Sunday, 1 December 2013

On being brave...

Last weekend I had the pleasure of singing Bach’s motet “Jesu meine Freude”.  This is one of my favourite pieces of music in the world.  I first sang it in Stuttgart with Helmuth Rilling, and have since sung it in Toronto, and again in Edinburgh.  So I was very happy to have the opportunity to sing it once again in Cologne.  “Jesu meine Freude” is a masterpiece of beauty and unity: it holds together exquisitely as a whole.  But beyond the music, I love the piece’s message of bravery and steadfastness.  My favourite movement is the dramatic “Trotz dem alten Drachen”:

Trotz dem alten Drachen,
Trotz des Todes Rachen,
Trotz der Furcht darzu!
Tobe, Welt, und springe,
Ich steh hier und singe in gar sichrer Ruh

…which roughly translates as:

“I defy the old dragon,
I defy the jaws of death,
I defy fear as well!
Rage, World, and spring to attack:
I stand here and sing in secure peace”

Turns out Bach is kind of a badass.
I just love this statement.  It’s so strong and defiant.  It reminds me of the incredible act of bravery which singing is.  How many destructive forces to we have to battle every time we get up on stage to perform?  How many inner voices of worry and doubt do we have to ignore in order to let our own voice be heard?  It’s got me thinking about the negative thoughts and feelings which we often fight with when singing...


Trotz dem alten Drachen…

Obviously, the old dragon looks like Smaug from The Hobbit.
We all have an old dragon within us.  He may be a bit tired and slow, but he still likes to rear his ugly head every once in a while and make us shake in our boots.  The old dragon is an accumulation of all your past baggage.  Every bad memory, every negative belief about yourself, every piece of criticism you’ve ever heard.  As much as you try to keep this old dragon hidden away in a cave, he can still come back to haunt you.  You might be in the middle of giving a winning performance in a competition, and suddenly the old dragon will be at your ear.  “Remember that time you fluffed the coloratura in that audition?  Remember the teacher who told you you can’t act?”  If you let him, he will keep going.  He won’t stop until he’s paralysed you completely.  The old dragon always has to be kept at bay.  He is old news, and he doesn’t belong in the here and now.  You have to fight him back with everything you’ve got.

Trotz des Todes Rachen

This zebra doesn't seem too bothered about the jaws of death.
While the old dragon represents ghosts from yours past, the jaws of death represent phantoms in your future.  The future doesn't exist yet, but that doesn't mean you can't imagine it in all kinds of horrible ways.  Every time you get up to perform, there is a certain amount of risk involved.  You can't help but think that this time you might not manage it.  This time you might falter.  No matter how much you practise, there is always a very real possibility that something might go wrong.  It might be a small slip, and it might be a total disaster.  There is only so much we can control in performance.   But thinking "what if" is like looking down when you're crossing a tightrope: it will only make you waver and stumble, when you were doing perfectly fine before.  Thinking about making mistakes will only encourage them to happen.  And you can’t let some imagined version of the future mess up the reality of the present.

Trotz der Furcht darzu!

Trudy was having difficulty overcoming her fear of hands.
When you worry about the past or the future, you are letting yourself be driven by fear.  What else are you afraid of when you walk onstage?  I don’t know about you, but I’m usually afraid of judgement.  I’m afraid of what the audience or the audition panel might think of me.  This is one of the hardest things about being a performer: you are constantly making yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to others’ opinions.  But if you're afraid of judgement, you'll never take the kinds of bold risks that will make you an exciting artist.  The best performers are the authentic ones.  The ones who do their own thing, without worrying about what other people think.  If you want to make great art, you can’t always be afraid of being judged.  You have to dare to be yourself.  You have to be fearless.

Tobe, Welt, und springe, ich steh hier und singe in gar sichrer Ruh.

Calm in the eye of the storm
Ever had one of those days?  When everything seems to be going wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it?  Life is unpredictable.  And it can certainly throw you a few curveballs when you least expect it.  You may be faced with a practical problem, like a delayed train making you late for an audition.  Or you may be dealing with difficulties in your personal life, like arguing with your parents.  Whatever it is, it should never interfere with your performance.  The show, as they say, must go on.  Any worries and distractions have to be pushed aside.  Any inner turmoil must be stilled.  The moment you step onstage, you exist only for the performance.  You have to be able to sing from a place of calm and peace.


The mind is a powerful thing, and it can have a huge impact on our ability to perform well.  You can be the most talented singer in the world, but you won't get anywhere if your mind isn't on your side.  So how do we defeat these demons?  How do we overcome our inner turmoil? How do we deliver a showstopping performance against all odds? 

In her Q&A session at Juilliard (I highly recommend watching the whole thing on youtube), Joyce DiDonato talks about these negative inner voices which can interfere with your singing.  As she points out, you just don’t have the time to listen to these voices!  There are so many things to think about when you’re performing: the meaning of the text, the dramatic context of the music, your musical interpretation, your technical approach to each phrase… Why would you waste any time listening to a voice telling you that you messed up the high note, or that you might have a run in your stocking?  Joyce suggests you should dismiss these voices – tell them to go get a coffee, and you’ll talk to them after the show.

But sometimes it's not enough just to tell negative thoughts to go away.  Sometimes they keep shouting at you and won't be ignored.  This is extremely dangerous, because negative thoughts can be have a huge influence on your performance.  If you keep imagining things going wrong, they probably will.

An old teacher of mine used to encourage me to combat this with "positive mental practice".  Any time I had a performance coming up, she would tell me to spend time going through the performance in my mind.  She told me to imagine giving the best performance possible.  Every little detail, down to the last note, would go exactly as planned.  I would be full of energy and spark, and the audience would love me.  This exercise served as a powerful affirmation.  The more I envisioned things going well, the more I felt that they really would, and the more that they actually did.  Sometimes it's not enough just to banish negative thoughts.  Sometimes you have to fight back by cultivating positive thoughts instead.

Get back, you evil old dragon!
Singers have to be superheroes.  Every day that we perform, we battle with powerful evil forces: bad memories, old insecurities, worries about the future, fears of being judged, and problems from outside the practice room.  When you stop and think about it, it's a wonder that we're able to sing at all!  But with the positivity and presence of mind, we can overcome almost anything.  We just have to remember to draw on our inner strength.  To be focused and fearless.  Only then can we stand here and sing in gar sichrer Ruh.


  1. love your blogs.. such an inspiration :) <3

  2. Very nice post! It actually reminds me of a book I bought recently, which helps me tackle the old dragon... it's called "Taming your gremlin", written by Rick Carson. It really helps me focus on the real, free me, and get some distance from the dragon.
    By the way, I'm a classical singer too, and I love reading your blog!

  3. Thanks Meilindis! Nice to meet you :) I will definitely check out that book.