Sunday, 23 February 2014

On being a Travelling Professional...

I'd like to introduce a new term here: a Travelling Professional.  A Travelling Professional is someone who, like me, has to travel a lot for their work. We can call it "TP" for short.

Actually no.  Let's not call it that.

Are you a Travelling Professional?  Perhaps you're not sure.  Perhaps you definitely are.  Perhaps you’re definitely not, but you’d still like something amusing to read on a Sunday.  In any case, here’s a helpful little list.

You know you’re a Travelling Professional when…

1. All airports and train stations look the same to you.
You don’t notice anymore if you’re in Tokyo or Amsterdam.  All you see is that you’re in an airport, or you’re in a train station.  They've all kind of melded into one big glass-and-concrete structure in your mind, because the only thing you really care about is where you’re going.  You know all those sculptures and installations and special exhibits that people put in airports, to try to make them unique?  Yeah.  Those don’t work.  You might look at them with a passing interest, but all you really care about is buying a sandwich and getting to the right gate or platform.

2. You’re always confusing your languages and currencies.
You tend to get just a little bit mixed up.  You might try to pay with Yen in Finland, or start speaking Italian in Germany.  When you're visiting so many countries in so little time, it seems impossible to keep track of where you are!  Last week I managed to speak French pretty well in Paris, but I kept unconsciously peppering it with German words: aber, und, oder, and so on.  I think the French were a little confused.

Not sure if this girl is part German.. or just crazy.....

3. You’re sick of going to restaurants.
When you’re travelling, restaurants become part of the daily grind.  It might seem nice at first, but after a while the novelty wears off.  You get pretty tired of letting a menu dictate what you’re going have for dinner tonight.  Even the nicest restaurant meal can never replace the pleasure of something cooked at home.  There’s just something so satisfying about deciding what you want to eat, buying the ingredients, and going home to make it.  Last year I spent most of December in a hotel in Stuttgart, and it didn't take me very long to get sick of the local restaurants.  When I came home for Christmas, I had no interest in the standard seasonal fat-and-carbs fest.  Instead I was desperate for fresh fruit, vegetables, and wholesome home-cooked meals.

All I want for Christmas is... salad.

4. You are accustomed to doing things practically everywhere.
Whether it’s doing your makeup on the train or warming up for an audition in a bathroom stall, you’re pretty adaptable.  You used to think brushing your teeth at the airport was weird.  Now?  It’s par for the course.

5. You find yourself feeling irrational rage towards perfect strangers.
Drivers get road rage and travelers get – travel rage.  When you’re tired and stressed, it doesn't take much to set you off.  Just the other day I was on a train, and there were two small boys playing and babbling to each other.  They weren't being whiny or causing any trouble.  They were just being kids.  Normally I would find the whole thing adorable.  But under the circumstances, I hated them.  This is what travel rage does to you.  I was once on a train in sitting in front of a woman munching on carrots, and I was so irritated that I wanted to throttle her.

6. Free Wifi is like the Holy Grail.

You search for it everywhere.  Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have it in your hotel, but this is never a guarantee.  Of course, there are a lot of networks which claim to be free WiFi, but they can’t all be trusted.  Many are the times that you've clicked on a hopeful-looking network, only to be asked for an email address and credit card details.  The truly free WiFi signal is a rare and coveted prize indeed.  Travelers will trek from cafe to lonely cafe in search of its power.  This is why I often end up eating at Starbucks.  It’s the only way to check my emails.

7. You are extremely conscious of your nationality.
I never gave much thought to being Canadian when I lived in Canada.  Now that I’m abroad, I think about my Canadian-ness all the time.  People often ask where I’m from, and then follow up with questions about Canadian sports or politics.  I often find myself getting into rather intense and lengthy discussions about my country.  I would never have any of these conversations back home.  But over here it’s different.  I’m not just me.  I’m an unofficial representative of Canada.  In fact, I would go even further than that: apparently I am Canada.  “He’s Canadian, you know” they’ll say, and give me a pointed look.  As if I’m somehow personally responsible for every other Canadian person or thing in the world.  A couple of months ago, a Spanish friend approached me and gave his congratulations.  Congratulations? I asked.  Congratulations for what?  He explained that Alice Munro, a Canadian author, had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I guess I must have had a hand in that somehow?

Alright Alice, I'll expect my share of the prize money in the mail.

8. You often wake up disoriented.
Wait, whose bed is this?  Which room am I in?  Which hotel?  Which city?  Which country??  It’s a really weird feeling.  But you’re kind of used to it by now.

9. Your friends don’t get it – you’re not on holiday.
Your friends might express jealousy when you tell them you’re going to Madrid.  What they don’t understand is that travelling for work is completely different from going on vacation.  You’re not going there to see the sights or lounge on the beach.  You’re going there to work!  Although I was in Paris for five days last week, I never saw the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower.  I tried to fit in a visit to the Musée d'Orsay, but it never worked out.  And while I've spent several months working in Stuttgart, I've never done a single touristy thing there.  Much as we would like to be, Travelling Professionals are not tourists.

10. You have become a bit of a travel snob.
You've done this travelling thing so many times that you've got it down to a well-choreographed routine.  And you can’t believe that other people haven’t.  When someone packs liquids in their hand luggage, or takes a million years to go through security, you can’t help but roll your eyes at them.  What an amateur.

You're actually listening to the safety announcements on the plane??

It’s a special way of life, this constant travelling.  It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.  Sometimes it’s really fun and exciting, and other times it’s extremely stressful.  Most of the times, though, it’s just Work.  An abnormal lifestyle that’s somehow become normal.  So to all you Travelling Professionals out there, I just want to say – I feel ya.  Oh, and also? Let me know if you find any free WiFi.

Monday, 17 February 2014

On being unfinished...

Last June I had a lesson with a new teacher.  He was very well-known, and came highly recommended by my friends.  People raved to me about the progress he had helped them to make in their singing  So naturally I was curious.

The lesson began, and after a bit of friendly chat, I sang my showpiece aria for him.  And then he started in on me.

He tore my singing to pieces.  Everything had to be done differently - completely differently.  I started the aria again, he stopped me after almost every note.  It was an extremely frustrating process.  We hardly got through the first page before the lesson was done.

The experience upset me very much.  At the time, I was at the end of my year at the opera studio, and I thought I was singing with a very good technique.  Naturally, with graduation only weeks away, I wanted to believe I was a finished product.  I wanted to think of myself as "ready" for the profession.

All tied up and ready to go.

But this man was telling me that I was wrong.  This man was telling me that I still had a lot of work to do.  He thought I had to re-learn my approach to singing completely.

I never went back for another lesson.

In September I moved to Cologne.  It was a new city, a new beginning.  And I was looking for a new teacher.  My friend recommended his teacher, who had an excellent reputation throughout Europe and North America.  I was intrigued, and after observing my friend's lesson I had a lesson of my own.

Like the teacher I had met in June, this teacher wanted to change my approach to singing.  Once again, I was told that I had to make big changes to my technique.  "Brynne," he said, "you have a lot of work to do."

It was a terrifying thing to hear.  But this time I was ready to hear it.  In June I had thought of myself as reaching an end.  Now I felt I was starting out again, and I was able to approach the lesson with an open mind.  So I took in what he said.  I got down to work.  And gradually I began to hear significant changes in my singing.

Nobody ever wants to hear that they have a lot of work to do.  But the truth is, we always do.  A singer's work never stops.  We are on a never-ending road of progression.

It just. Keeps. Going.

Since September, I've continued studying with my new teacher.  It's hard work, but it has its rewards.  I've just come back from a four-day masterclass with him in Paris.  It was an amazing week of inspiration and learning.  I feel like I've made a big leap forward in my singing - and I've watched other singers do the same.

A masterclass can be a transformative experience.  You have the opportunity to work intensively on your craft with an expert teacher.  Furthermore, you are in the company of several other singers who are doing the same.  Singers of every age and level attend masterclasses.  From young students to experienced professionals, we all have the same desire to continue working on our voices.

Singing can be a lonely profession.  Once you're out of education, you develop your voice and your career largely in isolation.  Sometimes you find yourself wondering, am I doing the right things?  Am I on the right track?  Am I the only one struggling here?

Is anybody else out there??

Which is why it is so wonderful to spend time with other singers in a masterclass.  It puts everything into perspective.  Suddenly you realise that you're not alone.  In my class this week there were many different voice types and styles.  There were light lyric voices and enormous dramatic voices.  High sopranos and low bass-baritones.  We even had a couple of singers who performed musical theatre and pop.  But regardless of everyone's individual vocal identity, we all had something in common.  We were all on the same road.

It was humbling to witness the talent and hard work of the other singers in the class.  And we learned so much from watching each other learn.  We empathised with each other's struggles, and we shared feedback about what we had heard.  We often exchanged opinions and experiences over coffee, lunch, and dinner.  It was a privilege to be in such friendly and sympathetic company.

Some magical things can happen in a masterclass.  When so many singers get together, all intent upon learning, there's a special kind of energy in the room.  You often find yourself trying things you might never have dared to try before.  You go further, you dare more, and you understand more deeply.  And you recognise some important truths about yourself.

You know when you're in a lesson, and something suddenly clicks for you?  Like you've had a "Eureka" moment?  Well, these moments happen even more in the intense atmosphere of a masterclass.  Often you hear or see something from another singer, and you suddenly understand something very important for yourself.  We all had thousands of these "Eureka" moments throughout the masterclass.  In fact, I don't think there would be enough bathtubs in Paris to provide for all of them!

It was an intense four days.  A lot of ideas and emotions to be taken in.  And on the evening of the fourth and final day, we gave a concert.

It was a daunting task to perform our pieces after so much precise and detailed work.  Suddenly we had to take everything we'd learned and put it into practice.  And what was more, we had to really perform our pieces.  We couldn't just stand there looking like we were solving a math problem while we thought about our technique.  We had to be in character.  We had to smile and sob and scream, all the while not letting on that we were thinking about our upper passaggio.  It felt a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head.

Nevertheless, everyone seemed to pull it off with panache.  I was amazed to hear people incorporating what they had learned into their performance.  And it was a real pleasure to watch everyone sing in full performance mode, dress shoes and all.  We all finished the concert with a feeling of euphoria.  We had accomplished so much!

But as we celebrated over wine and curry, we were all brought swiftly back to reality.  One by one, our teacher began taking us aside to give us feedback.  And he didn't pull any punches.  He recognised the progress each of us had made, but he also told us where we had faltered and what we needed to work on.

Despite our accomplishments this week, we still have a lot of work to do.  Because there will always be a lot of work to do.  This is what our teacher wanted us to understand.  That it's never safe to rest on your laurels.

Don't rest on your Laurels.  Don't rest on your Hardys either.

When you give a performance, you like to think of yourself as polished and complete.  A finished product.  But the truth is that noone is ever a finished product.  A performance, no matter how successful, is only ever a snapshot of where you are right now.  It's one moment on a never-ending path of improvement.

The greatest challenge of singing is that no matter where you are on your path, no matter what you're learning, you still have to be able to drop everything and perform.  When the moment arrives, be it an audition or an opening night, you have to put on the best show that you can.  Give yourself to the moment, accept where you are now, and show it off to the best advantage possible.

We are all a work in progress.  We pursue a challenging and relentless learning process that never ends.  But that's the reason we chose to be a singer in the first place.  Because we'll never stop learning.  We'll never stop improving.  And we'll never stop trying to be the best that we can be.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

On storytelling...

Who doesn't love a good story?  As children we beg our parents for one more fairytale before bedtime.  Or we sit by the campfire, enraptured and terrified by a gripping ghost story.

"And then they told her... the calls were coming from outside the house!
Wait, no, I got that wrong..."

As we grow older we find our own ways to pursue exciting stories, whether through books, films, or television.  We seek out stories wherever we go.  This passion for narrative is an intrinsic part of human nature.  It’s inscribed deeply in our DNA.

But what if some stories are bad for us?  What if some narratives in our life are holding us back, deceiving us, or even damaging us?

Every day you tell yourself millions of little stories.  It’s a coping mechanism, a way to make sense of yourself and the world.  Take this story, for instance: my name is Angela, I’m a British soprano and I study in Germany.

Hi Angela.  Love the side ponytail.

At first glance, this story seems helpful.  It gives Angela an identity, a place in the world.  But it also places limits on her.  Certainly Angela is so much more than her name, nationality, voice type, and place of study.  And yet every day she is telling herself that that is all she is.  She is boxing herself in with her own words.

Is being a British soprano the essence of Angela’s existence?  Is studying in Germany the meaning of her life?  Of course not.  But if she identifies with this story too much, she is putting herself in a very small and precarious place.  What if one of these labels were taken away from her?  For instance, what if she changed from a soprano to a mezzo-soprano?  She might feel lost, desperate, hopeless.  She has clung to her story so much that she doesn't know what to do without it.

We all cling to stories like this, for many different reasons.  They comfort us in an uncertain world.  They help us to interpret events, to understand people, or to create a series of logical cause-and-effect relationships.  And often, they add a bit drama to our everyday lives.  

That's right.  We're all a bit of a drama queen.

But clinging to these kinds of stories can be extremely dangerous.  Why?  Because we forget that they’re stories.  We forget that they're based in our minds, and not in reality.

For every event in your life, there are two layers: the bare facts, and the emotional filter through which you perceive them.  For instance, you might be sitting on a streetcar and notice that someone is staring at you.  If you are feeling particularly insecure about your appearance that day, you might think to yourself, he’s staring because my outfit looks stupid.  You have no idea if this thought is true.  These are the only facts you know: you’re sitting on a streetcar, and someone is staring.  Everything else is a product of your mind – a story which your emotions are projecting onto the situation.

Nonetheless, you might believe this story.  You might choose to identify with it.  And in doing so, you are mistaking a story for the truth.  You are creating a negative reality for yourself out of thin air.  It's completely nuts!  And yet we do this to ourselves all the time.

Have you ever choked in an important audition or performance?  I certainly have.  One particular audition comes to mind.  Around this time last year I was heading to Amsterdam to audition for a prestigious opera academy.  I had auditioned for the same opera academy the year before, and had come very close to winning a place.  This time I was determined to get in.  I had convinced myself that this was it.  The be-all, end-all of auditions.  I had to win a place in this opera academy, because it was the very best thing for me to do next.  In fact, it was the only thing to do next.

Now.  Of course the opera academy wasn't the only thing I could do next.  The world is an enormous place full of innumerable chances and opportunities for a young singer like me.  There are millions of jobs and young artist programmes outside of this one opera academy in Amsterdam.  But at the time, I didn't see that.  I was blind to everything except this audition.  I told myself that I had to win it, and there was no other option.

So what happened?  Well first of all, I became extremely anxious.  For weeks leading up to this audition, I couldn't sleep properly.  My arias ran through my head constantly.  Eventually my immune system couldn't handle the stress anymore, and I contracted tonsillitis.  I was prescribed antibiotics, but they made me sick to my stomach.  I arrived on the day of the audition feeling stressed out, exhausted, and incredibly nauseous.

Needless to say, it wasn't my best performance.  I didn't even make it to the second round of auditions.  I was pretty crushed.  And it took me a long time before I could look back and see how I had sabotaged myself.

In getting psyched up for this audition, I had told myself an extremely dangerous story.  I had created a psychological drama, in which the audition had all the power in the world to decide if I was a good singer.  I had made myself completely terrified of the audition and its result.  It was no wonder that I failed so spectacularly!

In contrast, last week I had another audition, for which I had barely enough time to prepare.  I had received a phone call on Monday asking me to come in on Thursday!  This gave me just enough time to brush up my arias and re-learn an excerpt in a blitz of focused practice.  Before I knew it I was onstage, singing my audition.

And I nailed it.


Why did I nail this audition, while I choked on the one in Amsterdam?  I had spent months preparing for the audition in Amsterdam, polishing my arias with expert coaches and perfecting them with trusted teachers.  This audition, in contrast, was prepared at the last minute, over the span of three days.

The truth is that my success in this audition had nothing to do with how I had prepared my arias.  It had everything to do with how I had prepared myself mentally.  Or rather, how I didn't prepare myself mentally.  Since I only had three days before this audition, I didn't have time to get nervous.  I didn't have time to tell myself a story, building up the audition in my head until it crushed me.

Of course, as soon as this audition was over, I found the time to tell myself a story.  I reflected on my success, and I found a way to excuse it.  They must not have had a very high standard, I told myself.  That’s why I did so well.  Even after doing something well, I found a way to transform it into a story of failure.

Does this way of thinking sound familiar to you?  Have you ever diminished your successes, or rejected someone’s praise?  Just like some people see the world through rose-tinted glasses, others choose to look through shades of grey.  We find ways to twist reality, no matter what it looks like, into a picture of negativity.

A less-than-inspiring way to view the world.

The truth is that you did succeed.  The truth is that the person complimenting you did enjoy your performance.  These are objective facts, and yet you manage to obscure them from your vision completely.  You project your own negative emotions and beliefs onto the situation, and turn it into something else.  If only you could take off your grey shades for just a moment, you would see the truth for what it is.  But your urge for storytelling is too strong.  And once again, you deceive yourself.

Next time you find yourself reacting strongly to a situation, try to take a step back.  Separate the facts from the fiction.  What is the truth, and what is the story you’re telling yourself?  You might have many good reasons to believe this story.  Perhaps it helps to reinforce some deep-seated belief about yourself or the world.  Perhaps it gives you some drama you’re craving, or it feeds your ego.  There may be several reasons to find your story compelling.  But it’s important to see your story for what it is – fantasy, conjecture, emotional guesswork.  No more real than the monsters under your bed.

We all love a good story.  Unfortunately, we often love a bad story too.  Our perceptions and interpretations of the world can cripple us if we let them.  This is why it’s important to recognise our mind’s stories when we hear them.  The minute we see them for what they are, they lose their power over us.

The stories we tell ourselves can be extremely convincing.  But they will only ever be as real as we allow them to be.