Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Brilliant Books (Part 2)

Following up on last week’s post, I thought I’d write about a few other books which I've read in the past.  Now these books are a bit less recent in my memory, so please bear with me while I dust off their jackets and recall what made them so great…

The Inner Voice – Renee Fleming

It's been a while since I read this, but I have vivid memories of being completely enchanted with it when I was younger.  A singing career is a mysterious thing, especially when you're 18 and just starting out in undergrad.  You know some people have it, but you're not really sure how they got it in the first place.  It seems to be something vaguely magical which just sort of happens to you… or doesn't.  This is why it can be so helpful as a young singer to read the biography of a successful artist – to hear it all straight from the horse's mouth.   There are a lot of opera singer biographies out there, but few singers have been as generous or as honest as Renee Fleming has been in describing how she got to where she is.

In The Inner Voice, Ms Fleming is writing directly to young aspiring singers, which I think is a lovely idea.  She wants to pass something on to the next generation, and tell us what it's really like to make it in the business.  And it's not all a fairytale.  Although Ms Fleming is now a successful international superstar, she also had her share of challenges and rejections.  She talks about her bad auditions, her year struggling to learn German on an exchange programme, and the experience of getting booed at La Scala.  Beginning with her childhood with singing teacher parents, she describes her education and career development, and paints a vivid image of a typical day in her current working life.

At times Ms Fleming's writing is a bit saccharine, but as a whole I find the book to be a charming read, full of warmth and wisdom.  If you're a young aspiring singer who wants to know what it's like "out there", then this book is definitely worth the read.

The Inner Game of Tennis – W. Timothy Gallwey

I was recommended this book years ago when talking to someone about my high notes.  I used to really struggle with my high notes you see – I couldn't sing anything above the staff.  This is actually kind of hilarious to remember, because I now sing a lot of coloratura repertoire which is chock-full of high notes.  But there was a time when my high notes were a real technical block, and I had no idea what to do about them.  It may have been partly a question of physical maturity and training, but for the most part I think it was more psychological than physical.  I was afraid of heights – I really didn't believe I could make it up there.  So my friend told me that I had to read this book.  It would completely change the way I thought about singing.

The Inner Game of Tennis, as its title implies, is written for tennis players.  However its philosophy can easily be applied to any kind of sport or performing art.  It's all about the psychology of practice, and how we often sabotage ourselves unknowingly.

As Gallwey explains, we all have two selves within us.  There is the physical, intuitive self, and there is the thinking, judging self.  Unfortunately a lot of us allow this second self to take over completely, and thus psych ourselves out of performing well.  Have you ever started talking to yourself when you're practising?  "No, not like that"  "You idiot, that sounded terrible!!"  This is your thinking/judging self talking to your physical/intuitive self.  And unfortunately, as is often the case, it's being a bit of a bully.  The truth is that if we get out of the way and trust our physical/intuitive self more, we will be amazed by what it can achieve.  It's all a matter of balance between the thinking and intuition, between mind and body.  If we overthink things and judge ourselves too much, we can interfere with our performance and sabotage ourselves.  But if we learn to work with both selves, and trust our body's muscle memory to work under pressure – rather than constantly telling it what to do – we can perform with real skill and flow.  The Inner Game of Tennis is about the "game" that is always playing between these two selves, and how to keep them balanced and working in harmony.

Apparently there is now an Inner Game of Music, which has adapted the text to be aimed at musicians.  But I don't think it's necessary to buy this rather than the original book.  It's pretty clear what Gallwey is saying, and how it can be applied to any kind of skillset.  The Inner Game of Tennis is a great little book – easy reading and incredibly beneficial for every athlete and artist.  If you haven't yet read it, you should definitely check it out.

What the Fach? – Philip Shepard

This is essential reading for any singer who is moving – or considering moving – to a German-speaking country.  Whether you're moving to Germany, Austria or Switzerland, you should consider this book your bible.  Written by an American singer who has made a successful career in Europe, this book addresses all the questions and concerns of an opera singer moving abroad.  Where should you audition?  How should you write your CV?  What are German companies and agents looking for in a singer?

Philip Shepard has been through it all, and he has lots of valuable information and experience to share with us clueless newbies.  He explains the fach system and its importance, and discusses the differences between a “fest” contract and a freelance career.  He talks about agents, contracts, and audition etiquette.  He also highlights various organisations and schemes –such as NYIOP and the Fullbright Scholarship – which give singers opportunities to live in Germany or sing for German houses.  At the end of the book, he includes a series of interviews with people in the business, which give some fantastic insight into how the German opera world works.  Don’t miss the Appendices either – most appendices are boring, but I promise these ones are incredibly useful!  Shepard includes lists of German opera studios, affordable travel companies, and helpful books for further reading.  There is a glossary of useful German phrases, from finding your way to the audition room to ordering a cup of coffee.  There is a list of American medications and their German equivalent.  Honestly, this guy has thought of everything.

If you are thinking about moving to Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, and are feeling lost at sea, you need to buy this book.  NOW.  Make sure to get the most up-to-date version, as there have been a few different editions published now.  This is the most exhaustive catalogue of practical knowledge which you can find on the subject.  It's an invaluable resource.

Well, that's all my reading recommendations for now.  But I'm sure I'll have more to share with you in the future.  Until then, happy reading!

Monday, 17 March 2014

Brilliant Books (Part 1)

As a singer and a writer, I do a lot of reading.  And I'm not just talking about Shopaholic here.

Although, I do love those books.

I mean books which inform my singing and my approach to my career.  There are some fantastic authors out there whose books can completely change your outlook on singing and life.  Whether it's performance psychology, biography, or spirituality, these authors' writings have been powerful sources of inspiration and insight for me.  Here are a few books which I've read recently, and would like to recommend:

Bounce – Matthew Syed

Matthew Syed has a remarkable talent: coming from an average middle-class family in Reading, he rose to stardom as a table tennis player, winning several world championships.  Surely he was blessed with talent, born to play table tennis.

Hold on though – that’s not the whole story.  Syed may have been born in an average middle class family, but he was also brought up in some fortunate circumstances for a budding table tennis champion.  First of all, when he was very little his parents bought a tennis table and set it up in their garage.  Secondly, he happened to have an older brother who was eager to play table tennis with him all the time.  And he happened to go to a school where a top table tennis coach was teaching.  As Syed got older and racked up hours playing in his garage, he became quite a good player and his teacher noticed him.  Soon he was receiving world-class coaching from his teacher and getting 24-hour access to the local table tennis club, where he could practise to his heart's content.  All of these advantages allowed him to spend years of focused practice building his talent.

In Bounce, Matthew Syed aims to de-bunk the myth that talent is something you're born with.  From Tiger Woods to Venus and Serena Williams, he explains how every world-class performer and athlete is the product of years of hard work – and not simply the lucky recipient of some God-given gift.  What we call "talent" is actually a combination of opportunity, motivation, great teaching, and mindful practice.  Even Mozart, the classic child prodigy, was not born a great musician.  Rather, he began music at an unusually early age under the guidance of his father – a renowned music pedagogue.  It was not until approximately ten years into his training that he began creating his great works.  Yes, these works were composed at an unusually young age, but that's only because he began earlier than most and had an excellent teacher to help him on the way.

Looking at talent from this angle, we reach an amazing revelation.  Talent is not just a gift bestowed upon the chosen few.  It's something that anyone can earn with enough work.  In other words, if you invest in the right teacher, the right coach, the right practice facilities, if you spend enough time practising deliberately (i.e. not just mindless repetition) – you will eventually get where you want to be.  Bounce is an inspiring book for anyone aspiring to build their chosen skill to a world-class level.  I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle

Do you know what myelin is?  Neither did I, before I started this book.  Myelin is what you build when you practise.  Every time you fire a certain sequence of nerves to do a specific action – whether it's swinging a tennis racket or singing a top A – myelin wraps around these nerves to insulate them and make them perform more efficiently.  After practising the same action several times, these nerves will be wrapped thickly in myelin, causing them to work at expert speed and precision.  Myelin is the scientific explanation for why practice makes perfect, and it's captivating neuroscientists everywhere.  In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explores the science of practice and how great talent is really created.

Cross-section of a nerve wrapped in myelin.

Of course, not just any kind of practice will make you great.  In order to build up myelin and develop a skill, you have to do "Deep Practice".  This type of practice is focused, precise, and often slow, and works to constantly stretch you beyond the edge of your abilities.  Beyond practising, Coyle also discusses two other essential elements to building great talent: "Ignition" – powerful sources of inspiration which light a fire under you to get practising – and Master Coaches – expert teachers who know just how to guide your progress.
I found this book to be a fascinating and inspiring read.  Coyle described numerous case studies of "talent hotbeds" – places where great talent is developed, from football players to chess masters to concert violinists.  Like Matthew Syed, he takes the angle that talent is grown, not born.  And that's an idea in which we can all find hope.  His writing is colourful and personable – he really takes the time to paint a picture of each situation so that you feel that you yourself are in conversation with the same expert baseball coach, or world-class pianist.  This book was truly a pleasure to read.

A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle

Ok, I know what you're thinking.  When I see something "new-agey" like this, my bullshit alarms start ringing.  But hear me out here.  This book has a lot to offer.

My teacher recommended this book to me several months ago, and it was a long and arduous process getting through the whole thing.  Tolle's writing is intense – he packs a lot of into each page.  And they're big ideas, the kind that take a long time to wrap your head around.  But I promise you that if you take the time to read this book in full, you will reach some huge life-changing realisations about yourself and the world around you.  And in turn, this will have an enormous influence on your approach to your craft and your career.

Tolle is a world-renowned spiritual writer and speaker.  He is probably known best for his book, The Power of Now.  However, if you are completely new to Tolle's ideas, then A New Earth is an easier and more accessible read.  In it, Tolle talks about the dangerous tricks and illusions which our ego plays with us.  He discusses how to escape the traps of negativity and overthinking, and how to find peace and live in the present moment.  It's all pretty esoteric stuff.  But I think this kind of spiritual understanding is vital for anyone, especially those working in the arts.  As artists, it's very easy for us to get caught up in negative thinking patterns and become extremely unhappy.  We work in a difficult career that's full of ego and competition.  Reading books like this can help us to transform our approach to life, making us happier and more well-balanced people.

If I'm being perfectly honest, there were some bits in the book which had me rolling my eyes.  You know what I mean – the airy-fairy pseudoscience claims which have no basis in reality whatsoever.  But once you sift these bits away, there is a lot of valuable spiritual insight in the book.  I often found myself chuckling and shaking my head as I read, recognising my own bad habits and emotional foibles in the pages.  There is a lot of truth in this book, and I think it’s a very important read.

Check out next week's post for some more great reads!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

On speaking like a German (Part 2)...

I had so much fun writing my last post on speaking like a German that I couldn't resist writing another installment.  After all, there are just so many delightful words and phrases in my adopted language.  Here are a few more...

Fleißig – You know when someone's a real keener, a teacher's pet?  Well that's kind of what "fleißig" means.  When someone is being very fleißig, it means they’re extremely diligent and conscientious.  They do all the right things all the time.  They’re industrious and studious, always working very hard.  You probably kind of hate them.

Ugh, soo fleißig...

Kaputt – Such an apt word that we've started using it in English.  Kaputt means broken, busted, wrecked, finished - totally and completely out of order.  You could use it to describe something that isn't working anymore, like your computer.  Or you could even use it to refer to yourself after a particularly long and stressful day.  A very useful word indeed.

Ach so – An essential pondering sound.  This is what a German says when someone has corrected or clarified something for them.  As they process this new information and consider the situation in a new light, they say "ach soooo" and trail off thoughtfully.  It's kind of like saying "ooOOohhhh", but more specifically, it kind of implies the idea, "this changes everything."  To say "ach so" like a true German, be sure to linger with real emphasis on the "soooo".  And don't forget to really close that "o".

Geil – Literally, this word means "horny".  But over the last few years it's evolved to mean the same thing as "awesome" or "wicked" in English.  It's kind of like when Paris Hilton started calling everything "hot".

"That's hot."

If something is really really cool you might say that it’s "supergeil" - as is demonstrated by this extremely strange German supermarket ad.

Punkt – The epitome of German bluntness.  This is the word you use when you have nothing more to say on the subject, and want to avoid any further discussion.  Punkt.  Period.  End of story.

Bwoahhh – Spelling has been approximated.  This is the sound a German makes when they're really impressed with something.  Bwoahh, look at the size of that fish!  Bwoahh, that cake looks amazing!  Bwoahhh...  And so on.

Egal – A shortening of "es ist mir egal", literally "it’s equal to me."  In other words, I don’t give a shit.  Must be said dismissively with a casual shrug of the shoulders.

Total – Much like the English word "totally".  Germans use this word as a qualifier all the time.  It’s not just impossible, it’s total impossible.  It’s not just Scheiße, it’s total Scheiße.  Unlike the English "total", the German "total" can be recognised by its two crisp explosive t’s, a very closed "o", and the emphasis on the second syllable: "Toh-Tahhhl".  This makes the word much more strong and emphatic, and lets you know that a German really means business.

Gleichfalls – Similar to the English "likewise".  A useful little shortcut when you want to avoid repeating an entire phrase back to someone.  If someone tells you to have a nice day, simply respond with "gleichfalls" and they'll understand that you wish them the same thing.  It's like saying "right back atcha, kid."

Doof – Pronounced "dohhh-f".  Again, a long and extremely closed "o" is essential here.  This is a very descriptive word meaning stupid or foolish.  I love how dull it sounds.  Even saying it makes you sound dumb.

Quatsch – Nonsense, hogwash, rubbish.  Something that's total baloney.  Again, I love how descriptive this word is.  It sounds like something wet and messy which shouldn't be there.  The next time someone's bullshitting you, try declaring "Quatsch!" in an accusatory tone.  Tell me that sound doesn't make them think twice about what they just said.

Pech – In English, you either have good luck or you have bad luck.  They're two varieties of the same concept.  But Germans have two completely different words for luck.  "Glück" is the positive word, meaning good luck, while "Pech" is the negative word, meaning bad luck.  If you've had a hard time of it lately, you've really had some Pech.

Spinnen – This literally means to spin, but it also has a colloquial use.  To "spin" is to be crazy.  Yes, that's right.  There’s a verb for being crazy.  When someone's talking Quatsch, you might tell them that they're "spinning".  It’s kind of like saying that they're trippin'.  Only not quite as gangsta.

Jooo – There's a charming little habit which I like to call The German Pout.  When you ask a German a question and they want to politely consider it, rather than dismissing it outright, they round their lips into a little pout.  Thus a thoughtful "ja…" becomes something more like "jooo…"  The more uncertain they are about the question, the further they will pout their lips as they mull it over.  Sometimes they even smack their lips a bit, as if they’re tasting the idea.  I’m not even joking here.

Hübsch – Pretty, cute, lovely, handsome… basically, very good-looking.  If a German comments "Hübsch" on your facebook photo, you should take it as a real compliment.

Dutzen – As in many languages, German has a formal and informal version of the word "you".  "Sie" is for older people, strangers, or authority figures.  "Du" is for younger people or friends.  So when your friendship with someone reaches a new level, they might tell you that you can "dutzen" them.  In other words, you may now address them with the less formal "du".

Natürlich – Naturally, of course.  This word can be used in a friendly way.  "Can I sit here?"  "Why yes, natürlich!"  It can also be used in a condescending way, as in "duh, that should be obvious."  "Is this your seat?"  "Ja, natürlich."

Gar – Another qualifying word, similar to "total".  Used to really emphasise a statement.  I know a certain conductor who, when he gets frustrated, likes to burst out with "das geht aber gar nicht!"  The closest English translation I can find for this is "that will never do at all!"  But somehow that doesn't sound quite as strong or angry as the German equivalent.

Bummeln – Tell me I'm not the only one who giggles upon hearing this word!  To "bummeln" is to hang around and do nothing in particular.  It might also mean wandering around and window-shopping.  It's sort of like the English word "loitering", but I find it much more evocative.  It just sounds so lazy.  It makes me think of "bumming around" in my comfiest pair of sweatpants and a baggy old hoodie.

Yeah, this is the life...

The more I learn this language, the more I discover delicious words like these ones.  German is just full of irresistable linguistic gems.  So be sure to look out for my next installment of "speaking like a German" - it should be out within a couple of months...

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

On dealing with uncertainty...

Good things come to those who wait.  A nice little saying, and probably true.  But how does one go about waiting in the first place?

As a freelance singer, I do an awful lot of waiting.  Waiting to go onstage, waiting to catch a train, waiting to sing an audition.  But the hardest kind of waiting is the kind that comes after the audition or application submission.  What will the verdict be?  Is it a yes?  Is it a no?  Will I even get a response at all?

We the jury find the defendant to be guilty of good singing.

On shows like American Idol and The Voice, the audience gets to watch a performance and then immediately see the judges’ response.  This is an entertaining way to present auditions to the public.  But it doesn't work that way in the real music industry.  Most auditions don't provide instant feedback.  Usually it's just a “thank you for coming” and a “we'll let you know.”  Audition panels have spent a lot of time practising their niceties and their poker faces.  So you often leave the audition without an inkling of how well you did.  All that's left is to go home and wait.

It's all very anticlimactic.  You dedicate hours upon hours to perfecting your audition repertoire.  You carefully research new opportunities suitable for your level and background.  You invest in making a good-quality recording.  You read and re-read your CV about a thousand times to check for mistakes.  And after all that work, it's over in a matter of minutes.  You click “send”, or you sing a ten-minute audition, and that's it.

Sometimes I sing an audition and then promptly forget about it.  I have so many other things to think about that I don't have time to worry.  I might remember it every once and a while, and say absently, “oh I still haven't heard back from so-and-so.”  But it doesn't take over my life.  It doesn't consume me.

The real danger comes when I hit a dry spell, and I seem to have all the time in the world to fret and deliberate about an impending response.

Wishing, and hoping, and thinking, and praying...

The sight of an empty calendar is terrifying for a freelancer.  Unless you have savings to fall back on, it can spell danger.  It’s hard not to worry about empty weeks or months that lie ahead.  Even when the next few months are full, if you look far enough ahead you might still see that horrible blankness.  And you can't help but wonder, what if it never gets filled up?

And what do you do about those blank spaces?  Do you wait and hope that something comes up?  Do you start looking for a day job to pay the bills?  And what if you get a day job, only to be offered some singing work at the last minute?  What if the day job prevents you from travelling to important auditions, or sucks up all of your precious practising time?  There are so many uncertainties to consider.


Every freelancer deals with these blank spaces in the calendar.  They might feel confident that more work will come.  They might even be accustomed to the normal rhythm of their work cycle: they know when to expect dry spells, and they plan ahead for them.  But even a veteran freelancer can be caught unawares by a dry spell.  Perhaps you know companies who employ you regularly, but that doesn't mean you can count on their loyalty.  Someone new might do a fantastic audition and bump you down to a lower spot on the list.  A new director might decide you're not right for the role after all.  Nothing is certain until a contract has been signed.  Sometimes a company decides they have to trim the fat – and it turns out that the fat includes you.

The only certainty in a freelancer's life is uncertainty.  Our work lies in a precarious place, forever yo-yoing between boom and bust.  Sometimes we're insanely busy, and other times the phone refuses to ring.  You never know when you'll be left at home, twiddling your thumbs and worrying about the future.

And so it’s times like this that I struggle.  My whole occupation, my entire life’s meaning, seems to be based on waiting.  Practising, sending out CVs, and waiting.  I don't feel like a singer at all – I feel like a professional waiter.

No, not that kind.

Most people will give some idea of how long you have to wait.  We'll contact you next week, they'll say.  We'll write to you by Smarch 11th.  

Lousy Smarch weather...

But often these promises mean nothing.  And you'll get a letter several weeks down the line, with an apology and a reference to the “great number of applicants.”

Some people – the very worst if you ask me – don't even respond at all.  Not only are they rejecting you, but they can't even be bothered taking the time to write you a letter to let you know.

All in all, the whole thing leaves you feeling rather powerless.  There are so many factors which are out of your control.  The number of other applicants, and the standard of their singing.  The personal taste of the conductor.  The economics of the business.  The internal politics of the company.  The artistic vision of the director.  It feels like you're a puppet being pulled around, at the mercy of everyone else's whims.

Dance, puppet, dance!

But a lot of these things are also out of the company's control.  They can't control which funders make cuts or bail out completely.  They can't control how competitive the industry has become.  Sure, maybe they haven't had the courtesy to write a rejection letter.  But it's probably because they've been completely overwhelmed with applications, and can barely keep their heads above water.  It’s important to remember that like you, the other side is only human.

So rather than pointing fingers at anyone else, it's important to remember the things which you can control.  You may not be able to control who buys your “product”, but you can work hard to make sure it's a the very best product you can offer.  Invest in good lessons and coachings, and dedicate your time to efficient, focused practice.  Study suitable roles for your voice.  Stay in good physical shape by working out regularly.  Take acting lessons, or dancing lessons.  Attend performances of artists your admire.

And be proactive.  Seek out as many opportunities as possible.  Do your research online and through word of mouth.  Make useful contacts.  Always keep your ear to the ground for upcoming auditions.  Remember, the more seeds you plant, the more likely you are to have a harvest.  So increase your odds and get planting!

You never know which seeds might sprout.

Once that’s all been said and done, it's out of your hands.  You can give the best audition possible and still not get the part.  It could be the panel doesn't like the way you ornament your Handel aria, or they want you to be shorter than the leading tenor.  Or – brace yourself – it could be that they just don’t like you.

Finally, try to embrace the dry spells when they do come.  You can always find a positive way to use this time.  Maybe nobody is offering you work on a silver platter, but that doesn't mean you can't make work for yourself.  Try organising a recital with friends, or even starting a new ensemble.  I've been using my empty time in the last couple of months to take a German course.  Now my German is at a higher level - and I know that will be a huge asset when searching for work.  Dry spells don't have to be so scary.  They can be an exciting challenge, a catalyst for change.  They encourage us to be creative and find new ways to invest in our future.

The fact is that a lot of this business is out of our control.  It's a combination of politics, economics, personal taste and luck.  For our part, the best we can do is to persevere.  Keep working on our craft, and improve our odds by sending out more applications.  And keep the faith, as difficult as that may be.  Because you never know what the universe might have in store for you next.