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.