Singer Purgatory

On Sunday, I went to a beautiful shower for a friend whose baby is due in January. She decorated her home in sage greens and woodsy browns, the room full of laughter as we played silly games and sipped pretty drinks. All the women in attendance exuded excitement and love as she opened gifts and posed for pictures. It was a celebratory afternoon. Additionally, it was my first major social event since receiving my vocal polyp diagnosis, and I knew most of the women at this shower. After fielding questions from kind friends, family, and acquaintances regarding my injury and recovery, I realized that I was right back in my least favorite part about being a freelance singer. It’s a single question.

“What comes next?”

Pre-singer purgatory in Paris, January 2020: singing the title role in the modern-day premiere of a lost Classical opera written for Marie Antoinette. Those were the days, am I right?

Last month, I had a focus—a tangible goal. Don’t sing outside church choir for a month, don’t demonstrate while teaching, and reduce social use. I couldn’t practice, take lessons, audition, or sing gigs because I was in recovery. Now, I’m in a weird purgatory space—a waiting period. The polyp is gone, but I still “need to watch it,” as my mom might say. I tend to succeed with strict rules, but things are now muddy again. It’s messy, and it’s stressing me out. Am I going to have a mimosa at this baby shower? Is it okay to have two? Is it ok to stay for three hours, or do I leave sooner? Do I sing the descant at church? How much of my fifteen minutes of vocalizing per day should I dedicate to repertoire if I take a couple of auditions in the next month? 

As I ease into the next stage of my recovery, I feel like a helicopter parent to myself. I’m over-protective and constantly panicky. As I began warming into my upper range again, I noticed that my voice hadn’t felt this solid in a long time, maybe even a few years. I’m not sure how to react to this. I feel affirmed in my choices over the past month but ashamed that I couldn’t acknowledge or even recognize my vocal decline. Most of all, I’m terrified that if I talk or sing too much, I’ll ruin my voice again, and it’ll be all my fault. I don’t want this feeling of ease to go away, but I also can’t be on high alert for the rest of my singing life. I’m in a state of limbo.

I used to tell my old teacher I was in “singer purgatory” between my graduate degree and professional viability. In retrospect, the past two years prepared me for this current purgatorial space. Throughout the pandemic, we worked on fixing the glaring technical issues I had never solved and took out the distraction of auditioning and performing while strictly pursuing vocal excellence. Unfortunately, this in-between space tanked my artistry, creativity, and confidence. When I freed myself from this mindset, I realized I had beaten my voice down for too long in the pursuit of perfection. Lack of patience is what got me into this mess.

A brief purgatorial relief, a reminder of the joy of performing. World premiere of Harmony, Seagle Festival, New York, 2021.

I turn thirty in a little over a month. I love birthdays, but I’m a little sad about this one. I told myself that if I didn’t “make it” in the opera business by the time I was thirty, I’d quit and start over doing something else. However, I didn’t intend for two years of pandemic and months of vocal distress to upend my life so profoundly, and suddenly, here I am, staring thirty years old in the face with nothing to show for myself. Not only have I not “made it” in a career with incredible odds stacked against those pursuing it, but I am so far away from my Metropolitan Opera dreams (for now! I’m far away, for now, my optimistic mind pipes in).

It’s hard not to feel like I’m closing my 20s without reaching any of my goals. I’m disappointed and embarrassed. A sane person would know that now is the time to move on, but I can’t go out this way. In my last post, I expressed excitement for what comes next. But I’m also scared. I wasted my twenties; who’s to say I won’t waste my thirties too? Will I find myself at forty, without a fulfilling performing career, unmarried and childless, lamenting all my mistakes?

As I read my writing, I edit it in my head. “People are going to think I’m so negative,” I lament. I’m trying to be honest about how this feels. I’ve spent a long time not being honest with myself and others, and it feels terrific to be truthful. However, I think of an old friend who once told me I have difficulty celebrating my successes and spend too much time stewing on my failures. I reflect on his observation often. My wins aren’t big enough achievements for my brain, and my losses are insurmountable. 

My old friend would advocate for a shift in mindset. I celebrate this fantastic win: I banished a polyp from my folds in a month and wasn’t even on complete vocal rest! I remind myself that I am still in recovery. It is futile to rush this process–I will compromise my progress and waste more time. The voice lessons, coaching, auditions, and gigs can wait. It’s also emotionally draining to regret my past choices and worry about what is to come. We all can genuinely only take things one step at a time. The anxiety of living looms too large otherwise.

So, I guess the answer to the question I got asked in some capacity over and over on Sunday is, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what comes next. So many of my friends seem to know by now. Their careers are stable; they’re buying houses and having children. I don’t covet a traditional path, but I envy the certainty of knowing where life is going. When I sat in my undergraduate voice teacher’s studio ten years ago, crying because I wanted to change my major from vocal education to vocal performance but was scared I couldn’t do it, I chose this. I chose the “I don’t know,” I chose uncertainty, rejection, and instability. I chose it ten years ago. 

The fact is, I really like my life right now. I’m physically and emotionally close to my family and friends and cherish the life I’m building with my boyfriend, who I’ve been with for nearly two and a half years. I love my home and the people I spend time with. I enjoy my students, my puppy, and my flexible schedule. However, a piece of the pie is still missing: the performing career. I can’t help but think that if I die without exhausting every viable avenue to a classical singing career, even in a less traditional capacity than I had previously imagined, that would be my life’s biggest regret. I allow myself to be happy in my comfort but know that my most prominent desire currently lies unfulfilled. For that reason, I look forward to jumping back into the world of opera when I am fully healed. I just like it too dang much.

I can’t audition for agents, sing at competitions, plan an audition tour to Europe, schedule recitals, or audition for gigs in my community. That’s okay. Those opportunities will still be there in a few months. It is a season of gratitude, and I can be thankful for the fantastic people in my life and the privilege of healing. The in-between space isn’t the worst place to be. After all, I can sing again, and it feels great.


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