Big Decisions – Part 2

Part 2: My Story

I grew up in a small town.  I was stubborn, and all I knew was that I wanted to be a singer.  I only applied to a few schools, all in my home state of California, and I figured that if I was good enough to get in to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, then I’d go there.  My parents weren’t crazy about the idea, and they thought I’d be better off getting a more well-rounded education at a regular university.  But I was stubborn and determined to pursue music no matter what.

Once I got to the conservatory, I was immersed in a whole new world of music.  I’d played piano and sung for my whole life, but I knew very little about music history, literature, or theory.  I was fascinated.  My grades hadn’t been that great in high school, but once I was studying the things that interested me, I excelled academically.  Emotionally, however, I struggled, and I was often lonely and insecure.  I also struggled financially, and worked hard to support myself.  I missed many opportunities for additional education and training (summer programs, etc.) because they were simply too expensive.  There were many ups and downs, and I was incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful, supportive voice teacher who taught me how to sing as well as how to survive.

The main problem was, I was not quite mature enough to handle the pressure.  To be perfectly honest, I was kind of an emotional wreck for most of those  4 years.  I spent too much time in unhealthy relationships and friendships.  And I took rejection too personally, so every time I didn’t get the part I auditioned for (or any part, for that matter), I was absolutely devastated.   I knew I was making progress, but I still wasn’t being cast in anything.  I realize now that there are lots of reasons for this, but mostly I was awkward on stage (since I had no real acting training, and very limited experience) and not confident enough.

When I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I wanted to apply to other schools, but I didn’t have the money for application fees, let alone plane tickets across the country if I got an audition.  I thought that continuing at SFCM was the best choice, since I was happy with my teacher, and I was already there.  However, that turned out to be a mistake, and I was especially miserable that year.  My financial struggles increased as well, and I finally reached a point where I realized that the education I was paying dearly for was not the education I wanted or needed.  I needed stage experience and acting training, and I was not getting that at all.  I also doubted whether I was on the right path, and did not think I wanted to be a professional opera singer.  I decided to leave SFCM and move back to my hometown while I figured out my next move.

That summer I was also fortunate enough to attend the OperaWorks program in Southern California.  I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that those two weeks changed my life.   The program included classes in improv, performance techniques, and movement: everything that had been missing from my previous education.  I began learning how to move on stage, and realized how disconnected from my body I was.  We also took yoga classes every day, which made my constant back pain go away and started me on the path to a healthier lifestyle– over the next year I lost almost 60 pounds.

I was fortunate that my tiny hometown has an active music community, and I was able to sing lead roles in several productions with Mendocino Chamber Opera.  Working with just one or two other singers and the director gave me the training and confidence I needed to become a better actor.  I also started teaching voice lessons, and began finally figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

The thing is, I love to sing, and performing in operas is so much fun.  But I am also sensitive, a perfectionist, and an over-thinker, and those qualities hold me back as a singer.  However, those are the same qualities that make me a great teacher.  I realized that, rather than trying to change so many things about myself so I could thrive as a singer, why not find a career that actually fits me?

But, enough about me.  The bottom line is, even though it was tough and maybe not the best choice for me, I wouldn’t change any of it because I learned so much and I am happy with where I am now.  But would I recommend that path to my young students?  That depends on several factors, which I will discuss in the next (and final) post in this series.

Big Decisions – Part 1

I recently spent part of a voice lesson discussing college choices, majors, and life plans with one of my students.  It got me thinking about the choices I made and what I might do differently knowing what I know now.   I have far too much to say on this subject for just one post, so this will be the first in a series of entries.

When I was finishing high school and making huge decisions that would determine the course of my adult life, I had no idea what I was getting into.   I wanted to be an opera singer, and I didn’t care what anyone said.  I’m not saying that I wish I had done things differently, but I wish I had at least done my research.

Most importantly,  I wish I had known what I was choosing, so that I could have been prepared for it.  Specifically, what does the path to being a professional opera singer look like?  When I choose this career, what does that mean for the next ten years of my life?  You can find an excellent answer to that question here: What does an operatic career look like?  Building a career as a professional singer takes time, money, determination, and lots and lots of auditioning.   For more on auditioning, read this: How much did your last job interview set you back?

The thing is, getting an opera career off the ground takes money.  Quite a bit of money.  You’ll need audition/performance outfits, not to mention the money for application fees, accompanists, travel expenses, and tuition fees for the “pay to sing” programs that give you the experience needed to be considered for the paying gigs.   Assuming that you don’t have unlimited money at your disposal, you’ll need a steady job to fund all of this.   Being an opera singer can pay the bills eventually, but you’ll need a good day job in order to make it to that point.

Building an opera career also means learning to tolerate rejection.  In the beginning, you will probably be rejected a lot.  It’s nothing personal, that’s just how it works.  It takes time and practice to become great at auditioning.  Most importantly, you have to believe in your talent and turn each rejection into motivation to keep yourself moving forward.

That being said, being an opera singer is also amazing and totally fun.  And there’s also no rule that states you have to make it to the professional level to have value as a singer– there are many definitions of success.   My goal here is not to discourage anyone from following his or her dreams, I only want you to plan for the challenges involved so they do not derail you.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my own experiences and struggles, how I sabotaged myself with naive enthusiasm and lack of practical preparation, and how I still would not change a thing because the music training I’ve received has made me a better person overall.

Why I teach music.

I’ve wanted to be a music teacher since I was old enough to appreciate how amazing my own music teachers were.  Freshman year of high school, to be more precise.  But I got distracted by what people thought I should do, and by my own ego and ambition.  I went to the San Francisco Conservatory because I was so excited to have been accepted, but I really had no idea what I was getting into.  Then I got caught up in the beauty of opera and the wonderful hard work of classical singing, and for a while I thought I wanted to be a professional opera singer.  Soon after I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, however, I realized I was on the wrong path.

Don’t get me wrong– I love opera, and I love singing.  Being on stage is fun and exciting, and I enjoy the intense, focused work that goes into preparing for an excellent performance.   But I’ve learned that I just don’t have the personality of a professional opera singer.  A professional singer needs to be tough, driven, outgoing, extremely confident, and able to tolerate rejection.   It’s not an easy career, and you have to want it badly enough to push through all of the challenges you’ll face before you start succeeding.

My amazing voice teacher in college used to ask me this question at least once a year: “What do you need in order to be happy?”  Do you need to be famous?  Do you need to be popular?  Do you need a family?  My answer was always the same:  I need to sing.  I don’t need to sing on big, fancy opera house stages.  I just need to sing.  I don’t need to always be the center of attention, and I don’t need fame to make me feel validated.  Not that I have anything against my colleagues who are pursuing a professional opera career–  I really admire their dedication and strength.  I often feel a slight twinge of jealousy when I hear about the success of my former classmates, and part of me still wishes I had kept going down that path.

But then I started teaching, and I can’t imagine devoting my life to anything else.  My students are amazing, and I learn as much from them as they learn from me.  Teaching voice is like solving the most beautiful, intricate puzzle you can imagine, and I love puzzles.  Teaching piano and music theory is equally rewarding, and watching my students learn and grow makes me so proud.  This is not some kind of marketing scheme or insincere exaggeration, I am lucky to have found a career that I genuinely love this much.

I will use this blog to express my thoughts on music, education, creativity, life, adventure, and other things that bring me joy, and to connect with others who share those interests.  Most of all, I want to share with young musicians the vital pieces of knowledge that I did not learn until later.