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.


  1. You absolutely have my sympathies! There are so few opportunities at the moment, it's even more difficult than it was to step back from an audition. Nice reminder; thanks for posting.

    And if you are ever coming through Mainz, do let me know (am on FB) and we can share a commiserative glass of wine :-)

    1. Thanks Katy! I really enjoy reading your blog so would love to meet you if I'm ever in Mainz. Likewise if you're ever in Cologne! :)

  2. Holy crap, that does sound like a nightmare :( As in I have literally dreamed exactly the same situation. I'm so glad you responded to it with such grace and wisdom.

    1. Well, the grace and wisdom took time. At first I just flipped out completely. I mean, wouldn't you? I think I met the world record for how many times you can utter the f-word in five minutes.

  3. yes, to have courage to say "no", thats most difficult thing for me too:) x, Alexey

  4. what a beautiful blog Miss Diva Brynne! <3