People who hear me sing often tell me that I am talented. This compliment is supremely flattering. However, I am not an exceptionally talented singer. Hear me out.
Last week, as I prepared for Friendsgiving, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, The Jordan Harbinger Show. I enjoy the variety of experts and subject matter he explores with guests on his show, but I only recently began listening to the podcast. This week, he aired an episode from the vault, and I was thoroughly inspired by their conversation. As someone entirely outside of the corporate sphere, the name Angela Duckworth and the book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” were altogether unfamiliar to me. Forgive me if you’ve read the book or followed her work for ages– I’m a newbie!
Duckworth describes talent as a person’s innate ability to learn and apply a specific skill. This definition has not been my experience as a singer, much to my embarrassment and shame. Vocal concepts have taken me years to master, while the most talented singers come by their basic technique naturally. I had a lot of vocal practices straight up wrong. However, I have always been a talented musician, and that’s different.
My parents inherited my great-grandma’s upright piano when I was young. Grandma never played, and although my mom took lessons as a kid, she didn’t keep up her practice. Naturally, like any bumbling toddler, I eyed the instrument with curiosity, and it wasn’t long before I explored the keys on my own. “Explored” might be too kind of a word– I’m sure my mom would say I pounded the antique keys with my tiny fists and screamed along to my improvised compositions.
At the age of four, I was a little young to begin piano lessons, but my mom couldn’t stand the racket of my exploration any longer. She enrolled me in classes with a kind and patient woman named Carol, who taught in a home studio just a few blocks from our house. I often think of those afternoons since I teach my students from the same books my mom purchased for me twenty-five years ago—Faber and Faber Piano Adventures; what a lasting legacy you cultivated.
The piano was notably easy for me. I sped through the first couple of books, recited my notes with ease, and played with a general understanding of musicality atypical for a little kid. I wasn’t Mozart or anything, but my teacher mentioned I had an unusually developed ear to my mom. She gave me extra theory assignments when she realized I might be learning my pieces by ear rather than reading the music. Both aural skills and music reading are imperative for a high level of musicianship, and for her observation early on, I am grateful.
Like many of my fellow millennials, I was placed in my elementary school’s gifted and talented program and was proud that school was easy. Without realizing it, my little brain created the mindset that if I had to try, it meant I was stupid. I didn’t want to try; I only wanted to succeed easily and breezily. Because of this attitude, I stopped liking the piano when I had to start actually practicing.
I began playing the flute in fifth grade, coincidentally around the time piano became a chore. My childhood best friend’s mom is a professional flutist and college professor, and I patiently awaited being old enough to take lessons from her. I loved the flute. At first, I just couldn’t get the embouchure right, making me want to quit immediately. However, I initiated a viable sound after spitting rice outside for a few days to get my lips in the correct shape. It was thrilling. I looked forward to lessons with my friend’s mom and took pride in being the best flute player in school. Aside from spitting rice, I didn’t have to work hard to improve– I was a natural.
A couple of years after I initiated weekly lessons, another student my age began studying with the same teacher. She was also a naturally talented musician, but she quickly surpassed me in skill because she worked hard to succeed. There was a critical difference between us–she practiced intently every day while I practiced maybe twice per week, haphazardly, just enough to get the assignment under my fingers. Her advancement angered and embarrassed me because I stubbornly stuck to a talent-or-nothing mindset. Around this time, I quit piano, stopped practicing flute entirely, and my musical focus shifted again, this time toward singing.
Dear Reader, you’re likely beginning to notice that I had many musical professionals available to me as a child, and you’re right. I’m incredibly fortunate, but that’s a story for another time. However, I have one last teacher to introduce to the mix–my high school voice instructor. As luck would have it, I grew up with the most wonderful neighbor who also happened to be a retired opera singer and voice teacher. In middle school, I became interested in musical theatre but knew my vocal chops weren’t up to snuff. My voice was decently impressive for a teenage girl, but this wasn’t enough for me– I needed to be gifted and talented like I was in everything else where I excelled. We started lessons when I was fourteen years old. I desired to belt Popular from Wicked, but she had other ideas. She sneakily instilled in me a passion for opera and art song, and I left musical theatre mostly behind after high school. I graduated as a “smart girl” who excelled in academics, singing, flute, and theatre. I was proud of my achievements.
If you’ve been keeping up with my blog posts, you’ll remember that I entered college to become an educator rather than a performer. However, if you’ve met me, you’ll know this would not have been compatible with my personality and interests– I changed my major to voice performance by the end of my sophomore year. At Concordia College, I was a moderately big fish in a comparatively little pond. I was the only mezzo-soprano performance major (more on that later), sang with The Concordia Choir, and had the full attention of a small voice and coaching staff. I placed at the NATS competition three out of my four years (don’t talk to me about my sophomore year) and always got the lead role in opera scenes. Although I didn’t get many solos with the choir and didn’t qualify for senior honors, I still blazed through my classes and performances with relative ease. I wasn’t trying yet, which was a pity. I regret this immensely.
Upon graduation, I had to decide if I would admit that I was not a natural singer but had the potential to achieve vocal greatness if I worked for it. As it turns out, I was not a hot commodity for graduate schools or young artist programs— I was singing in the wrong fach with faulty technique and a misguided sense of artistry. Although I would continue to make a few wrong turns, I recognized that to become a real performer, I would finally have to try. No matter how gifted and talented a musician I was as a child, that wouldn’t cut it in the professional world. Coasting on raw talent doesn’t usually work for anyone in any career.
This realization brings us to grit. The title of Angela Duckworth’s book spoils the definition of grit in psychological terms: it combines passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Interestingly, she also defines passion as consistency over time rather than a highly emotional state fueled by obsession or infatuation. I have been consistently passionate about singing for a very long period, even when it betrays me or when I don’t reach a particular goal related to my career. While listening to the podcast, I felt a sense of pride. That old flame I wrote about a few weeks ago is grit.
I sometimes feel like my passion for singing has worn down over the years, but by Duckworth’s definition, it hasn’t. My practice has only become more disciplined and focused as I’ve learned how to try. Unsurprisingly, actually trying didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know how to practice or study because I never “had to.” Of course, this is ridiculous–imagine how much more I could have achieved if I had exerted any real effort to improve my singing before the age of 25!
I wish I had been a natural at singing. Envy bubbles up inside me when I see twenty-two-year-old singers who are already incredible and graduating from prestigious conservatories. That’s what the entertainment industry longs for most– a natural. Everyone loves a natural talent, even if they play, perform, or sing like someone who had to work super hard to level up their skills. However, I can’t let myself get jealous. It’s not fruitful. I was never going to be opera’s next star at twenty or even twenty-five. What I built throughout my twenties instead was grit, and I didn’t even know it.
“Never take advice from someone who’s falling apart,” Taylor Swift croons during the last song on her newest album, Midnights. I’m painfully aware that I don’t have much about living figured out, but I know that cultivating grit has made me feel meaningful and worthwhile even when I have little to show for myself. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” They don’t tell us in music school that we have to try and fail hundreds of times, and we still might not succeed in the traditional sense. Performer and athlete are the first job titles that come to my mind that require a substantial dosage of grit, but we’d all be better off upping our “grit score,” as Angela Duckworth describes it in her book. Trust me, you are unstoppable where passion meets perseverance, even if you feel incredibly low.
I wish I could tell my childhood self that it is noble to care, ok to try, and normal to fail. If I put in minimal effort as a kid, it was impressive to succeed, and I had an excuse if I failed or fell short of my goal. I sound like a talented singer now, but trust me, it has taken years of practice and instruction to get me where I am today, and I still have so much further to go. I’ve touched on this in previous posts, but you never really “make it” as a musician– there’s always another level to unlock.
It’s easy for me to focus on what singing has taken away from me, but today, I’ll thank singing for teaching me grit. It’s one thing to be gifted and talented and another to do something with that.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”