Failing Forward

What does it say about me if I can’t keep my commitments?

Revisiting the sunny optimism of early January 2023.

I didn’t achieve any of the goals I set for myself in January– not a single one.

The blog has lately become an airing of my deepest grievances and insecurities. This unintentional openness has garnered more attention than any of my past blogs, even the ones about Taylor Swift’s Midnights or my polyp. I guess people like to see someone being honest about their struggles or something. I didn’t mean to become some beacon of vulnerability, but I’m continuing that today. All of your messages and comments have, frankly, emboldened me.

On to my latest failures.

I started January intending to practice daily, learn new arias, get back into regular lessons, consume zero alcohol, apply for three artist grants, actually get something out of the Met competition, and publish two blog posts per week. Oh, and I also intended to lose weight, but I left that out before because of my inability to reckon with the shame of participating in diet culture. So much for that– if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you missed last week’s blog post. (TW: disordered eating, body image issues)

Another failure: leaving peace signs behind in 2023.

A couple of weeks ago, I reached out to a teacher in the Twin Cities. I have an instructor with whom I do Zoom lessons, but I was advised that no one here in the Twin Cities knows me as a singer yet, and it might be wise to get involved with an instructor who has connections in the metro area. 

This voice teacher makes me believe the universe is giving me a second chance. 

Wait, I’ve said that before.

Fine, third. Or fourth. Honestly, I’m probably on my tenth chance, but you get my point. 

From the first lesson, she treated me like I knew what I was talking about, that I was intelligent, and that I knew how the voice worked. She taught me like a professional who just needs a good set of ears to keep me on track. There wasn’t a single time she treated me like a student; it was just a fellow musician guiding another. She didn’t promise me a career, comment on my appearance, or belittle my skills. I told her I just wanted to work, and she said, “you will.” That’s it. She didn’t pretend to be some all-knowing savior who had all of the answers: no toxicity, no gimmicks, no bullshit.

I became technically distracted by the idea of creating pharyngeal space and maintaining a low larynx, but in doing so, I unintentionally reintroduced tongue tension to my laundry list of vocal problems. My new teacher taught me some tongue stretches (yes, non-vocalists, tongue stretches) to help me relieve unintended pressure that I had confused with proper adduction. My vocal cords immediately began to adduct more freely and solidly than when I was forcing them together, a remnant of the coercive phonation I had to use with the polyp. 

I haven’t mentioned this on the blog, but my voice still fatigues sometimes, especially my speaking voice. Once I begin to feel fatigued, I start doing what my speech-language pathologist (SLP) calls “guarding,” where I try to be careful but somehow make it worse. I’m gripping my pesky tongue instead of letting it flop around! I am quite literally holding my tongue.

And all of you thought I had an inability to hold my tongue. Joke’s on all of you; I’m holding it all the time! HA! HA HA HA!!

All of this vocal nonsense was caused not by my inability to “speak like a singer” but rather by my attempt to sound like someone I’m not. 

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. Let it come to us naturally.

I nearly canceled my appointment yesterday with my new SLP because my voice is doing mostly better. However, my better judgment encouraged me to attend the appointment, and I’m so glad I did. I was given a slew of tongue stretches and exercises specifically for injury recovery to tire out my tongue so it can’t interfere so much when I’m singing and speaking, gosh darn it. 

I have my high notes back. I can sing coloratura again. My vibrato is more even.

Ok, so back to my goals. I didn’t have a lesson and coaching weekly, but the lessons I’ve had have been transformative. I didn’t practice every day, but my practice sessions felt easy and productive. So, did I fail?

The shock I felt when I realized my last teacher still didn’t have all the answers. Insert, “I had to find the answers myself” quip here.

When I take the pressure off my cords and the base of my tongue, my voice isn’t quite as heavy as I thought. My young self hoped I had this huge voice that just needed years of time and wrangling, but in reality, I’m just a mid-sized lyric soprano that took longer to cook than others. Listen, I think I could sing a great Mimi, but the fact is, my natural color is a little less warm than what most casting directors are going to want from a full-voiced Puccini gal (but call me if you need a Musetta!) I was forcing that heft and darkness, which took away the cut and clarity of what my vocal cords wanted to do when I set them up correctly. It turns out I was on the right track a few years ago repertoire-wise; I just didn’t have the technical chops to execute my rep well.

So, I haven’t learned two new arias, but I am resurrecting three arias I loved to sing. They’ve all been on the shelf for at least four years. There’s a particular danger to singing old repertoire because the old technique can creep in, but these have been tucked away for so long that I can navigate them with an ease and spontaneity I never would’ve thought possible a few years ago. Does that mean I failed?

Oddly enough, the Met competition and grants go together. I already talked about my Met competition experience, but I’ve moved past the feedback. My vibrato will be under my control once I stop clamping down on my tongue, and that’s already in the works. I reconnected with a colleague with whom I threw around new ideas for collaborations fueled by the two (not three) grants I applied for in January. We have some projects and ideas in the works for the next few months that may not have come to fruition if I hadn’t sung in the Met competition. So was that a failure?

A merry belated Princemas to all.

The real reason I wanted to do Dry January was less to do with my vocal health and more to do with my weight loss goals, but I didn’t say that before. I was ashamed that I lost all of my COVID weight and regained it in one year. I wanted to do it again and keep it off this time. 

Skinny people are disciplined. I am not skinny. Therefore, I am not disciplined.

This message is what my brain usually likes to tell me.

Alcohol is filled with empty calories, so why not forgo it for a month to jump-start my weight loss?

But then my weekend in Iowa happened, where ideas were shared over a bottle of wine. Princemas, the annual Christmas celebration with my best friends, was filled with laughter, stories, and drinks. A friend who came back into my life had a birthday party. I enjoyed a beer at a basketball game. 

All of these events were fun, and they would’ve been fun without alcohol, too. Maybe this one was a bit of a real failure, but I don’t feel that bad about it. I feel worse that I couldn’t lose weight this month, even though, in the same breath, I’m appalled and angered by diet culture. It’s tough for me to shake free from the roller coaster of gaining and losing a few pounds month by month as I balance my self-hatred with my desire to enjoy myself. Did I fail, or did I just force myself into a cultural expectation I didn’t want to uphold in practice?

When I look back at all the ways I failed in January, I reflect on a pretty formative month. I began projects, revitalized my singing technique, and feel freer than ever vocally, both in my teaching and singing. There were numerous fun events, travels, and moments that forced me to have some conversations I’d been putting off. All in all, it’s been a great start to 2023, and I can’t wait to keep failing forward. 

I’ll see you when I see you– obviously, I didn’t hold myself to those two blog posts per week, but I’m grateful that what I have shared has resonated with readers. I hope you give yourselves some grace.



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