Or, learning to trust my own ears and experience
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.