Sunday, 12 January 2014

On seeing the big picture...

I've been pretty quiet on here lately, and the reason is that I've been very busy.  I spent most of December doing choir work.  I was very grateful for this work: after all, I was earning money by singing, and not by doing data entry in an office or scanning items in a grocery store.  I also really enjoy singing in choirs.  I get a real sense of satisfaction out of making music with a large group of singers.  And the choral repertoire is full of stunningly beautiful music.

The thing is, I don't want to sing exclusively in choirs.  I want to have a solo career.  And taking on lots of choir work makes it difficult to keep working towards that goal.

It's a tricky situation, and one which a lot of young singers struggle with.  The reality is that most of us don’t earn a living with our singing right away.  So we take a “day job” to make ends meet until we can get our careers off the ground.  The trouble is, a day job is often so draining and demanding that you can lose sight of your long-term career goals.

You need the "day job" to survive, whether it's teaching, choral singing, or temping in an office.  But you also need to work on your long-term career development.  Let the day job slide, and you have no money.  Let the career slide, and you'll be stay the day job forever.  So how do you keep the balance?

The balancing act: it gets pretty crazy!

I have been struggling with this balance a lot lately.  My problem is that I look at my work through a zoom lens.  When I'm working on a choir project, I focus on that project and nothing else.  I work hard in rehearsals, but the rest of the time I usually act as though I'm on holiday.  Drinking coffee, shopping, having a few beers at the hotel bar... It's an easy trap to fall into, especially when I'm surrounded by a fun group of colleagues.  Of course I need some downtime to recover from work, but if I treat all my "free time" as free time, I won't make any progress as a soloist.

I have arias to learn.  I have my technique to work on.  I have applications to send off and auditions to prepare for.  So why am I frittering away my free time like this?  Am I just being lazy?

I think it’s more complicated than that.  It's a matter of limited resources.  There is only so much energy and focus a person can put in on a given day.  If you spend all day poring over a spreadsheet or sitting in three-hour meetings, it’s not so easy to concentrate on learning a new aria in the evening.  It gets even harder when your "day job" uses your voice, as it does in teaching or in choral singing.  There's a limit to the number of hours per day in which you can healthily sing.  And you want to preserve the best of your voice for when it's important - that is, when you're getting paid.

But beyond practicalities, there's the matter of perspective.  It’s just so easy to get sucked into small details and forget about the big picture.  You end up living from day to day, thinking about what you need to do now in order to survive.  

"I just need to keep my head above water.  That's all."

The trick is to think beyond your day-to-day survival. Think bigger.  Check your map.  Where are you now?  Where do you want to go?  How are you going to get there?

Everyone has an ambition for the future.  A goal towards which they believe they are working.  But are you really working toward it?  You can tell people your goal all you want.  You can shout it from the hilltops and post it all over facebook.  But unless you are taking regular steps to achieve it, your goal is nothing more than a delusion. 

"I am going to start my own company!!!
You can tell I'm serious about it because of the sunset!"

It’s important to keep working on your big picture, even when the smaller picture may be limiting your time and resources.  The trick is to avoid burnout by working smartly and efficiently.  I've discovered a few things that help.

First of all, you need a bare minimum.  Something you can commit to doing every day.  This should become a daily habit, as routine as brushing your teeth.  My bare minimum is a good warmup.  Warming up every day is very important for many reasons.  It keeps my voice healthy and sets me up to sing well for the rest of the day.  It also serves as an M.O.T. – a chance to check in with my voice and see how everything is working.  Is my high A a bit thin this morning?  Are my low notes a bit wobbly?  How is my coloratura running along?  Warming up helps me check in with my voice and be aware of anything different I might have to look out for later in the day.  Even if I’m in rehearsals all day and have no time for individual practice, I make sure I start the day with a good warm up.

Warming up: your daily vocal M.O.T.

Secondly, you need to set smaller goals for yourself each week.  These goals should be realistic and achievable.  Some weeks you just won’t have time to get as much done.  But making small progress is better than no progress at all.  You may not be able to learn a 10-page aria this week, but perhaps you could work through the first two pages. 

Thirdly, motivate yourself by keeping track of your progress.  Make a to-do list.  Enjoy ticking off tasks as you finish them.  And keep reading the list to remind yourself of what still needs to be done.  Checking your to-do list is like checking your compass.  It reminds you of where you are and where you’re going.  And it alerts you when you're veering off course.

Uh-oh.  My career should be heading northeast, not southwest.

What about those days when you come home from an eight hour rehearsal and you have no voice left?  Can you still use your time productively?  Absolutely.  There are a lot of things you can do without singing.  Listen to recordings to hear how other singers interpret your repertoire.  Listen to recordings of your lessons and coachings, and take notes.  And practise mentally.  Go through your music in your head, imagining in detail exactly how you want to sing it.  You’ll be amazed what a difference you’ll hear the next time you sing the piece.

Finally, don’t dismiss your “day job” as a mere money earner.  See it for its full value.  What can you learn from this job which you can use in your career?  If you teach, can you learn something from the way you've addressed a student’s technical problem?  If you sing in a choir, can you work on improving your breath control, or your pianissimos?  If you work in an office, can you learn some important tips on running a business?  Remember, you are pursuing a challenging career which demands diverse skills and knowledge.  You can find learning opportunities almost anywhere.  So think outside of the box, and try to see the full worth in every experience.

The hills are alive with the sound of learning opportunities!

It’s hard to remember the big picture.  We all have days when we get home from our day job and just want to collapse on the couch.  But do this every day and you’ll be stuck on the couch forever.  Your time may be limited, but you can still use it smartly.  Remember that quality is more important than quantity.  It doesn't matter how many hours you can put in today.  As long as you are investing thoughtful, focused work towards your long-term goal, you will make progress.

Your dream can remain a dream or it can become a reality.  It’s up to you to decide.