A friend recently observed that "Life may be considered as a dichotomy: Either one can set one's goals moderately and strive for them effectively, or one can set many lofty goals and flail between them like a moth in a chandelier." He wasn't talking about me, but his comment carried a lot of resonance.
While my students know I insist they set incremental goals for their singing and pursue them intelligently, most of them do not know that I spent most of my adult life feeling like a moth helplessly flailing between lightbulbs in a chandelier. It has only been within the past three or four years that the multiple threads of inquiry competing for my attention have woven themselves into a single cohesive aim that I can work towards effectively and consistently.
I always knew in the core of my being that each endeavor I pursued was inextricably related to all the others, but to anyone else I would have appeared to be dabbling on a grandiose scale. I immersed myself in something, achieved enough mastery to make a career of it… and then turned my attention to something else.
I earned a Master's degree in clarinet only to turn down a sweet principal orchestra gig. I earned a Doctorate in voice, and before abandoning academic job searches altogether I spent a couple of years making impassioned submissions – not for studio voice appointments, but interdisciplinary humanities positions and post-docs. I worked for three major New York City fitness franchises and earned two Personal Training certifications that have long since lapsed. I focused on professional opera auditions enough to garner small roles with regional companies, get some curious sniffs from bigger ones, and generate support and interest from a handful of conductors, directors and managers… and then just stopped, without even realizing I had given it up until I noticed a year had come and gone since my last audition.
This was understandably a source of grave concern to those closest to me – particularly my husband, who in spite of diverse talents, has been blessed with laser-like focus where his own career is concerned. Time and again he would support my enthusiasm in ways both emotional and practical, only to see me veer off in yet another direction.
Well, if I'm honest, when I say it gave him "grave concern," what I mean is it repeatedly drove him to the brink of insanity. Because while it may have been clear to me that each endeavor I pursued was inextricably related to all the others, I was just awful at articulating what the connections actually were, even to myself. I had this feeling that it all made sense, that I was going to end up doing something off the beaten path, that my arc of self-realization was going to be longer than I would prefer, and that there were all of these things that I absolutely had to fathom before it would all begin to make sense.
Not all of my endeavors received such abortive treatment. There was a crucial constant: throughout it all, I continuously honed my vocal technique, taught others to sing, and viewed all my life experiences through the lens of how honestly and skillfully I could connect to my own voice and help my students connect to theirs. But this constant was easy to overlook, as I was neither building a prominent performance career nor indulging my curiosity from the vantage point of a tenure-track professorship.
Among the copious remembrances that have surfaced since the untimely passing of Steve Jobs is this lovely commencement speech he gave at Stanford in 2005. In reflecting on the collection of circumstances that set him on his own path to success, he commented that "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
Looking backwards, I'm at long last in a position to start connecting the dots for myself – hopefully, articulately enough that the connections will become clear to you as well.
My personal and creative goals are rooted in two powerful formative experiences.
The first was spending the summer as a 17-year-old clarinetist at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Being around passionate, like-minded peers as well as playing in an orchestra for the first time yielded a visceral understanding of the power of music to facilitate transcendent, unifying experiences. Since then, I have felt that music's value lies in its power to communicate and unify; every musical experience must be judged by the success with which it does this.
Second, I had made brief, unsatisfying attempts at singing throughout my childhood and college years. It was only after engaging in several years of intense bodywork with Judith and Michael Jamieson that I was able to release enough of the chronic muscular tension paralyzing my breathing, jaw and throat (not to mention my expressive impulses) that it became apparent that I had a voice to sing with. Everyone develops a certain degree of chronic muscular tension, or armor, in response to their life experiences. Trying to learn to sing with an armored instrument will keep you from realizing your full potential, and in most cases will greatly limit your success. An effective vocal pedagogue must address this.
Playing the clarinet made it possible for me to enjoy transcendent, unifying musical experiences while my voice was still too entangled to be a resource for me; the orchestra gig I landed did not measure up to my standards for what I find valuable in musical experience.
My abbreviated academic career clarified for me how our current paradigm for musical education serves these standards as well as how it fails them; it was crucial for formulating my strategies for building my creative and educational community, especially where interdisciplinary work is concerned.
Science is not one of my strengths, but working in gyms training people of varying ages, sizes, strength, skill levels, and degrees of kinesthetic awareness gave me a stunningly successful education in anatomy and motor learning – information I make use of every second that I'm teaching to tell whether a student is failing to do something because of poor coordination or chronic muscular tension issues that need to be addressed.
There are a number of reasons why a significant opera career is not part of my overall plan, but developing my voice to the point where I am capable of performing this repertoire and exposing myself to all facets of the industry informs my teaching work in invaluable ways.
All of these experiences have helped me along the path of fulfilling my mission to be a singer who is capable of transcendent, unifying experiences; a teacher with the necessary skill set to help my students achieve this as well; and a mentor who can help them evaluate their musical, educational and life experiences based on how fulfilling they are so they don't sell their creative souls in the fruitless search for outside validation.
I've assigned myself a daunting mission, and there are a lot of skills I have yet to master if I'm going to fulfill it to the best of my ability. I don't intend to dabble in any of them.
And I'm not dabbling where writing is concerned either. Sharing my journey and the insights gathered along the way is at the heart of what I most wish to accomplish. Please forgive my silence over the past few months - I have a number of compelling topics that I look forward to discussing here very soon!