the time.  And nobody wants to hang around a person who's always bringing them down.

The Selfish Colleague might act very friendly and pleasant toward you, but make no mistake - they don't actually care.  The Selfish Colleague will use you for all you're worth, and give nothing back.  They can be extremely needy.  They will call at any hour to ask for advice, or whine about their terrible lesson.  But the minute you ask them for a bit of help, they will suddenly become very busy.  Beware of the Selfish Colleague: they are a constant drain on your energy.

The Toxic Colleague is the most dangerous kind of colleague.  Like the Selfish Colleague, they will act like they're your BFF.  But the minute you turn your back, you can guarantee that they will be gossiping about you to someone else.   They will find ways to make subtle little comments that poke at your insecurities and chip away your confidence, all the while pretending to be on your side.  The Toxic Colleague is insidious and extremely clever - they know just how to get under your skin.

"Did you hear that Cindy got the role?  Omigod that is like, sooo sad for you."
Don't be fooled by the Toxic Colleague's tough exterior.  Chances are, they behave this way because they are incredibly, painfully insecure.  They see life as a competition with only one winner.  And they think they have to play dirty to win.  The reason the Toxic Colleague plays so many mind games is that deep down inside, they don't believe they can get ahead on their merit alone.  They think they have to sabotage their rivals in order to succeed.  When you look at it this way, it's actually pretty sad.  There's no need to be mean to the Toxic Colleague, but there's no reason to let them mistreat you either.  Just stay friendly and try not to get sucked in.

I'm often shocked by the way some singers behave toward each other.  But then again, I'm not really shocked at all.  If I'm being completely honest, I have been guilty of all of these types of behaviour at some point in my life.  And I bet that you have too.  Why?  Because we work in a difficult and competitive industry, and these are all various (admittedly unhealthy) ways of coping with it.  It's hard to separate the personal from the professional.  It's hard to be friendly with people who you consider to be your rivals.  And it's hard not to let your setbacks bring you down.

But like I said, what goes around comes around.  The music industry is a small world, and when you behave badly word spreads pretty fast.  You'll find that people are less likely to hire you back, or help you out, or even answer your calls.

More importantly, all of this kind of behaviour sucks up a lot of energy.  Energy which could be spent improving your singing, or your stagecraft, or your knowledge of the repertoire.  You have a lot of work to do!  So why waste yourself on negativity?

There is really no need to be dishonest or unkind towards our colleagues.  It makes life more difficult and unpleasant for everyone.  We all learned the same Golden Rule in Kindergarten: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Why do so many of us forget it when we grow up?

Being a good colleague just makes good sense.  We are the only ones who truly understand this career and what it entails.  So why not help each other out?  Why not lend a bit of help and support to a comrade-in-arms?  This industry is hard enough without making it harder for each other!  I know I might sound a bit naive here, but I really do believe the world will be a better place if we are kind to our fellow singers.

In the end, you have two choices: you can keep your toys to yourself, or you can share them.  If you keep them to yourself, nobody wins.  If you share them around, there's more for everyone.  We can all accomplish so much more if we pool our resources.  There are millions of fantastic websites, blogs, and online communities which demonstrate just how much singers can do when they get together.

But on a smaller, more personal scale, life is so much easier when you have friends in the industry who you can trust.  Friends who can give you an honest opinion, or a valuable recommendation.  Friends who will meet you for a beer when you're in town, or even let you crash on their couch.  True friends, with no ulterior motives, who have your back and know you have theirs.  These kinds of friends are invaluable in our profession.  And you will only get as much as you give.

I have met some people in this profession who are unhelpful or just downright nasty.  But I have also had the pleasure knowing some fantastic colleagues who have helped me in countless ways.  I am extremely grateful for everything I've received from these thoughtful and generous people.  And knowing how much their kindness has meant to me, I see how important it is to do the same for others.  Because every time we are helpful, generous, and considerate to our colleagues, we are changing this profession for the better.  We are making the music world a friendlier place.  And isn't that something we all should want?