Tuesday, 29 April 2014

On finding a balance...

Nothing in music school can prepare you for the transition from student to freelancer.  If life were fair, it would just be another step on an even, well-balanced staircase.  But instead it's a giant leap away – worlds apart from student life.

Student life can be stressful, but it does offer a safe kind of consistency.  You stay in the same city.  You have lessons every week with the same teacher.  You hang out with the same social groups.  You go to the same cafes and bars.  Freelancing is a whole other story.

Freelancing means a life of inconsistency, a life of highs and lows – and not just the highs and lows of your work, but the emotional highs and lows that come along with it.  It's often a business of feast and famine.  You have to take the work when and where it comes.  So you can find yourself yo-yoing between very busy periods and very quiet periods.  How do you navigate these two extremes?  How do you avoid letting them drive you crazy?

It can really throw you for a loop!

Personally, I find it difficult not to be emotionally affected by all this back-and-forth.  When I'm busy, I tend to get overwhelmed or stressed.  And when I have those long bouts of empty time, I get a bit lethargic and depressed.  Now I'm beginning to learn some strategies to deal with this, and to find some balance in my energy and mood.

When the freelancing life seems chaotic, it's important to find some consistency wherever you can.  This could mean practising in the same place, or going to the gym every day.  It's helpful to have some structure in your schedule when everything else is so open-ended.  A lot of freelancers are devoted to their daily gym visit for just this reason.  It also gives you a nice sense of accomplishment.  I may not have done much today, but at least I went to the gym!

It's also important to be mindful of how you spend your "quiet time" between gigs.  Naturally, you'll be inclined to see this as a rest period.  And that's fair enough.  Nobody is built like the Energizer Bunny – we all need to recharge ever now and then.  After a long stint of work you need some time to recover and take care of yourself.  This kind of downtime is important if you want to avoid burnout.

Unlike this guy, you can't just keep going and going and going...

When I'm between work, I try to take advantage of the time by getting lots of sleep, exercise, and healthy home-cooked meals.  It's harder to control my diet and exercise when I'm on the road, so when I'm at home I try to be extra healthy to compensate.  After all, my body is my livelihood.  It's important to keep it in good shape!

But just because you're resting doesn't mean you should fritter away all of your time between gigs.  Your quiet periods should also be used productively.  The more you can get done when things are quiet, the less you'll feel overwhelmed when things are busy.  So use this time to schedule things down to a T, organise yourself as much as possible, and take care of all those annoying errands and administrative tasks which have been nagging at the back of your mind.  Trust me, when you're on the road and too tired to think straight, you'll be glad you've already sorted that stuff out.

It's important to find balance in your social life too.  When I'm on the road, it's tempting to treat the tour like one big party.  I'm surrounded by nice colleagues who I see only rarely.  So of course I want to head to the pub!  It's a great way to blow off steam after a long rehearsal, or to come down after an adrenaline-pumped performance.  But you can have too much of a good thing.  If I go out every night, I know I'll be in pretty rough shape by the end of the tour.  So I'm learning to be boring sometimes, and go to bed early.  My friends might call me an old grandma, but it's worth it to look out for my health.

And to make progress on my knitting.

On the flip side, when I'm between gigs, I tend to go into shut-in mode.  I hole myself up with my admin work and my scores, and nobody hears from me for days.  This is just as unhealthy as going to the pub every night. 

I don't quite get to this point though.

I'm learning now that it's important not to let myself get isolated.  Reach out to friends – especially those who understand the challenges of your freelance lifestyle.  We all have a tendency to put on a brave face.  This is a competitive industry, and it leaves a lot of us feeling insecure.  So we hold our cards close to our chest, and we pretend to each other that everything is fine.  No time to chat thanks, I'm very busy and important.  What is the point of acting like that?  Just swallow your pride and call a friend.  You'll be surprised to hear that they're dealing with a lot of the same things.  And if you're willing to open up, they'll be able to offer you some much needed sympathy and perspective.  I've found some freelancer friends I can really trust, and they're worth their weight in gold.  When I feel myself going into shut-in mode, I try to get in touch with them and see if they want to meet up.  This can be a lonely profession if you let it.  So it's important to nurture your friendships.

Above all, it's important to stay positive.  Appreciate the small things in life.  If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I've recently started the 100 Happy Days Challenge.  The idea is that you try to be "happy" for 100 days in a row.  That is to say, for 100 days you take a picture of something that makes you happy.  This challenge is not just designed to annoy people on social media – it's supposed to help you appreciate your day-to-day life more.  When I first read about this challenge, I was at the end of a long month on the road, and feeling pretty run down.  Hmm, I thought to myself.  I could use a bit more happy in my life.  And sure enough, I've already noticed a difference in my outlook on life.  Not only am I starting to appreciate small things more, like a cup of tea or a bit of sunshine, but I'm actively seeking out things that will help me feel good.  Whether it's going for a walk or getting coffee with a friend, I know that I'll need something for today's photo.  So there’s no excuse to keep moping around in my pyjamas.

Pyjamas *can* make you happy though.
Just ask these guys.

Freelancing can feel like quite the rollercoaster.  But don't just let yourself be taken for the ride.  Be aware of the highs and lows, and balance them out wherever you can.  Find ways to relax when you're busy, and keep your energy up when you're not.  In the end, you're the only person who knows how to take good care of yourself.  So go ahead, show that rollercoaster who's boss.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

On learning your limits...

This blog is all about taking risks.  That’s why I chose to name it "Diva on a Dare".  Quitting my job, moving country, starting out as a freelancer – these are all big risks which I've taken.  I think risk-taking is important – it pushes your boundaries and forces you to learn a lot about who you are.  And sometimes, if you're lucky, it pays off.  As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

But is taking a risk always the smart thing to do?  What happens when you risk too much?  After all, there's a fine line between being brave and being stupid.  Sometimes we can dare too far.

Last week I made a big risk which I deeply regret.  I thought I was doing what I should.  I thought I was leaping at a chance.  But instead I fell flat on my face.


It all began when I was invited to audition for an agent in Vienna.  A director from the opera studio in Ghent had recommended me to him, so he contacted me and asked if I could come and sing for him.  I was delighted at the prospect.  Usually agents don't ask me to audition – in fact I often have to beg them for the privilege.  So this was a great opportunity, especially since I had the "boost" of a recommendation behind me.

At the time I received the invitation, I was working in Lübeck.  I was in the middle of an intensive month of work – singing and travelling for four weeks straight.  The audition was to take place at the end of this month – the day after I finished my last concert in Stuttgart.  I would almost certainly be exhausted.  But I didn't think about that.  All I could see in front of me was an amazing opportunity.  Chances like this didn't come along every day.  I had to go for it!  No matter what the cost, no matter how crazy the trip, I had to be at that audition!  So I went straight to my computer and booked my flights to Vienna.

Full steam ahead!

As I reached my fourth and final week of travelling, I began to have some qualms about the audition.  I was extremely tired, both physically and vocally.  I had missed a few nights of sleep, and I had sung to the point of exhaustion for several days in a row.  Would I still be able to make a good audition?

My anxiety grew as the big day approached.  I tried to be "good" – going to bed early, avoiding alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and taking multivitamins.  I also tried to fit in some practice sessions in between rehearsals, when I was feeling up to it.  But despite my best efforts, there was no denying it: my voice was worn ragged.

Finally, the audition day arrived.  I had to wake up at 4am to get to the airport and catch my 6:30am flight.  And this was the morning after a concert, remember.  I knew I was being completely insane, but I thought I had to do this.  Chances like this don't come along every day, I reminded myself.  And besides, I had already bought the (rather expensive) flights.  I couldn't let that money go to waste!

I arrived at the airport feeling woozy.  I had managed to sneak in a few snoozes on the plane (security announcements?  Who still listens to those?) but it wasn't nearly enough.  After getting breakfast and changing into my audition dress, I went to the luggage storage to leave behind my giant suitcase and heavy backpack.  This way I would only need to take my handbag with me, along with the folder where I keep all my audition music.

I got to the audition and spent some time in the warm-up room trying to get my voice to function.  It didn't sound great, but I plowed ahead regardless.  It would work out, I told myself.  Somehow the adrenaline would carry me through.  Before I knew it, it was time to go into the hallway and wait for my turn to sing.

It was at this point that I finally looked in the folder to get out my audition scores.  And the horror set in.

I didn't have my audition scores.  I had left them in my backpack at the airport.

The horror.  The horror.

Needless to say, it was an extremely embarrassing situation.

Of course I had to confess what had happened to the panel, and they were extremely nice about it. They said they'd see if they had any of the scores I needed. Luckily (or not so luckily) they had my Rossini. So I sang that... and it was a complete mess.  My voice was clearly wrecked. I was cracking all over the place like a pre-pubescent boy.

At this point I was at a complete loss.  I had never sung so badly in an audition.  But for some reason (probably to be nice) they asked what else I had.  Thinking I could still save face, I piped up and said I had done a St John's Passion recently and I had the score with me.  The panel agreed that would be nice to hear.

There was one small problem: my score was a full orchestral score, not a piano-vocal score. The pianist was not impressed. I told him to just play the bass line, which he did.  Big mistake.  I was used to listening to the viola de gamba solo, not to the bass line.  So I had no idea where we were.  The Bach turned into an even bigger mess than the Rossini.

This sign should have been posted outside my audition.

I kept waiting to wake up.  Surely this was a nightmare, and I would wake up safe and sound in my bed in Cologne.  But as surreal as it felt, this was no dream.  This was actually happening.

When I got out of the audition, it felt like the end of the world.  I'd had my big chance, and I blew it.  Big time.  I’d wasted a lot of money on plane fare and made a complete fool of myself.

Now that I've had some time to think, however, I realise that the trip was not a complete waste.  In fact I learned an important lesson from it.

In retrospect, it's obvious that I should have cancelled the audition.  But I was so blinded by my own hubris, by my own ambition, that I couldn't see how I was setting myself up for a fall.

Ambition is great.  Pushing your boundaries is great.  But nobody is superhuman.  We all have our limits.

Life is like a big game of Texas Hold 'em.  There's a time to take risks, and there's a time to be realistic.  I guess eventually you get better at the game, and you learn to recognise when you shouldn't take a gamble.

You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run...

And here's the important part: there’s nothing wrong with choosing not to gamble.  It doesn't make you any less brave.  You see, I was wrong about courage.  Courage isn't just about flying in the face of danger.  Courage isn't just about taking risks all the time, no matter how stupid they are.  It's more complicated than that.  Sometimes courage means knowing yourself and doing the right thing.  Sometimes courage means swallowing your pride and admitting "I can't".

And so I will continue to push my boundaries.  I will continue to dare.  But next time, perhaps, I'll remember to look before I leap.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

On German food...

Like most people, I love to eat.  In fact it's one of my greatest joys in life.  When it comes to food, Germany does some things really well, and some things not so well.  I have found some new favourite dishes here, but I've also encountered things which I can't understand anyone enjoying.

It's always nice to end on a positive note, so I'm going to start with the things I just don't get about German cuisine...

1. Fizzy Water

When is water not water?  When you're in Germany, apparently.  Germans don't really drink what I consider to be normal water.  Instead they consume this disgusting fizzy, sour stuff called Sprudelwasser.  Supposedly it's really good for you, but I just think it's gross.  It tastes weird, it doesn't quench my thirst, and it makes me feel all burpy.  People keep telling me that I'll get used to it.  Well, I've been here for almost a year now, and I haven't gotten used to it.  And I'm not alone - if you ask most people, they'll tell you they prefer normal, still, un-mineralised water.  You know, pure H2O.  The way it's meant to be.  I'm pretty sure drinking fizzy water is a specifically German quirk.  A while ago I was staying in Lübeck with singers from around the world, and we were provided with a choice of still or fizzy water.  Guess which water bottles ran out first?  Most of us (except the Germans) drank still water.  By the end we had nothing but fizzy water left to drink, and there was a lot of grumbling about it.  Now, you can get rid of the bubbles by repeatedly shaking the bottle and undoing the cap to release the gas.  But even when you've "de-bubbled" a bottle of fizzy water, that weird sour taste is still there.  It's horrible.  I don't understand why anyone would drink the stuff voluntarily.

Ugh... why??

2. Vegetarian Options (or lack thereof)

Ok, so it's probably harder to be a vegetarian in a place like, say, China.  But here in the land of sausage and schnitzel, the options for a vegetarian are severely limited.  If I am doing my own shopping and cooking, I don't have too many problems - although I must say, chickpeas are unreasonably difficult to find.

Seriously - most supermarkets don't even know what they are.

But if I'm travelling - as I usually am - and eating at restaurants and hotels, things can look get pretty bleak.  No matter how many exciting varieties of cheese and bread there might be, at the end of the day it is just cheese and bread.  It gets pretty boring after a while.

3. Marzipan

Now, some people out there adore marzipan.  And to those people I say... WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU???  For the uninitiated, marzipan is a type of "candy" epidemic to German sweet shops.  It is a paste made of sugar and almond meal.  Mmmm, almond meal.  Doesn't that sound like a treat to give your children?  How this grainy sickening substance ever got labelled as delicious candy is anyone's guess.  But the Germans are extremely proud of it, and love to bestow it as gifts to unsuspecting tourists and hotel guests.  The worst part is, it looks like something that will taste really exciting.  It's always whimsically molded and coloured to look like cute little animals or pieces of fruit.  Or it's covered in chocolate (presumably to try to mask the horrible marzipan taste).  But don't believe the confectioner's lies.  Marzipan is NOT delicious.  At best - and I mean, at the very best - it is tolerable.  The only time I've ever eaten marzipan was when I was jet-lagged and wide awake in a hotel.  It was 3:30 in the morning and I was starving, and there was nothing else to eat.  If I weren't a vegetarian, I might have considered gnawing off my left arm.  But instead I chose to choke down the hotel's "gift" of marzipan.  It was a true act of desperation.

Trust me - it doesn't taste as adorable as it looks.

4. Pudding

I don't hate pudding.  It's a fairly innocuous substance.  You know, the kind of thing you eat in the hospital when you've just had your tonsils out and you're too ill to chew.  But it's not something I would choose to eat for dessert.  I mean, it's just so unsatisfying.  There's nothing to do with it.  Nothing to sink your teeth into.  All you do is put it in your mouth and swallow.  And it's all so samey.  No variety in thickness, taste, or texture.  I mean really, what's the point?  This is why I find myself rolling my eyes when, for the umpteenth time, a German Mensa serves nothing but a variety of puddings for dessert.  It feels like such a cop-out.  I mean, whatever happened to a nice piece of cake?


5. Sundays

I know I harp on about this one a lot, but Sundays in German can be majorly depressing.  It's fine if you're at home and you can plan ahead by shopping on Saturday.  But if you're travelling and living out of a hotel, it's almost impossible to find a restaurant that's open for dinner on a Sunday.  Basically, your options are limited to Chinese food or a kebab.  I can't tell you how many times the Turkish have saved me from starvation on a Sunday night!

Whew.  That was a bit of a downer.  Let's move on to the positives.  Here's the good things about German food...

1. The Bread

Soooo good...

If there's one thing the Germans do right, it's bread  There's always a bakery around the corner offering a delicious variety of bread and rolls.  It's normal to start the day with a little walk to the bakery to fetch some fresh Brötchen.  And you can forget about choosing between boring old brown or white bread.  In Germany there are so many beautiful kinds to choose from: walnut, pumpkinseed, sesame... Some of them are so good that you don't even need to put anything on them.  Going gluten-free?  That's ok too.  Most bakeries make a tasty loaf of Dinkelbrot.

2. The Chocolate

As a dedicated chocoholic, this is the most important point for me.  I could never be happy in a country that doesn't have good chocolate.  Luckily, Germany offers a wide variety of delicious high-quality chocolate - and for a very reasonable price.  I have lived in Belgium, allegedly the world's chocolate capital.  But I have to say that I like German chocolate better.  My personal favourite is a Peppermint Ritter Sport.  I could polish one of those off in a matter of minutes.

The Best

3. Breakfast

Germans know how to enjoy their breakfast.  None of this nonsense of rushing off with a cup of coffee and a doughnut - in Germany breakfast is a lengthy affair, meant to be lingered over and savoured in full.  It is, after all, the most important meal in the day.  A typical German breakfast might include fresh Brötchen from the bakery with a selection of jams, cheeses and cold cuts, smoked fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, yoghurt, muesli, eggs, bacon... and that's on top of your coffee or tea.  It's usually a formal sit-down meal (especially with older-generation Germans), so that you have plenty of time to sit down and chat with your family/roommates/colleagues/whathaveyou as you enjoy your morning feast.  It's a really lovely way to start the day.


4. Restaurant Bills

You know when you're eating out with friends, and the waiter makes a big fuss about it when you ask to separate the bill?  Well this doesn't happen in Germany.  Does. Not. Happen.  Separating the bill is totally normal and expected behaviour.  They simply ask you zusammen oder getrennt?  And if you answer getrennt, they add up the cost of your food on the spot.  No fuss, no drama.  This is the way customer service should be.

5. Käsespätzle

Pure deliciousness.

My favourite treat when I'm in Stuttgart is a nice big plate of Käsespätzle.  It's one of the few traditional Schwäbisch dishes which I can enjoy as a vegetarian.  Käsespätzle is a rich, eggy kind of noodle made with a creamy cheese sauce.  Most places will top it with caramelised onions, which makes for a mouth-watering combination.  Extremely hearty and delicious, especially when washed down with a mug of beer.  It's like mac n' cheese - pimped out.  It's the ultimate comfort food.

Well, there you go - the highlights and lowlights of German cuisine.  Of course, these are just my opinions.  The best way to figure out what you like is to try it for yourself.  Guten Appetit!