I've devoted the past several years to establishing my New York voice studio, which meant an extended break from performance. My return to public singing brought a number of things into sharp focus, not the least being how important it is to me to perform. It's richly personally fulfilling, but it also keeps me honest: I can only truly embody my practice if I'm regularly walking my talk. So as I return to blogging, I'd like to share some highlights of what I learned from a repeat performance of the Schoenberg program I first presented with tenor Matthew Tuell and pianist Lloyd Arriola last February.
Professional and artistic pursuits are most successful and satisfying when they're allowed to evolve from your own creative impulses and musical interests.
I challenge you to find the most satisfying context for making your art. Especially given the wildly turbulent landscape of today's arts scene, it may not always (or exclusively) involve an opera career. A lot of singers pursue that one hard because they think it's the only way to make a decent living singing and because they don't take the time to brutally soul-search what kind of music, performance experience, and lifestyle choice they will find most fulfilling. If opera is your passion, then you must pursue it with all the single-minded intensity you can muster and sacrifice whatever you can spare (as well as some things you may believe you cannot). When I see fine, dedicated singers only sort of going for it, it's not because they aren't committed to building a life and/or career around their love of singing. Their hearts may just not be in it enough where the opera career and its attendant lifestyle are concerned. So they make a half-hearted attempt and then sometimes give up singing altogether, often feeling profoundly depressed about it, when it's quite possible that they could have found other professional outlets more suited to their particular skills and interests.
What works for me these days is delving into repertoire that resonates with whatever I happen to be exploring emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, then self- or co-producing concerts around it with musicians I admire and enjoy collaborating with. I can easily schedule recital and concert performances around my teaching schedule. While I still love singing opera, I don't love what happens to my studio when I vanish for a month or more! This is just my personal preference: I need a certain level of structure and stability to do my best work both in the studio and on stage. By contrast, my friend Jean Ronald Lafond has built an amazing global performance and teaching career and is happiest dividing his time between New York, Berlin, and wherever else he finds himself in demand! Your most satisfying and successful career in music may not end up looking at all like anyone else's.
Under most circumstances, don't focus on technique issues in the middle of a performance.
It can be very embarrassing to lose sight of your priorities in public. You've probably already seen the footage of this misguided fan who dropped his child in a failed attempt to catch a foul at a baseball game.
Keep your priorities straight. A performance is an opportunity to be fully present with your art and your colleagues and to communicate with your audience. By putting yourself out there, you are saying that your skill and level of preparation are equal to getting the job done, and it's time to fully commit to the experience and dismiss concern over technical imperfections (remember that no matter how skillful you become, each new breakthrough opens a window that shows us how much more there is to achieve, so perfection is unattainable anyway). The performance is literally your baby. You can't really assess and tweak your work without risking dropping it.
However, this doesn't mean you won't notice what is working well and what isn't while you're singing. You will. So you need to make swift, wise decisions whether or not you should try to do anything about it.
In our August performance, by the time I had finished the second of my 15-song set I had noticed a couple of things:
- At the end of long phrases, I didn't have as much breath as I expected to. This was a new thing - it had not happened in practice or rehearsal.
- While I had recently achieved a new level of freedom and resonance with my high notes that I could demonstrate fairly consistently, I wasn't doing it with perfect consistency in this performance.
I realized that I could probably do something about #1. I decided to be mindful of taking fuller breaths and making sure to carry my expressive and musical intentions past the end of each phrase. It worked. I was able to incorporate this into my performance without compromising musical and dramatic focus.
Of course, I had to let go of #2. You cannot reasonably expect to demonstrate the results of a recent breakthrough with perfect consistency in performance. The new coordination has not yet become habitual, and the old way of doing things still has too much pull. Paying any attention to whether or not I was "doing it right" would have deflated the expressive energy I needed to motivate those climactic passages in the first place.
I remember hearing operatic tenor and voice teacher Stanford Olsen make a couple of excellent points during a NATS discussion panel some years ago:
- A great audition or performance is one where you are able to demonstrate 90% of what you can really do; you can only very rarely expect to be able to pull off 100%.
- You should expect to be able to do in an audition or performance what you were able to do in the studio roughly two weeks ago.
Once you're singing at a professional level, it becomes crucial that you figure out how much of your potential you must fulfill in order to do your job adequately. This holds true for whether you're suffering from a slight illness or are incorporating new skills into your technique. You're probably going to be harder on yourself than anyone else will, so it's a good idea to consult a trusted teacher, coach or colleague who knows your voice well if you're not sure.
Note: Much of Vermont, including the glorious North Bennington community that hosted our recent recital, has been utterly devastated by Hurricane Irene. Please do what you can to help with their recovery. Here is a good compilation of information on how you can help.