Monday, 20 October 2014

On finding clarity...

It's been a while now since I moved to Cologne, and dare I say it, I'm starting to feel pretty settled.  I have a flat here with my boyfriend.  A real flat, with our own lease and our own furniture and our own names on the mailbox (trust me, this is exciting).  I have teachers and coaches who I enjoy working with regularly.  I have some employment – enough to pay the rent, at least.  I have a gym.  I have a phone plan.  I even have a favourite cafĂ©.

But something is missing.

Since moving to Germany, I've thrown myself wantonly upon the local music scene.  I've auditioned for anything and everything.  Agents, conductors, opera choruses, professional choirs and ensembles… you name it.  Some of these auditions were fruitful, some were ok, and some were downright disheartening.  But auditioning is an expensive and exhausting venture.  I can't keep on auditioning for everything like this – it's like shooting in the dark.  I need to start making smart decisions.  I need to find a focus.

And herein lies the difficulty.  What kind of career do I actually want?


I've reached an important turning point.  I can't go any further forward before I decide which direction I want to pursue.  Right now I'm making a living out of professional choir work, with occasional solo gigs.  If I follow this path to its logical conclusion, I will be aiming for a full-time choir job – possibly supplemented with some solo concert work.  And yet… I went to an opera studio.  I've always been aiming for a solo career in opera as well as oratorio.  Can I really just abandon this idea of myself as an opera singer?

If I do indeed want to keep pursuing opera, I need to work on a completely different skill set than the one I'm currently using.  And I need to start learning important "staple" roles for my fach – an area where I'm way behind compared to other singers my age.  On the other hand, if I'm happy with my current career path, I should be focusing on concert repertoire, auditioning for high-level ensembles and radio choirs, and pursuing solo concert work within the local church music scene.  So the question presents itself: should I be trying to re-model myself and push for the opera career?  Or should I accept that I'm a concert singer, and make the best of these talents and skills?

I've hit a real fork in the road.

It's a big question, and the answer will have repercussions on many other important decisions.  Who I choose to audition for.  How I write my biography and CV.  The way I present myself to potential employers and colleagues.

There are other considerations as well.  It's not just about what I want, or what I’m good at.  What would actually make me happy?  What kind of lifestyle do I want?  How much travelling do I want to do?  Do I want marriage, a home, children?  How much would I be willing to sacrifice in the name of professional success?

What people don't tell you is, the answers to these questions tend to change over time.  When I was younger, I thought the only thing I wanted was the career.  But as I've gotten older and done a lot of travelling, my values and priorities have changed.  Now I know I want to get married.  I want to have a home.  I want to have children someday, maybe even a dog.  And I want to be home enough to enjoy all of that.

Especially the dog.  Obviously he will be a Bernese Mountain Dog.

Choosing a career path is a difficult and loaded question for any young singer.  Attached to the word "career" is a huge amount of emotional baggage.  There are of course your own dreams, aspirations, and hopes for the future.  But on top of that there are the ideas of your parents, your peers, your partner, your teachers and mentors.  How do you separate all of this out?  How do you figure out what you actually want?  What you need, what you're good at, and what will ultimately make you happy?

The problem is, we singers tend to care an awful lot about what other people think.  We live for approval and applause.  It's a dangerous way to live.  We often find our own ambitions obscured by the ambitions of others.  The greatest obstacle in finding what you want is the idea of what other people think you should want.

I did my undergrad at a music school where opera was placed at the top of the singing food chain.  Every singer was supposed to want an opera career more than anything else.  Only the best singers were groomed for a solo opera career – any other type of singing was considered somehow inferior.  This was never explicitly stated of course.  But that was because it was so obvious it didn't need saying.

....but shh, don't say it out loud."

I remember one evening in my undergrad, speaking to a choir director who had taken a liking to me.  She asked me what my plans for the future were.  I proudly told her that I wanted to sing in the opera chorus and eventually get into the opera school.  She was disappointed by my answer.  "I always lose my best singers to the opera chorus," she lamented, "I don’t understand why".

I remember later recounting this to my friends, and scoffing at her reaction.  Of course she lost her best singers to the opera chorus.  Opera was simply the best, the highest level of singing.  Everyone knew that!

Fast forward to the present, and I still find myself weighed down by this value system – a value system which other people have imposed upon me.  And I find myself judging opera work as somehow better than concert work.  Even when I succeed as a concert singer, I find myself apologising for my accomplishments.  It's "only" a concert, I say.  It's "only" choir work.

"Oh, you know... just a litlle ol' concert somewhere..."

When I learn opera arias and audition for opera agents, I'm never sure if I'm living out someone else's plans for my future.  How do I know if this is really something I want?  How do I know it's not what someone else has told me to want?

On the other hand, much as I love the concert repertoire, much as I enjoy making music with other singers in a choir, I can't help but feel this is the path of least resistance.  I've always been naturally good at concert singing, whereas opera stretches me and pushes me out of my comfort zone.  If I choose to pursue a concert career, am I choosing not to change and grow as a person?  Am I playing it safe?

A few weeks ago, overwhelmed, I wrote a long email to my teacher.  I detailed all of these doubts and conflicting emotions, and asked him what he thought I should do.

His answer was brief but illuminating.  "Read your email again," he said.  "Look at your own words – it's obvious what you want to do."

And he was right.  When I wrote about concert work, my words were passionate and heartfelt.  When I wrote about opera, my words were clinical and ambivalent.

Opera is an amazing art form, full of amazing music.  I know a lot of people who are truly passionate about it, who want to throw their heart and soul into it.  The thing is, I'm not one of them.

It's incredible that it's taken me so long to realise this.  In fact, if I'm being honest, I think I've known it for quite a while.  I just wasn't ready to accept it.  I was so caught up in seeking approval, in fearing judgement, in looking sideways at other singers' accomplishments, that I couldn't recognise my own truth.

The truth is that I love to make music with other people.  The truth is that I get a buzz out of sitting down and doing detailed, nuanced musical work.  The truth is that I feel way more comfortable and confident on the concert stage than I ever would on an opera stage.  And it's time to stop denying who I am.

Once I realised this, a wave of relief flooded over me.  It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  The weight of other people's beliefs and expectations.  The weight of thinking I should be at an opera house, or I should be getting an agent.  The weight of pursuing someone else's definition of "success".

And everything clicked into place.  Suddenly it was clear exactly what I needed to do.  Which repertoire to sing, and who to sing it for.  Everything made sense like it never had before.

Finally - the right path for me!

Finding clarity can be hard.  Sometimes you can't hear your own heart's desire over the noise of everyone else's.  But once you find the path that's right for you, trust me – you'll feel the difference.  And then there's no looking back.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

On happiness...

Whenever I go home to visit my family, I find myself taking stock of my current situation.  I reflect on my decision to move to Germany, and the life I've built for myself there.  And the same question keeps coming back to me.

Am I happy?

It's a funny thing, this word "happy".  We're all taught that it's something we should want.  The Americans even go so far as to put it in their Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Happiness is something we chase, covet, and put on display.  But what is happiness, really?

A few months ago I joined this online project called 100 Happy Days.  The idea is that for 100 days, you post a picture every day of what makes you happy.  People who've participated in this project say that it's helped them to feel joy and gratitude in their life.  To appreciate the little things.  To notice the things they were taking for granted.  Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

When I started 100 happy days, I was in a bit of a funk.  The freelance lifestyle was really grinding me down.  I was tired, frustrated, and burnt out.  I thought something like this might improve my day-to-day life.  Maybe it would help me feel better about the world and myself.

And at first, it did.  Having to choose something positive in every day can really change your outlook on things.  I noticed things like sunshine and good cups of coffee.  I felt grateful for cute dogs and long walks.


It didn't just change my outlook – it changed my whole approach to life.  You see, these days my life seems to take on a sort of all-or-nothing approach.  When I'm on a project, I work and socialise very intensely.  But when I'm at home between projects, I become something of a recluse.  I sit at home drinking tea and watching terrible German television.  Of course, a bit of rest is necessary after long weeks of travelling and singing.  But then that bit of rest always tends to drag out a little too long.  And before I know it, my time at home becomes a long string of "nothing" days.  I do nothing special or nice.  I do nothing memorable or worthy of notice.  I get up, I practise, and I rinse and repeat.  And the time ticks away, meaninglessly.

Once I started 100 happy days, I couldn't have any more nothing days like that.  Every day I had to take a photo of something that made the day special.  And there are only so many photos you can take of the television screen, or your favourite pair of slippers.  So I had to get out there in the world.  I had to be kind to myself, and seek things that made me feel good.

All in all, the project seemed to be good for me.  I was appreciating little things, and finding little things to appreciate.  Surely that would make me feel happy, right?  If I kept looking for happy things, and pointing out happy things, then I must, by default, feel happy myself.

The only problem was, I wasn't happy.  At the time, I was frustrated with my career, which seemed to be going nowhere fast.  I was putting in long tedious hours of rehearsal for very little money.  And I had crippling back pain which just wouldn't go away.

At first I thought putting a smile on things would help.  Finding something to be "happy" about, even though I wasn't able to walk that day.  Isn't that the kind of stuff motivational posters are made of?

[Insert cheesy you-can-do-it quote here]

But it didn't help.  In fact it seemed to make things worse.  On days where I was feeling miserable, the last thing that I needed was a reminder that I was "supposed" to feel happy.  The 100 happy days project began to feel like a guilt trip.  Look at this wonderful thing – shouldn't it make me feel good?  Shouldn't it make me feel thankful?  How could I possibly stay unhappy despite its existence?

The answer, it seemed, was that I must be ungrateful.  I must be spoiled.  What kind of miserable person would refuse to feel happy in a world full of sunshine and kittens?  Surely I had to look on the bright side.  Surely I had to see the good in everything.

And so this project – which was supposed to help me enjoy my life – became a burden.  It was an annoying daily chore.  I resented it.  I dreaded it, the way I used to dread doing my math homework in school.

And yet I kept pushing myself to do it, every single day.  Why?

Like many people in our society, I was obsessed with the idea of happiness.  I believed in positivity and "looking on the bright side".  And I felt an immense pressure to present a smiling face to the world at all times.

"I'm... so... happy!"

After all, nobody wants to hear about unhappiness.  Nobody wants to hear why your life sucks.  Why would I unload that kind of emotional baggage onto other people?  People like to hear about the funny things, the exciting things, the enjoyable things.  They certainly don't want to hear about doubts, anxieties, frustration, sadness, anger, or loneliness.  I felt I owed it to the world to stay bright and cheerful.  To avoid polluting the air with my discontent.

And of course, there was an element of pride in there too.  If I admitted I was unhappy, it meant I was weak.  It meant I was a failure.  I had taken big risks moving away from home and pursuing a singing career.  And I so wanted to prove to others that I was right.  I wanted to be a success story.  I wanted to show that the risks I'd taken had been worth it.

Like many people, I often used social media to present a skewed, overly-positive version of my life.  And in return, I saw skewed versions of my friends' lives.  I felt a need to measure up, to show off, and to out-happy them.

The crazy thing is, for the longest time I thought this was healthy.  I thought that positivity and optimism, in any measure, at any cost, had to be good.  And if I just kept "looking on the bright side", my life would improve.  I could make myself feel happy.

"Always look on the bright side of life..."

It took me a long time to understand that I was playing a game of deception.  This kind of relentless "positivity" was not good for me.  It was a toxic lie which I was trying to sell to myself and others.  And dishonesty is never healthy for anyone.

The truth is, not all days are going to be happy ones.  Some will be good, some will be bad, and some will just be "meh".  And that’s the way it's meant to be.

Can you imagine if every day was wonderful?  It would get pretty boring after a while.  In fact, it wouldn't feel wonderful at all, because you wouldn't have any point of comparison.  You can't appreciate happiness if it's the only emotion you ever feel.  It would be like living in a world where the only colour is yellow.

"...Dave..?  Is that you...?"

Instead of holding every day to some impossible standard of "happiness", why can't we just accept where we are at the given moment?  Maybe you're feeling a bit sad right now.  That's ok.  You're also allowed to feel angry if you like.  Sometimes life really does suck.  And it's important to let yourself feel that, just like it's important to let yourself enjoy life when it's good.

At some point, the 100 happy days project fell by the wayside.  Party because I didn't have internet in my new apartment, and it was too much hassle to post every day.  But also, it didn't sit right with me anymore.  I didn't want to force myself to feel one emotion all the time.

The strange thing is, once I stopped being so self-conscious about being happy, I felt happy a lot more.  I still had my ups and downs.  And some days still passed by with nothing really special happening.  But when the good times came, I really enjoyed them.  And when the bad times came, I didn't worry that I wasn't enjoying them.  I let them pass over me.  I let myself feel what I was feeling.  And everything was ok.

What is happiness?  It's what happens to you when you stop trying to chase it.  The minute you start wondering "am I happy?", you can pretty much guarantee that you won't be.  Happiness isn't meant to be pursued, or examined, or gripped onto.  It's something that arrives without warning and leaves just as unexpectedly.

Happiness: the ultimate ninja.

It's been over a year now since I moved to Germany.  And yes, I am happy.  I'm also sad, angry, confused, pensive, anxious, and many other things on top of that.  And you know what?  I think that's ok.