Here’s another corny post about singing because that’s what I do.
It’s Valentine’s Day, yet another heavily commercialized holiday in the United States, and most people fall into one of two categories. Some folks enjoy donning pinks and reds, giving or receiving chocolates, flowers, and other little gifts from loved ones, or eating an overpriced dinner amongst couples with the pressure of a marriage proposal looming overhead. Others shun the holiday entirely with a Scrooge-like “harumph” and an attitude of bitterness or sarcasm. Regardless, the somewhat controversial holiday is here, and it’s all about love.
Typically, Valentine’s Day consumerism is dominated by an expression of romantic love. It’s a nice acknowledgment of partnership, but the pressure makes it disingenuous– “Today, I have to show you I love you more because everyone is doing it.” It’s nice, but the whole thing feels a little forced.
However, like most holidays, I enjoyed Valentine’s Day growing up. My mom always got my sister and me little candy bags with notes about how much she loved us. Beautiful flowers and two cards (one funny Snoopy card and one gushingly romantic card) adorned the table as a present to my mom from my dad. The little boxes we made for Valentine’s Day at school were a thrill, and I loved reading into whatever Valentine my crush gave me– of course, it all meant nothing, as we were in third grade. But it was fun and lighthearted. Love can be like that, too.
Love is an ill-defined emotion shared among humans at a certain level of intimacy, romantic or platonic. It’s different for everyone and designates a relationship as important. I’ve made it a point to tell my friends I love them nearly as often as I do my family or boyfriend– I want people to know I love them. It feels good to be loved.
The physical sensation of the emotion of love is similar regardless of whether I love a person or an activity. Maybe this is normal; I’m not sure. We throw around the word “love” with various degrees of weight, like, maybe when I say, “I love this cheeseburger,” I don’t mean that I love that cheeseburger as much as I love my mom, but dang, that is a great cheeseburger.
Fine, I don’t love a delicious, overpriced artisanal cheeseburger as much as I love my mom, but I do love to sing as much as I love my mom. The physical sensation of love is the same when I sing as when I hug my mom. There’s less of an adrenaline rush, sure, but my body’s intense perception of love and joy at that moment is the same.
I had the pleasure of craning my neck in my partial-view seat at the Ordway in St. Paul to see the second-to-last performance of Minnesota Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment on Saturday. Regardless of comedic or dramatic outcome, operas tend to tell love stories, and this light-hearted, funny show was no exception. It tells the story of Marie, a young woman abandoned at a French regiment’s doorstep as a tiny baby. She is raised as a daughter of the regiment, with each soldier acting as a father figure to her, and creepily, she is expected to marry one of them once she feels ready to settle down and become a mom. Weird.
She falls while picking flowers one day and is saved by a Tyrolean man, Tonio. The regiment is not a fan of this burgeoning love affair since Tonio is not a soldier. He joins the French army to gain their approval just as Marie’s long-lost “aunt” comes by to say, hey, I’m royalty, so glad I found you, and you’re going to be a duchess and marry this Duke of Krakenthorp. Marie has a tough time being a lady, misses Tonio, and in the end, the “aunt” reveals herself as Marie’s actual mother (illegitimate child alert!), and she allows Marie and Tonio to get married while saluting France.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again– if you think opera is boring, think again. Minnesota Opera’s next show is Don Giovanni, and phew, let me tell you, that one’s a doozy. If you missed Daughter of the Regiment, I recommend catching Mozart’s fiery tale in May.
Besides the engaging plot and sharp comedic timing, the singing was phenomenal. Marie and Tonio, the leading soprano and tenor roles, have some of the most challenging passages of bel canto repertoire. Both Vanessa Becerra (Seagle alum!) and David Portillo sounded magnificently free and joyous throughout the show. They love to sing. They worked for years to attain this level of facility in their singing, and their playful energy was palpable to the audience. It was electrifying and magical– everything I like to hear at the opera.
I lost my love of singing for a while. Singing was hard; I couldn’t get it right, I got fatigued all the time, and I didn’t like how I sounded. I was in my head, my breath was forced, and my high notes were non-existent. It wasn’t fun or joyful, and I certainly didn’t love it. I kept talking about quitting because, truly, what was the point of all this work for nothing when I didn’t even enjoy myself anymore?
I’m so grateful that changed over the past few months.
I had a rehearsal for an upcoming concert last night, and it was thrilling to sing through some German art songs with a fabulous and fun pianist. The feeling of love rushed over me, and I remembered what makes music so addicting–that emotional response. It’s corny, but so is Valentine’s Day, so I’m calling it appropriate. Singing is as lighthearted and fun, like a childhood Valentine’s Day, as it is serious and romantic. I love to sing. I hate saying it that bluntly because I feel like a giant cheeseball, but it’s true. I try to instill that emotion in every lesson I teach, practice session I embark on, and audition or performance I sing. I don’t have to get every role, award, or accolade; I can just love the process. And as I continue my vocal recovery, I can acknowledge that’s enough to keep going.
For tickets to my upcoming concert, “Du mein Herz,” at the Germanic-American Institute, click here.
What does it say about me if I can’t keep my commitments?
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 Midnightsor 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)
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?
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?
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.
When I sing at a competition, I usually try to put my phone backstage or in the audience so I can record a voice memo of my performance and listen to myself afterward. Directly afterward. My heart is still pumping from adrenaline; I’m warm to the touch from executing vocal acrobatics for eight minutes straight. Hearing my performance played back is a way of prolonging that kick of excitement. Singing in public edges on terrifying in a way that makes it electric. I love it. I’ve spent a lot of tears and money just to get a hit of that addictive feeling.
I did not win at the Met on Saturday, which I consider neither to be a personal nor professional failure. My choice to compete in Iowa rather than Minnesota was complicated but made more straightforward because the pianist is my friend and colleague. Post-performance, I grabbed my phone and headed to the pianist’s studio to unwind. I lay on the floor and popped in my earbuds to listen to my performance.
“Why!” my boyfriend texted.
My brain was still swimming in post-competition fog. What was he talking about?
“You can’t feel how you did? I mean, why are you listening to your performance immediately after performing?”
“Because I’m a monster,” I answered, only half joking.
He had a point. Why was I listening to my singing directly after my performance? Why couldn’t I just feel how I had done without listening to it secondhand and dissecting every melisma, breath, and vowel?
We are literally taught to do this.
Singers are instructed not to trust their own ears and experience. We’re always encouraged to seek someone else’s opinion, whether from a coach, teacher, director, or conductor. While this is helpful and necessary during our studies, we continue to devalue our views over time in favor of someone else’s long after graduation. I felt this impetus in my fellow competitors— I felt their hunger and eagerness. I felt it because I know it intimately, and it’s hard work to untangle myself from that mindset. Distancing myself from that familiar feeling is the only way to be an artist rather than a cog in an increasingly unreliable machine.
Listening to myself is a way of reliving the experience of performing while also forming my own opinions in retrospect on how I sang. I can then take notes on what needs to be improved objectively and provide feedback.
As I announced to the judges and the audience I would be singing “Quando m’en vo’,” my brain popped in: why are you singing an aria that 22-year-olds offer? Pretty embarrassing! And then the other part of my brain chimed in, “you’re singing this because 30-year-olds actually get hired to sing Musetta, and you’ve got a fuller voice and enjoy a character role. Now shut up and sing.”
This dialogue happened before the pianist even played Musetta’s flirty opening theme. It took me a line or two to get out of my nervous/excited state (it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes), and then I was free. I had an absolute blast. They asked for my Mozart, a wickedly melismatic piece from Don Giovanni, which I hadn’t performed outside Seagle’s safe audition class walls, but it was ready for the public now.
My mind flicked to my old teacher, who assigned it to me as a vocal exercise. One lesson, he commented that I “might actually be able to sing this one day.” Well, that day came on Saturday, two years later. I recalled the time I once threw my phone across the room listening to a coaching of this piece because I thought I sounded so awful. I cried and yelled that I “still couldn’t fucking sing.”
I put it away for a while after that outburst. I’m glad I gave Mi tradì a second chance.
I don’t listen to my recordings after I sing in a competition because I want to ruthlessly critique myself (usually); I do it because it almost always makes me feel better. I had a blast singing on Saturday, especially the Mozart. That piece can be disastrously dull, and I know for a fact that I made it exciting. It was exhilarating, and I hope it was also for the audience.
Anyway, back to not winning. I didn’t listen to anyone else sing that day except the three people before me, who I heard through the green room door. All three sounded fabulous and won awards that afternoon. Letting go onstage was enough of a win for me.
The Met competition is attractive to young singers because it offers a slim chance at operatic stardom, and judges stay after the awards ceremony to give feedback to each competitor. This time with judges allows the panel to gush over the winners and explain to everyone else why they didn’t win. However, it is one of the few places to get direct feedback from an outside source as a young artist. Sometimes the feedback is valuable; other times, it is not.
When I take a step back, it’s pretty bizarre. I get onstage and perform vocal gymnastics that it has taken years to execute, and then I hear about everything I’m still doing “wrong.” Of course, wrong is usually subjective, so the best course of action is just to sing and not worry about what the panel wants to hear. For example, one judge felt I didn’t change tempi enough in Quando. That’s his opinion, and if he had been conducting me, I would’ve followed. How was I supposed to know that my interpretation was strawberry ice cream and he preferred mint chocolate chip?
Admittedly, I fell back into the young artist mindset during feedback. The first two judges were kind and complimentary but also picked on some minor aspects of my singing, some of which I agreed with and some I didn’t. I’ve been singing long enough to differentiate, but I still felt annoyingly defensive and frustrated.
When I got to the last judge, I was in a mood because I felt myself slipping headfirst down the slide of young artist mentality. After he offered some constructive criticism and praise, he shook my hand, and something came over me. I said, “can I ask you a question?”
Uh oh. The tears were coming. But I went for it anyway.
“I’m 30. Do I…like…stop doing this?”
Tears streamed down my face. It was horribly embarrassing. I almost didn’t include this anecdote, but I felt I had to be honest with all of you. Here I was, asking this man who heard me sing for less than ten minutes and spoke with me for maybe three minutes about his opinion on my life’s trajectory. What was this demon that came over me?
He looked bewildered. He replied with something like, “What? With an instrument like yours? You should only quit if you don’t love it anymore. This business is just hard.” And then he gave me a hug, or at least I think he did– it might’ve just been another handshake, but it felt like a hug.
I was horrified, but it was also kind of hilarious.
I escaped upstairs to the pianist’s office and told her what happened, and she said, “it’s good for these judges to remember that singers are human beings and not singing machines.”
That made me feel better. The demon was gone.
I spent the rest of the weekend exploring downtown Ames and making handmade jewelry with a cat in my lap. For your information, Ames has a barbecue place that is better than some North Carolina BBQ I’ve consumed over the years, which was a welcome surprise.
My pianist friend and I said “cheers” to never calling myself a young artist again this weekend. I have a handmade pair of earrings and a new attitude to commemorate the occasion.
A dear singer friend texted me on Sunday asking, “so, what’s next for you?” and I simply responded, “who knows.” He immediately replied, “who cares.”
Who knows; who cares. It certainly won’t be boring.
I’m done being a young artist. I would say it’s been a good ride, but it hasn’t.
I’m competing in the Met (now known as the Laffont Competition) for the last time this Saturday. However, I’m barely viewing it as a competition– I’m retiring my young artist mentality while still giving it one last go. As my hand-boiling pianist, Dobby the house elf, would say, “just go beyond the fuck it.”
“GBTFI” is scrawled across the top of many arias in my binder, but I rarely achieve it. I care so deeply about how others perceive me that it strangles my ability to produce art. I respect people who say, “I don’t give a fuck” and mean it because I give so many fucks. So, I’ll let you know if I’m able to GBTFI this weekend. That’s the goal.
The Met competition is a magical place where eager young singers fresh from their conservatories sing careful performances of well-known arias as if to say, “PLEASE pick me.” It’s academic and cautious. Technically near-perfect winners emerge to sing their pristinely coached arias at the next level. Some winners have fabulous careers at the Metropolitan Opera, and others disappear into obscurity. This industry has no sure way forward, but winning the Met competition does help.
Thirty is the soft cutoff for breaking into the opera industry through young artist programs, colloquially known as YAPs. Certain companies will hear artists through age 35 for a young/resident artist position, but most are looking for the youngest candidate with the shiniest resume and surest technique.
For those outside the niche world of opera, let me explain what YAPs are and the traditional pipeline for young singers.
First, we should start with the journey to becoming a young artist in the first place. Most opera singers attend a four-year university or conservatory and graduate with a Bachelor of Music in Voice. During this time, they take lessons with a teacher, study music theory/aural skills, music history, acting, diction, and languages, coach with a pianist, and perform in juries and recitals. The best training programs will stage complete operas, usually with graduate students in the leading roles, but smaller colleges will mount opera scene programs. Where students obtain their undergraduate degree matters considerably for the connections their teacher will have with young artist programs and pay-to-sing programs and the school’s reputation. It will impact their ability to get into a top-tier graduate school.
I went to a choir college because I thought I wanted to major in music education, and then I stayed once I switched my major to vocal performance. Although some singers from Concordia have gone on to have traditional operatic careers, it is not nationally known as a training ground for opera singers. Strike one.
Generally, undergraduates are told the next step is going to graduate school. If a young singer is exceptionally talented and their school is a pipeline for specific pay-to-sing programs (these are precisely what they sound like– you pay to spend a summer doing more training with talented young artists,) they might graduate with some pre-professional experience. I spent my senior year at Concordia making recordings and auditioning for various grad schools for which I was not qualified due to my shoddy technique, lack of performing experience, and singing in the incorrect fach. Although I got into several programs, I didn’t get money. A wise professor told me not to go to graduate school unless I got a full ride because otherwise, I’d be paying for someone else to go to grad school.
I took a year off. I gained performing experience in the Twin Cities but didn’t find a teacher. I coached arias, but my singing wasn’t improving. I auditioned for two more graduate schools and got into UNC Greensboro, but they weren’t giving out scholarships that year. The teacher I wanted to study with advised me to move down to North Carolina and study with her for a year because the potential was there, but I needed the technical work, and I did. I spent the year studying with this teacher, but I also spent the year waiting tables and becoming entrenched in server life. I got the scholarship in the end, but in a way, I wasted two years. Strike two.
Back to the perfect young artist– let’s say they get into one of the name-brand graduate schools or conservatories. During their two years of graduate study, they will take all the same classes they took in their undergraduate degree (not even kidding), plus some vocal pedagogy courses. Hopefully, they will graduate with pristine technique, a couple of pay-to-sings or low-level young artist programs under their belts, a district win at the Met competition, and are ready to audition.
Alright, so let’s talk about auditioning for young artist programs. There’s this website that looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1995 called YAP Tracker, and it’s where pretty much every company posts their auditions for young artists. Accessing this website costs $55 per year (or $95 for two years). There are also many competitions, training programs, and general scams to suck young artists dry of what little money they have listed as opportunities on the site.
During the pandemic, many opera companies finally got rid of their application fees, but before this, most companies charged between $5-$50 to apply to their company. Can you imagine paying money to apply for a job, not knowing whether or not you’ll even get an interview? In 2019, I paid over $1000 in application fees alone. I didn’t receive auditions for over half of those companies. We can talk about my stupidity later, though.
Generally, there are summer YAPs and year-long resident artist contracts. Some premiere summer YAPs include Santa Fe Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Merola Opera, and Des Moines Metro Opera. They are extraordinarily competitive to get into, and young artists spend the summer singing in the chorus in exchange for networking, connections, coaching, visibility, and a small wage. Many talented young singers are hired for these opportunities while they are still in graduate school or shortly after completing their degrees. Although each company will employ a couple of dozen artists, the positions are extraordinarily competitive, especially for sopranos, who make up nearly three-quarters of all auditioning young artists.
Year-long residencies are reserved for those artists who have completed their formal training and are hired to serve as chorus, covers, small roles, and outreach artists with a company for their entire season. Usually, these artists include one soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone/bass, and pianist. They are extraordinarily competitive, especially for sopranos. Do you see a pattern here?
So, what’s on this application? Although they can vary by company, applicants generally have to provide proof of their date of birth, a resume, and headshot, and send 2-3 video recordings of contrasting arias made within the last year. Within two weeks or (hopefully) more of the audition dates, applicants are notified whether or not they have received an audition with the company. Rejections are called “PFOs” or “please fuck off” because they generally don’t offer any feedback or reason for why artists weren’t granted auditions. It is not recommended to reach out to companies for feedback (unless they say so); hence, the emails are a (usually) kind and professional way of saying PFO.
Most companies hold auditions in New York in October-December, and some also hear artists in Houston, Chicago, Cincinnati, or wherever their company is located. Artists are responsible for travel expenses and sometimes securing a pianist for the audition. At the audition, young artists offer one aria of their choice and present the panel with 3-4 additional arias in different languages and styles and sometimes a musical theatre piece. Generally, the panel will choose one more aria to hear, say thank you, and that’s it. Most auditions are around seven minutes long. If they want to chat, that’s a good sign. Some singers get offers in the room, but this is rare. Companies usually call or email to extend an offer within a few weeks of auditions.
This year, I got an email from a prominent company that said they received 1,200 applications and granted 400 singers auditions for something like 30 spots. That’s for a prestigious summer YAP. I figured out for another company, a year-long residency, that they are hearing 150 singers for four spots. Someone I know in the industry shared that nearly all of the 200 applications they had received so far were from sopranos. If you’re attempting to do any math here, our odds as young artists are not good.
An old teacher of mine said music is one of the only industries he can think of where if you’re not the best, you don’t get a career at all. Think about it– there are star doctors, but there are also mediocre doctors. No mediocre musicians are making a living off of being a musician.
Right before the pandemic, I got into one of those prestigious pay-to-sings on a full ride. I thought this was finally it. Finally, I was breaking into the young artist track. Sure, I was 27, but it was better late than never, right?
Hello, COVID-19! But, I found an excellent teacher. We went back to basics. I improved; I went to that summer program in 2021 and was finally on my way.
Some things are not meant to be, and I’ll leave it at that. Strike three.
Some singers go from conservatory to young artist programs to management to mainstage careers. That is the path. However, many singers don’t fit into this path. Some go into academia or go to Europe, others start winning competitions, and some go into church music, professional choral work, or musical theatre. Many young artists in the traditional pipeline get burned out before they can break into mainstage gigs. Lots of people leave the industry. It’s expensive and can be disheartening.
Something I lost in chasing the YAP track was the joy of singing and my sense of creativity. I wasn’t playful or imaginative anymore. I was the singer nervously showing up to the Met competition and begging the panel to pick me.
Well, I pick me. I applied for two grants for projects of my own creation yesterday. Those are competitive too, but I feel good knowing I’m in the driver’s seat for once. I have more control and agency than I thought.
This post isn’t a “poor me, here are all my excuses” lament. I made mistakes. I’m still working through years of technical woes. I don’t feel bad for myself.
I can’t talk about what it’s like at these prestigious programs (I’ve heard some wild stories), but I can speak to what it’s like to be on the outside, desperately trying to claw my way in. A handful of singers have contacted me to say they appreciate my honesty about my experience and the industry, so this is for them. There are genuinely fabulous singers at companies, universities, and programs around this country, and if you know anybody who is a consistently working classical singer, appreciate they have indeed risen to the top of an incredibly cutthroat career.
It feels so good to shed the young artist mentality. After years of study, practice, and performance, I can finally acknowledge that I know what I’m doing. I have valid thoughts on the music I’m singing and don’t need to be told what to do. I recognize where I need to continue growing as a singer and practice that improvement without judgment.
I don’t need to ask permission to be an artist. I’m here.
Goodbye, YA life. It works for some singers, but it was never for me.
Rarely do we notice the trajectory of our lives change in an instant except in retrospect. I had one of those moments in 2022, but it took me months to internalize it. Staring out into Lake Mantasoa with a cup of Malagasy coffee in my right hand, I listened passively as two creative colleagues discussed future projects and grant applications, only half listening. After all, I planned to keep studying with my teacher for a few months until I was magically the desire of every young artist program and agent in the country. As I zipped up my pink raincoat to brace myself against the morning breeze, their attention turned toward me.
“Victoria, if you could design any artistic project for yourself, what would it be?”
Flustered, I said, “I’m not really a creative person. I just want to have a traditional career.” I will never forget my reply.
Years ago, I should’ve figured out that a “traditional” music career would never happen for me. 2022 is the year I finally started to embrace that.
By the end of the trip, I had resolved to apply for two prestigious grants and felt like a genuine performing artist for the first time in over two years. Everyone there viewed me as a colleague–not a technically deficient student, but a fellow musician. I lost that feeling somewhere in the endless rejection and criticism. Sometimes, you just have to go to a different continent to gain perspective, I guess.
Fast forward a few months, and I’m nervously retooling my definition of being a working artist. I have a pesky tendency to plow through my life full speed ahead without acknowledging my growth and setbacks, never satisfied with my progress or trajectory. What better time to look at myself than the end of an especially precarious year?
I’d be lying to you if I said this year was easy. I was able to hide my failures behind the walls of the pandemic, but after two years of a career-imploding tornado, this was the year I finally had to clean up the mess left behind. I’m still picking up what’s left and figuring out what I can do with them. I sort of feel like a puzzle missing a few essential pieces.
When I look back on this year, I will remember sleepless nights with a new puppy that my old voice teacher told me not to get because she would “be a distraction.” I’ll remember almost backing out of the Madagascar contract, which was professionally and personally life-changing. I’ll remember mourning the end of a toxic relationship and healing other connections that had endured damage for one reason or another. I’ll recall running my voice into the ground and planting the seeds for vocal rebirth. Either I’ll look back and think this year was when I was able to shift my singing career in a way that would change my life for the better or was the beginning of the end of my musical goals. I don’t know that part yet.
Looking forward to 2023, I’m uncertain but optimistic. Singing is taking me abroad at least twice next year. I’ve developed new goals and project ideas with mentors and collaborators, so stay tuned there, too.
I came as close as I ever have to quitting singing in 2022, which caused me to think deeply about the things I like about being a musician. I like being challenged, problem-solving, working with others, self-motivation, attention to detail, being in front of people, and having a flexible schedule. There are careers outside of singing where I could have those things. Unfortunately for me, the things I love most are music, singing, and the arts. So, here I am– not quitting a career that seems to want to abandon me consistently and figuring out where I can meaningfully and realistically fit into this incredibly cutthroat industry. I’m open to widening what that means.
The last thing I want to say this year is thank you. Writing this blog kept me focused when I was at one of the lowest points of my life. I have a paid freelancing gig that I’m starting in the new year because you all empowered me to keep writing– I finally felt good at something. Every time you reached out to me to say you enjoyed a post, that my honesty spoke to you or that I made you laugh kept me going and allowed me to open up my interests and skills to another medium outside of music. I honestly can’t thank you all enough for reading my selfish ramblings twice per week. You give me hope.
Honestly, I’ve been dreading this one a little because there’s no way around it– this song is about sex, and my mom and all of her friends read this blog. It’s also about sex in a very pre-sexual revolution sort of light– intimacy leads to babies, this is the only function of sexual relations, and everything else is SIN, I TELL YOU!! SIN!!!! Mom and friends, I’m sorry.
Even in 1840, we know people had sex outside of marriage. In fact, young men were encouraged to “sow their wild oats,” so to speak, with prostitutes and the like, while women were expected to know absolutely nothing about sex and needed teaching from their husbands. Haven’t you all watched Bridgerton? The shame of losing one’s virginity and the burden of unplanned pregnancy has always fallen on the woman, and that hasn’t gone away. A quote from The Breakfast Club comes to mind regarding virginity as a woman: “If you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.” Remember in my introduction to Frauenbild Fridays when I mentioned the “Madonna/Whore Complex”? People love to shame other people about sex, especially women and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Most people know Margaret Atwood for her novel turned TV show, The Handmaid’s Tale. It was my favorite book I studied in high school, and it inspired me to read all of Atwood’s work I could get my hands on. Most of her writing is centered around dystopic future universes dripping with seething commentary on our current world. However, she wrote a historical novel in 1996, Alias Grace. It’s set around the time our song cycle was composed. One of the most riveting and angering plotlines is a maid in the tale engaging in a romance with a son of the family she works for, who gets her pregnant. He claims she got knocked up by somebody else and refuses to acknowledge the child. Knowing she will lose her well-paying servant position and reputation, the maid attempts to abort the fetus. She bleeds out on her bed and dies. So yeah, that’s what happened in 1840 when a woman had a Süsser Freund encounter–or perhaps 2040 if we keep eliminating reproductive rights.
Sexuality is a controversial topic these days. Many people in the United States believe that unless you’re attempting to conceive a child, any sexual act is unholy and their job to punish. Right-wing commentators unleash a vendetta upon the LGBTQ+ community daily. Reproductive rights diminish around the country. A small group of people’s desire to control American citizens’ private lives is disgusting, unacceptable, and, unfortunately, historically consistent. When will we learn?
Intimacy is just that– it’s intimate. It’s a shared moment between two (or more, you do you) people that is no one else’s business. Intimacy is the glistening glue holding this piece together. When I hear this song performed well, it’s almost as if I’m uncomfortable invading this private moment between two people. Their hopes, dreams, and wants are between just the two of them.
This song is just so beautiful. From personal experience, it’s also wicked hard to sing– it’s incredibly exposed and requires precision equal to that of a tightrope walker. The understated accompaniment, paired with the impossibly long vocal lines, paints an atmosphere of sensuality and privacy from the first chord. As the piano line animates in the middle section, the vocalist gains energy and courage, and the relaxation back into calming bliss is a powerful musical experience.
I’m so happy that our Frauenbild can practice vulnerability and experience safety and security with a partner she loves. I delight in the fact that she was married at a time when falling pregnant out of wedlock was life-threatening. I’m thrilled that she experienced a positive sexual awakening. Everyone deserves that, and not everyone is safe to love who they want to love right now or even how they want to love.
God called on his people to “love thy neighbor.” Let’s do that.
On Friday morning, instead of rising blissfully full of turkey and mashed potatoes, I woke up with the telltale signs of an impending cold. I went on the attack. Canceled plans? Check. Extra hydration and rest? Oh yeah. Echinacea, Vitamin C, Zinc, and Zicam? Absolutely. Raw garlic? Yikes, but let’s do this.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, the cold has changed its permanent mailing address to my nose and throat. I know exactly how I acquired this unwanted tenant–teaching is opening oneself up to a petri dish of possibility every day. A student waltzed into my studio last Monday, and when I asked my standard, “how are you today?” she replied, “I’m good; my throat hurts really bad, though!”
Did we learn nothing from the pandemic?
Guilt rushes through my whole body. I drank wine on Thanksgiving, and alcohol torches the immune system. I didn’t stand a chance. The classic shame reel plays in my brain: “This is my fault. I bet responsible singers didn’t drink on Thanksgiving.”
Nobody likes being sick, but singers can’t get sick. A cold, allergies, or flu could mean ostensibly setting fire to hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, I couldn’t nip this cold completely in the bud on Friday, so here I am, four days later, hacking away and feeling my vocal range dwindle by the hour. It’s like having the polyp again, except snot rolls down my face as I type. Too graphic? Oh well, bodies are gross. You’ll be ok.
Overzealous voice teachers love to tell their students what they “need” to do to care for their vocal health. Drink plenty of water. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Don’t smoke. Eat well and exercise daily. Sleep with a humidifier. Get adequate rest. Avoid loud environments that require a raised voice. Don’t scream or yell. Be perfect and do not have fun, ever. You will get sick and lose your voice. It’s no wonder my first reaction to getting a cold (a mild illness that we all know is notoriously difficult to avoid) is that it’s my fault. Hey, brain– I’m just a human who was out in the world with other humans, and this caused me to catch a minor cold. Stop being so mean. I can hear every voice teacher I’ve ever had lecturing me in my head as I tell my other inner voice to shut up.
For example, this is the kind of literature that keeps singers up at night:
Of course, I read this now and think, “how did I not realize that a spiral of vocal misuse and a general laissez-faire attitude toward my vocal health was going to hurl me toward vocal injury?” My answer to that question is in a few of my past posts: denial. I also think scaring students into believing a single glottal attack gone wrong or yelling at a party will result in permanent vocal damage. Haven’t you ever heard a baby cry? Their vocal cords are fine.
At worst, this minor cold might cause me to cancel auditions and sing less well at a gig this weekend. That is truly the worst outcome, but many of us genuinely lose it when we’re ill because we risk losing income and opportunities. I know professionals who quit singing because the sheer pressure of remaining in pristine vocal health at all times is too emotionally and mentally taxing.
Despite my Nyquil-induced haze and copious napping over the long weekend, I still sat at my tablet to write. I may be forced into a polyp era of vocal rest until this cold passes, but writing has yet to betray me. My vocal folds and nasal passages are an absolute mess, but my mind and fingers still work. Singing is so fickle; writing is not. As long as I’m conscious and inspired, I can put words on paper. It’s comforting to know I’m not rendered completely useless by a sniffle.
I feel myself shifting away from singing just a little. I’m not sure if it’s permanent, but I need to feel like I’m working toward something meaningful, and opera just isn’t there for me right now. I’m not sure if it was ever really there. The familiar feeling of imposter syndrome sets in as I browse articles on how to start freelance writing– who am I to write about anything? What do I even know?
The quest for a purposeful life haunts me as my thirtieth birthday looms closer by the day. I wanted to be a full-time operatic performer. Who am I kidding? I still want that. I pursued that dream, albeit with many mistakes that likely prevented the desired outcome, at the expense of everything else throughout my twenties, and I can’t shake the thought that I have nothing to show for myself.
The catchphrase, “life is short,” is meant to inspire us to take risks and enjoy ourselves because time on this earth is fleeting and precious. I agree; don’t get me wrong. However, if you’ve spent enough time around me, you probably heard me posit, “life is long.” This privileged saying relies on my fortune of living in a relatively peaceful country with adequate healthcare and the hopeful absence of early-onset illnesses and accidents, but if all goes well, life is long. I have time. You have time. Life may be short, but if we’re lucky, it’s not that short. The ability to pursue a meaningful existence doesn’t conclude at thirty years old. Admittedly, it gets a little more challenging to pursue my particular goal, which I already feel. Companies that heard me in years past when I was a worse singer don’t grant me auditions anymore because of my age. I believe Taylor Swift recently called herself a “geriatric popstar.” She’s 32 years old.
I’ve decided that my thirties will be about diversifying my skills. I crave the operatic career; I really do. That’s not going to disappear. When I look past the desire for a life in music specifically, I feel an impetus to do something interesting, something most people wouldn’t be able to do. I want to enjoy all of what life has to offer and achieve something great. Maybe it’s a bit Pollyanna-ish, but I believe we’re all capable of something great; we just have to dig deep inside ourselves to discover what we can offer.
On Saturday night, I popped a couple of Nyquil, made myself a cup of Good Earth tea, and settled on the couch to watch the 2019 biographical comedy film Dolemite Is My Name. Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, an aspiring singer who works multiple dead-end jobs to support his equally dead-end musical career. One day, inspired by the stories of a homeless man who visits the record store where he works, he begins a stand-up career that leads to a string of comedy films in the 1970s. He is known as the godfather of rap.
Rudy Ray Moore felt like a failure. His attempts to forge a musical career led only to closed doors, and he was stuck. Due to his creative mind, work ethic, and a stroke of luck, Rudy eventually made his mark in the music industry. He didn’t give up; he merely diversified his skill set and shifted his perspective. I admire that.
We may not have learned to stay home when we’re sick from a two-year global pandemic, but I think we learned how to modify plans when necessary. I didn’t believe I would ever live in Minnesota again, and here I am, happily typing away in the suburbs. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I hadn’t been open to exploring options outside of a strict performing career. Openness is the most important quality I’ve cultivated over the past couple of years. I’d like to take a page out of Rudy Ray Moore’s playbook– I’m open to exploring skills outside of singing.
At this exact moment, however, I’m most open to another cup of tea and a dose of DayQuil. The snow is falling beautifully outside, the lights of my garland flash on the fireplace mantle, and I need another Kleenex, or I’ll scream. ‘Tis the season, indeed. Eat your raw garlic, and take care. You’re still a worthy human being, even when you’re sneezing on yourself.
My sister got married in May of 2021, during an exhilarating time when most people recently became vaccinated for COVID-19 and began crawling out of their shells. People were ready to attend a wedding and have a great time. We all wanted the day to be perfect for my sister, an angel baby of wonder and beauty, who deserved the best day ever.
The bridal party got ready at my parents’ house, and everybody appreciated how relaxed it was. I did Kayla’s makeup in the bathroom, where I spent every morning obsessing over my appearance for fifteen years. My mom laid out a spread of sandwiches and pasta salads on the coffee table purchased years ago. Dad and I spied on the couple’s first look from the bedroom window, gazing out into the greenery and marsh of the backyard. It all felt so familiar, and yet there was a buzziness surrounding every aspect of the morning. Our song for today, written nearly two hundred years ago, captures that same anticipatory emotional state.
When I look back on my sister’s wedding day, I think about everyone in the bridal party sitting cross-legged in our sweatpants on the living room floor, eating lunch, and cracking jokes like it was a typical day. We excitedly awaited my brother-in-law’s arrival, enjoyed the casual, candid photos, and fastened all of the buttons, of which there were many, on my sister’s beautiful ballgown-style wedding dress. That was probably my favorite part of the entire day– when I felt my sister’s unusually expectant energy resonate through such a familiar space. She was all smiles, a little ball of happiness. The house was electric.
It seems like the excitement of such a momentous occasion hasn’t changed much since 1840, but there’s one significant emotion missing from most American weddings today: dread. Listen, if you feel differently, let me know; I’ve never been married. Our Frauenbild is saying goodbye to female company as she enters a life of servitude to her husband and children. Bye sisters! Bye friends! What a bummer. Let’s experience this whirlwind of a piece together, shall we?
My sister wasn’t weighed down by a feeling of existential dread on her wedding day because she wasn’t shifting her relationships– I think we can all happily agree that marriage no longer means cloistering oneself away from friends and family. However, it does seem that connections outside of immediate family still tend to weaken over time. Maybe for modern folks, the life change of marriage isn’t what makes adult friendships so tricky to maintain, but rather the pull of so many responsibilities in a thousand different directions. We’re all incredibly busy people, and we can only allocate so much attention to each facet of our lives. Friendships often suffer first and worst in our hectic lives, which is a mistake. I am a massive advocate for prioritizing non-romantic relationships for personal well-being.
It’s Friendsgiving season. For anyone reading over the age of thirty-five, Friendsgiving is a Thanksgiving celebrated with friends as opposed to family, often held the weekend before the traditional holiday but sometimes in place of festivities with family at all. Little pumpkins and an orange plaid runner decorate my table, and I even have festive rings hugging the cloth napkins I purchased. I mean business. The guests in question this evening are friends I’ve had since childhood, people who know my innermost thoughts and my most embarrassing moments. They have seen me throw tantrums over my hair and laugh at inopportune moments. I’ve been looking forward to hosting them for a couple of weeks now because spending time in their company genuinely makes me feel whole. Friends outside of the partnership of a romantic relationship are imperative to my happiness, and you need them, too. So does our Frauenbild.
I don’t have much to say about feminism today (a supreme shock, I’m sure), and maybe it’s the season, but what I’d like to allow us to reflect on today are relationships. The people closest to us make our lives worthwhile, enable enjoyment, and restore our spirits. I think that’s part of the reason I look back on the morning of my sister’s wedding day with such joy– I could feel the positive energy emanating from some of the people I love the most.
We have these little computers in our hands that connect us to anyone in the world, yet many of us feel increasingly disconnected. Take this opportunity to text or call a friend, see how they’re doing, and ask about their day. They want to hear from you. I need to do this too. We may not have worriedly said goodbye to all of our friends on our wedding day like our Frauenbild, but we still let relationships fade slowly by the day, week, and year when we don’t prioritize the connections that enrich our lives so profoundly.
I yawn in my childhood bed, sleepily blinking my eyes awake to the view of old photos on the wall. My sister is wide awake, atypical for her night owl self. We’re opposites in that way.
“Today’s the day!” I shout in a sing-songy voice, quoting Finding Nemo. “The sun is shining; the tank is clean!” We’ve laughed through this quote on monumental days for as long as I can remember.
We make our way to the bathroom, and I notice a tight, 1980s curling iron stuffed away in a drawer under the makeup I’ll be using today. I cringe and remember the time I tried curling my hair in 8th grade, and it was a total disaster. I threw a tantrum and was late for school. I sigh and move past the unpleasant thought– there will only be happy tears today.
I spot some old hot rollers tucked away next to the useless curling iron and recall carefully rolling up my sister’s hair for Rock ’n’ Roll Revival–a much more successful bathroom adventure. That’s the energy we’ll channel.
I stop cracking jokes, so I don’t smear the makeup on her smooth, glowing face. She looks beautiful. Her bridal party arrives throughout the morning, each member cooing over her appearance and filling the room with joy.
I run out of good hair day luck and struggle with my own. It’s the 8th-grade catastrophe all over again. One fake eyelash falls like a black spider into the sink, and I kiss that idea goodbye. Who needs falsies, anyway? The sound of excited chatter and laughter fills the house. It’s ok if my curls don’t fall in my face quite right and my eyelashes come unglued; today isn’t about me.
We throw the dress over her head. Poof! A quote from Anastasia, another childhood favorite, pops into my brain. “The Russian circus– I think it’s still in here!” I meticulously begin fastening every button, step by step. Everyone is watching; the photographer snaps a photo.
She looks perfect. No dread, no second thoughts. Only joy, surrounded by her best friends and family for life.
I drive the familiar highway northwest, reminiscing on the countless trips back and forth over four consequential years of my life. I remember when Taylor Swift’s Red came out over fall break in 2012, and we blasted the album multiple times on a carpool trip back to campus. I recall belting Wicked with my sister as she prepared to help me move back into an apartment during my junior year of college. I even drudge up the sleepy ride back from a Macklemore concert in the Twin Cities with friends right before he became famous; thank you very much. This trip was before every Concordia alum moved to the big city, aka Minneapolis, post-graduation. I swear, most Cobbers are either in Minneapolis or Fargo now. I guess I’m one of them.
What is a Cobber? At Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, our mascot is an angry ear of corn named Kernel Cobb, who inspired the slogan, “Fear the Ear.” This is serious and not a joke. Roll Cobbs!
The campus is mostly the same, although a giant “Welcome to Concordia College” sign spans loudly across the skyway connecting the central part of campus to the sporty side. I didn’t go to that side very often.
There’s already snow on the ground and a noticeable chill in the air– it’s funny how big of a difference three hours north makes. I recall many pitch-black nights walking with my fellow Concordia Choir members from rehearsal to dinner, barely breathing because it was so freezing. Up north is a different kind of cold. That cold hits different, as the kids might say.
The building I walk toward hasn’t changed much. A jokester has put a crimson-red scarf on the small statue of Paul J. Christiansen outside of the recital hall– I smile. Someone always did something like this. Most of the faculty names on the doors remain the same as when I left seven years ago, though the space is notably missing the legendary name of René Clausen. His spirit haunts this space.
The halls are bustling with students; it’s a Friday afternoon, and I’m guessing The Concordia Choir still meets at 4:30 sharp. Everyone stares at me as I pass by, making a beeline for my favorite practice room. Everybody knows everybody at Concordia, especially in Hvidsten, the music building. I’m too old to be a student; there are no guest performers or faculty on the schedule, so who am I? I flash my fake, midwestern smile without making eye contact and keep walking. My room is open.
I always liked this room because the mirror made the space feel larger. Many hours were spent picking apart my appearance in this broom closet. I remember a specific day when I wore a pair of jeans that had grown slightly too tight and a sweater that never looked right on me. Still, I stubbornly wore the outfit anyway, and I barely got any practicing done that afternoon because I was just staring at my body in the mirror, willing it to change. “I’ll start doing My Fitness Pal again today,” I told myself, my eyes welling up with tears. “I need to run more. I won’t go to Mick’s (the Thursday night spot for Concordia students) this week.” Poor Victoria. How would she feel now, staring in the same mirror, fifteen pounds heavier than the last time she looked into it? Yet another sign of my failures.
I try not to think too often of how past Victoria would feel about me because I know she’d be disappointed– I established that last week. It’s hard not to think of her in this space filled with ghosts, demons, and memories. But past Victoria was an idiot and didn’t know anything. She had so much to learn. I banish those thoughts and warm up for my brief rehearsal with the exhale-card-holding pianist. Yes, he’s back. If you haven’t gathered this, he’s a recurring character in my life.
“Erika!” He exclaims as I walk into the recital hall. There are no demons in here, only friendly ghosts. I have positive, warm memories of this space. Whether it was hours-long coachings with Dobby the house-elf (as he will henceforth be known in this blog), aria class, or waiting for my entrance as Cenerentola for opera scenes, the energy in the recital hall was always dynamic and inviting. As we drop needle on my pieces and I sing out into the hall, I think of every solo performance I sang on this stage over four years. It feels like home.
I often look back on my time at Concordia resentfully. When I graduated high school, my goal was to go to Concordia, sing under Dr. René Clausen with THE Concordia Choir, and direct a high school choir. Boom. I had it all figured out. However, by the end of my sophomore year, I realized I didn’t like choir much and that I loved opera. I changed my major to vocal performance, but I didn’t want to quit choir because my friends were there, and I liked going on the tours. Seriously, that’s what kept me in Concordia Choir. I was also hung up on prestige and ~social currency~. I can admit that now. It all looks so silly in retrospect.
I spent years undoing how I sang at Concordia– high larynx, darkened vowels, little vibrato. Regardless, those hours spent in the South Choral Room meant something to me. The demons haunting my memories were actually friendly ghosts.
I gained so much from Concordia that I couldn’t acknowledge for so long. The faculty at this small school supported me unequivocally. I got to travel the country once a year for free and sing with a nationally renowned choir. I went to Italy, for crying out loud! I was an incredibly naive young woman and became a person in a welcoming, safe and encouraging environment. I made friends for life here, and even though we didn’t connect at Concordia, I wouldn’t be with Casey if it wasn’t for that place. It’s where I met Dobby, who shaped my artistry more than any other teacher or mentor in my entire artistic career to date.
My perspective on Concordia shifted, finally, after seven years. Regardless of whether or not my audition from this weekend leads to a contract, I’m thankful for the haunting feeling that I made a mistake releasing itself into the universe. I’ll never know whether transferring to a conservatory would have changed the trajectory of my vocal career. I’ll never understand why I stayed at Concordia. I just did.
If you read my latest Frauenbild Fridays post, you’ll know that one of the rings I wear is a ruby class ring from Concordia. When I lived in North Carolina, nobody ever asked about the ring except to note its beauty, and that was a rare comment. Being back in Minnesota, however, I get plenty of remarks from fellow Concordia graduates or folks who know about the Cobber ring tradition.
My church choir has a new alto, and she is the sweetest lady. On Sunday, she asked me if I was wearing a Cobber ring. I smiled and exclaimed, “Yes, I’m a Cobber!” The change had already taken root. I usually brush Cobber comments off, but two days ago, I was grateful and proud to be a graduate of Concordia College. I surprised myself yet again. I’ve learned that surprises are everywhere if you pay attention.
There’s only one way to end the reflection on my undergraduate institution, and it’s this:
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?”
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.
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.