A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Singing made me unhappy

So I’ve been out of full-time education for over a year now, Opera Works is a thing of the past too, and I’ve come to a realisation. For the past 3 years or so singing was making me unhappy. It had turned into a mind-game where I was trying to please everyone (my teachers, coaches, audition panels, employers, head of department, conductors, directors, etc) but getting very little return in terms of my own joy. I kept having to convince myself I was on my way to a better future, to a career as a working singer, I was paying my dues and that it was a necessary phase that would pass… But it just became the way I was. 

I would overthink everything, which wasn’t helped by all the lectures and Q&A sessions on my various courses that sold the line ‘if you do X you will be employable’. Sing this repertoire (even if you hate it, suck it up), wear this, walk like that, stand just so, shake hands with the panel (or actually never do!), do these ornaments, vibrate on every note, suck up to so and so… Follow the magical unwritten (but oft spoken of) rules and then everyone will want you. Except they don’t. All you see is people ‘doing it all wrong’ and getting what you have been striving for. To someone like me, who likes rules and patterns that order the world somehow, not being able to understand how success is achieved was frustrating and depressing. And it infected everything I love about my ‘job’. I didn’t even notice it happening (there were enough good things in my life apart from singing to keep me happy), but various recent events and circumstances have given me a ‘forced opportunity’ to assess and reevaluate my attitude as regards singing. 

The tipping point was the decision whether or not to apply to the NOS. A long time goal of mine, I have unsuccessfully auditioned for the programme twice, but also had the opportunity to closely observe friends get in and do the programme, as well as speak to alumni. I know what the programme is, how it works, what it does to and for people. I recently went in for a consultation (honestly - to assess my chances of getting in this time) and the penny dropped. I would hate this! I’ve only just gotten out of institutionalised training and started to rediscover the joy of singing for no one but myself (well, and my employers and audiences, but you know what I mean), found a really good teacher and embarked on a path of progress that is only measured against my own criteria, not anyone else’s. And here I was subjecting myself to judgement and hanging my hopes on the opinions of people who I don’t necessarily agree with half the time. That’s not to say that they’re wrong and I have a monopoly on truth, in fact they are right, but so am I. There is no one way to make it in this profession, nor is there one gospel of singing technique (even if there were only one ‘right’ way to sing, there are infinitely many ways of talking about it and assessing it). 

The half hour I spent in the studio that day was probably the most important experience in my singing life. I got positive feedback and some notes on what to improve (that I agree with wholeheartedly and am working on), but also a lot of opinion dressed up as fact, which is the way with schools and is to be expected. But I’ve been in school a very long time, and it made me unhappy when I finished my first degree, and again for the past 2-3 years… I don’t want it any more, I don’t want to go back to school*. I want to channel Sinatra and do it my way. 

Because what has taken me back from the brink of packing it in was the realisation that there is only one thing that really matters, one recipe for success, and also one goal that motivates me in a positive way because it’s mine, judged by me, and not geared towards pleasing anyone but me - get better at singing. For an over-analytical thinker like me everything else is a distraction. Rep choices don’t solve vocal problems, they can only hide them. Audition wear doesn’t get you hired, and as important as first impressions are, 'self-conscious' is not the one you want to give. So to hell with the ‘rules’, just do the one thing no one will argue with or have contradictory opinions about - get better at singing. And don’t do it for your teacher, coach, or the panel. Do it for yourself, otherwise you’ll slowly go insane and be unhappy. 

Since I made this my one rule I’ve had more success in auditions, am enjoying performing again, am able to stand up for myself in situations I would have normally stayed quiet… And I’m happy. Also, I’m hopefully getting better at singing. 


* Not that there is anything wrong with NOS, colleges, or any of the courses out there. They provide fantastic training and I owe everything I am to the courses I’ve done. But they’re not for everyone, and doing them forever doesn’t mean you keep improving, so there has to be a time when you take the step into the real world… Not that singing has anything to do with the actual real world, but that’s a rant for another day.

25 comments:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. Keep it up.
    Fliss x

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  2. Very inspiring, and one hundred percent accurate.

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  3. What a dude. I have had the similar realisation last year....singing is a job that is wildly unpredictable. My family and friends are far more important, focus on those relationships, as that's what keeps me warm at night and will do into my old age. Keep up the good work, and well done for speaking up. x

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  4. Well done - you are almost there.

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  5. I had a similar experience but I turned to teaching singing instead and absolutely love it. I now only sing when I want to and friends and I have regular singing evenings and I've rediscovered the real, pure joy of it. The result is that the singing has dramatically improved. I do feel that institutions and profession as a whole need to rethink their art form and their role in supporting and nurturing singers. Wishing you the best of luck.

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  6. Wonderfully said and very true. It's a very hard and demanding profession. I think it's great that you found your joy and love of singing again. Bravo!

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  7. This resonates with me deeply, and puts into words what I've been just sensing over the last year. Thank you!

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  8. Thanks for this great post Jan - honest and courageous. I started writing a comment, but it got out of hand and ended up as a blogpost in itself - link here https://paulcareyjones.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/happiness-of-an-incompetent-golfer/ in case you're interested. Wishing you all the very best! Paul

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  9. Sorry Jan, but we are presenting other peoples material and have obligations towards them. If there are unwritten performance rules more experienced teachers know about we have to follow them. You cannot paint a moustache over the Mona Lisa just because it makes you happy. You cannot assume you as a singer with a few years of eductation can know better than the experts with years of experience, who sometimes grew up in the culture we are merely trying to recreate. How long do you think Rembrandt's students had to learn and do you think they always liked it? Suck it up, life as a singer is tough! If you want to just have fun with no regards to the rules of our historical profession, sing pop music.

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    1. Clearly Jan is not assuming he knows better than any expert (That’s not to say that they’re wrong and I have a monopoly on truth, in fact they are right, but so am I) but is choosing the reality that there is more than "one path" when it comes to an opera singing career. His feelings are ones that will resonate with most singers.

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    2. And if you do that at the expense of being true to yourself? I don't want all tenors to sing like (insert $tenor here - Bjorling/Kaufmann/Domingo/Vanzo/whoever), I want them to sing like THEM - provided they're treating the music with respect and singing the right notes. That applies to all singers.

      Your comment seems to betray the underlying lack of self-confidence in yourself that Jan started out with, according to his article. You can only listen to so many voices telling you what to do before you meet a conflict, and the only answer to that is to be true to yourself.

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    3. Anonymous, so many people in opera - particularly the "experts" - are pretentious idiots who know very little, and most of what they do know is wrong. You certainly cannot compare this group to "Rembrandt."

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    4. So true...and they're liars...

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  10. Thank you so much for writing this. I have experienced the same pain with my piano playing. I did a BMus and at various points throughout the course I found myself feeling forced to practise rather than just itching to go play the piano. It happened more and more frequently until it finally became the norm for me to hate the piano, in my final year when it mattered the most. I got a lower overall grade because I was so painfully tense doing my final recital and while I still got a good degree overall, I'm still a bit disappointed that my hard work doesn't quite show on paper. But worst of all is the fear of the piano, a fear that I still battle with most days. I'm starting to have moments when I can relax into it and I let go of all those nonsense "rules" and just play, my hands finding their way around the keyboard far more naturally and producing better sound as a result. I feel it's going to be a long, hard road to recover from this messy brainwashing, and while I'm grateful for the colossal amount of stuff I learned in that course, I regret it for the aftermath of problems I now have to wade through to hopefully remember what it's like to experience the pure joy of playing in a way that is natural to me. I wish you the best of luck.

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  11. My concern about these comments is that they are mostly anonymous even though I can relate to a lot of them. Mine is anonymous too and the reason is people are so afraid that if their real details are disclosed, the same opera world will victimise them and they will be frozen out of work. That is a fact of life and a reality. Sad but true.

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  12. I went to New York several years ago and coached at the Met and with several area coaches. Everyone agreed that I "would definitely have a career at the highest levels" and I walked away from it. They were totally stunned when I said no. I told the truth: I hated it. I did not want to sing opera for the rest of my life and the month I spent coaching and singing in New York was invaluable to me for making that plain. I have kept singing and have been very happy with my singing and the amount and variety of things I have done. Forging your own path is terrifying but can be extremely rewarding.

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    1. "Forging your own path is terrifying but can be extremely rewarding." Too true, too true!

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  13. Bravo! I couldn't agree with you more on so many of your eloquently stated points! Be happy,

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  14. Too many times the person behind the singer is forgotten, and I am not saying that the teacher has to give in to the feelings of the singer but perhaps those feelings should not be forgotten. Because have you ever heard a bird who is sad sing? Nop. If people were treated with more respect and rules were there to guide in moments of need rather than to constrict a desire of creating and comunicating...the world would have many more happy singers.

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  15. If you are sad when singing, try cringing.

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  16. Thankyou for your post! It has brightened up my day somewhat- I had the exact same experience during my Bmus and felt quite alone and even a bit ashamed about it. I put my tension problems and difficulty in improving down to lack of ability and talent. But thankfully since leaving university I've been able to clean out much of the rubbish I'd come to believe about what music is and what I need to do to be successful at it. I have since had a huge leap in my progress. Its lovely to know my experience was not singular! Best of luck to you!

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  17. The problem is that everyone always talks about "the business, as it is today and all the demands"...well singing better and not just faking it should be number one...even people who prefer a singer who worked more on his voice than his abs talk more about looks and age than sound quality...maybe all these super experts need to learn again what it's like to really listen to a singer and not just sit there and judge him...maybe they need to start being honest again...and maybe then we will also have more sensitive artists with great voices singing in the opera houses and less mediocre vocalists who are just really good at faking it...

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  18. Hmmm... are you de-identifying all the people on purpose, or is Anonymous just a very popular name?
    ANYWAY, I couldn't have written it better myself (although I might try). Nowadays I try to explain to people why I am not permanently employed, and in the middle of my diatribe (well, I didn't go to *this* school, I didn't study with *that* teacher, companies are only looking for *these* types), I begin to hear myself talking, and I think to myself, What a crock of bullshit. Truth is, there is no rhyme or reason to success or lack of it. We must concentrate only on that which makes us happy, singing our best and pursuing opportunities to do so! The rest is out of our control. Cheers!

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  19. I stumbled upon your blog and I am so pleased I did. I'm in a dark place at the moment about my singing. I studied on the NOS intensive course to help my development and came out unhappier than I have ever been about my singing, having been happy and full of beans when I went in there. So many conflicting opinions (as you say, dressed as fact) from one tutor to the next. Its not to do with lack of ability..... one tutor was visibly moved by my aria, the next criticised my portamenti trying to remove them completely, and the other tutor asked where the portamenti had gone and to forget the the vowels believing Puccini and italian is all about the consonants! I'm all for being stretched, but one does wonder which conveyor belt soprano they wish me to sound like. It all became very counterproductive and seemed all about taking out genuine character and feeling away from the singer. It is also hard to challenge the coaches because you don't wish to seem ungrateful or a troublemaker. Sadly it all seemed to be about english superficialities in the voice to me and not genuine italianate sound. I often wonder how Callas would have gotten on today....I mean, being a little different and authentic just doesn't seem to be welcomed today.
    I believe singing is about constant development, but I'm beginning to think I've had my fill with 'masterclass' situations, and will stick with one tutor.
    Thanks for being refreshingly honest.

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