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 café.

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.


  1. not sure about not looking back or forward. I think it's more about staying fluid, accepting the flow of the universe and acknowledging how you feel about it, and maybe even forgiving yourself when you latched on to your unhappiness

    1. Absolutely! Acceptance and self forgiveness are key. And you know, I don't regret a single moment that I spent pursuing opera, because all of that experience has informed my performance skills and helped me grow as an artist. I really do believe the universe has a plan for us, crazy as it may often seem - everything happens for a reason.