Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hearing the Truth

My father has a hobby (obsession?) of collecting electronic equipment and computers. For as long as I can remember, he has loved searching for a deal on the latest technology, purchasing it for a good price, and then ensconcing it in one of the rooms of my family’s home. Some of his projects include creating a small home theater in our basement and creating an elaborate network of computers that are all somehow connected even though they are in various rooms and floors of the house.

When I was in high school, my father just had to have the newest toy out on the market – a mini-disc player. He had done some research and discovered that it was cheaper to buy one in Japan. It just so happened that my uncle was making a trip to Japan in the near future. So, at my father’s request, my uncle picked one up for him and brought it back to us. It was a moderately heavy silver brick covered with buttons all labeled in Japanese.

When I became a senior in High School and was sure that I was music school bound the following year, I decided that I needed to have it. My father generously “lent” it to me, probably knowing that he would never see it again. No matter – there was a newer, smaller, sleeker model coming out that he wanted to upgrade to anyway.

I originally had wanted it so that I could make good quality audition screening tapes cheaply. I never thought to use the thing as part of my practice. I mean, who likes listening to themselves?

A couple of years later, when I was in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, the Studio director and I were having a meeting about my progress when she asked me, “Do you ever record your lessons and coachings?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, you should consider it. It can be a really helpful tool.”

“I prefer to work by feel. I don’t like to record myself. It feels like a waste, because I know that I won’t listen to it, and I really do learn by how it feels – not how it sounds.”

With a simple “ok”, she let the issue drop.

Fast forward another couple of years, to this summer at Marlboro. After a morning dress rehearsal, a recording engineer came up to me at lunch and handed me a CD labeled “Schumann Dress Rehearsal”. I muttered a thank you as I took another bite of my sandwich and put the CD in my binder, promptly forgetting about it. Later that day, after I got back to my room, the CD fell out of my binder as I was putting my things down on my desk. I thought, well, why not give it a listen?

I popped the CD into my laptop, donned my headphones, and pressed play.

We were good.

Quite good, actually. But I was singing a little flat in a passage in the second song. I could hear myself coming off of my breath as I approached another high note in the third song, causing a little bump in the smoothness of the line. I was singing a little too loud in one place, but could afford to give a little bit more in another.

Why didn’t I do this all the time? I mean, this was like being my own voice teacher or vocal coach!

When I left Marlboro, I resolved to dig out that mini-disc player that had lain dormant for almost 10 years and make use of it. I was going to record my lessons. I would then take it on the road with me and record rehearsals.

I actually kept my resolution when I got to NYC and had some lessons. I recorded most of them in September and was really happy with the result. I could actually study what I had learned in detail in between lessons! So much more information began to stick.

I dutifully packed the mini-disc player in my suitcase when I left for France.

And it remained into my suitcase until today.

Why did I leave it there for so long? I was afraid to hear myself. I was afraid that I would hate what I heard.

Lindoro is scary. Lindoro strikes fear into my heart, because his music is simply so technically demanding. I have slaved over this role for years and only recently had the feeling that I know what I am doing.

Why would I ever accept such a role, you ask? Well, because I know I can do it. I have done it before – twice, in fact. I was sick as a dog the last time I did it, but it still went fine. Also, it’s a challenge that, somewhere deep inside, I know I can tackle. And by overcoming such challenges, we discover a deeper layer of our singing, as well as a deeper layer of ourselves.

When I caught a cold ten days ago, I was out of commission for almost a week. The past few days of rehearsal have mostly been about trying to build back my vocal stamina and strength. It’s been a frustrating process trying to find my voice through all the mucus again, and I was beginning to panic.

For some reason, I decided that today I should record myself.

After running the first aria, I was discouraged. My cold was still bothering me just a bit, and I felt like I was negotiating a mine-field as I sang it. Singing isn’t supposed to be that scary – it’s supposed to be fun. The choir inside my head began ranting off thoughts like “that was awful”, “you are a terrible singer”, among other choice phrases.

At the first break, I picked up my ancient mini-disc player and listened to what I had recorded.

It wasn’t bad at all. It was actually quite good.

I could hear the problems, but they weren’t ridiculous and insurmountable. I could quickly address them and begin to solve them myself. Phrases that scared me in their difficulty I discovered actually sounded quite easy. I didn’t need to worry so much about singing them, and I could actually ease up a little in some places. I needed to make sure to get a good breath here and there, make sure not to push in another place, maybe take this lick slower, another lick perhaps faster. I could hear that I needed to make adjustments – not overhaul my technique.

As the rehearsal went on, I made the adjustments that I thought I needed to, and I gradually felt my voice open up and my body relax. I started to feel like “myself” for the first time in over a week. I finally felt like I was beginning to take steps forward again instead of just slogging through mucus and negativity.

As a singer, I often have a hard time being objective about my singing. I often assume the worst, as I tend to be my own worst critic and I have a cheerfully negative choir that sings songs of self-deprecation in my head constantly. Other times, I don’t notice things that go awry because I am caught up in the heat of the moment. Turning to a recording of myself helps me be objective, because all it can do is show the truth. And the truth shall set you free.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Changing Times

Can anyone tell me where October went? I would love to know.

I guess the fact that time is flying is a good sign – it feels like I got here just yesterday, but a whole month has flown by. Time flies when you’re having fun, they say.

I had a “cultural” experience with time today.

I woke up this morning, moderately refreshed and happy to have had a day off. I turned on the ipod and let the Handel fly, like I do most mornings, and proceeded to sit down as I wrote my morning pages. As I let my subconscious spew onto the page, I hummed along with various singers singing my favorite Handel arias and realized the following fact: I had won the battle against mucus!

For the first time in a week my voice responded easily without feeling like it was a car that won’t start. The jalopy in my throat felt like it morphed into a new-ish sportscar.

I thought ahead through the day’s rehearsal plan: Finish working on the finale of Act 2, run Act 2, dinner, and then come back to run Act 1. I could actually sing out today and get a feeling for pacing! As I finished my morning pages, I jumped for joy and continued my daily routine. I did some yoga, ate some breakfast, hopped in the shower, and scooted off to the opera house. I glanced down at my phone as I walked in the stage door, waving to the security guard. 14:45. Damn, I thought, I only have ten minutes to warm up – I’ll have to speed through my exercises in order to get on stage in time. I ran up to my dressing room, whipped out the pitch pipe, and started making the crazy noises that constitute my daily warm up, cutting corners where I could in order to be on time. 15:00 struck, and I zipped to the stage, which was completely empty.

Where was everybody?

I looked at the clock over the stage management console.


Apparently, the whole daylight savings change occurs at a different time here in Europe than in the states.

I had absolutely no clue that the time had changed at all. Discovering the time change like that really threw me for a loop physically. 21:30 struck in rehearsal tonight, meaning we had an hour to go, and I wanted to collapse and cry with fatigue. Between the time change and the fact that my body still needs to build some strength back after being sick for a week (something I discovered the hard way tonight sometime towards the end of the Lindoro/Mustafa duet in Act I), I left rehearsal feeling like a shell of myself.

Honestly, I’m strangely hungry right now, and I’d like to eat my exhaustion and frustration. But I’m going to resist and go crawl into bed.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Making It and Getting There

As Kim Witman reports on the process of putting together Wolf Trap Opera’s 2008 season in her blog, this recent entry about her Studio applicants’ career goal statements caught my attention. Those applicants who wrote that they “just wanted to make a living at what I love” seem to have a measure of wisdom that I lacked at that stage of my training.

Throughout college, my brief stint at a conservatory, and my various apprentice programs, “making it” pervaded my thoughts and goals and became an obsession. I ambitiously tried to do anything I could to get out of school and into the working world, and I looked at any success that I had as a sign that I was going to “make it”. I fantasized about winning competition after competition, making my debuts at the worlds biggest opera houses, giving recitals in the most famous concert halls, the thunderous applause that would greet me at those performances, the photo shoots for my album covers, and the sense of coolness I would feel at having “made it”.

All the while, I would moan constantly at the opportunities that weren’t offered to me and complain that the opportunities that I did have were not good enough, were not what I wanted, were not what I deserved. I would look at the success of others and jealously wonder how they had managed to achieve their accomplishments. My ex-boyfriend, Luiz, once pointed out to me that it never seemed like anything was enough. He noted that even being in the Houston Grand Opera Studio (where I was at the time of this conversation – where I had the opportunities to share the stage with some of the most famous and accomplished singers of our time as well as get free lessons, coachings, career advice, language lessons, etc.) was not enough for me. I bristled with anger when he told me this, furious that he could see so easily through to my unbridled, all-consuming, youthful ambition and my spoiled sense of entitlement.

The strange thing was that my fantasies and ambitions were never specific. When fantasizing about singing in the greatest opera houses of the world, I never thought about which roles I would sing. When dreaming of photo shoots for my album covers, I never had any idea about what music would have been recorded on those CDs. I never knew what I would program for my dreamed-of recital tours around the globe. Music, the core essence of what we do, was mysteriously absent from my fantasies.

The summer before my second year in the HGO Studio, about to begin rehearsals for my first Barber of Seville at Wolf Trap, I began to notice the adverse affects of my ambition on my soul. Warming up before our first rehearsal with the conductor, I found myself panicking that I wasn’t good enough. I became certain that everyone would hate my singing and even had nightmares about being fired. I worried that this was going to be a disaster and that my career would never recover.

Something inside me snapped, and I realized that I absolutely could not live the rest of my life like that.

So, I picked up the copy of The Artist’s Way that the ex-boyfriend had given me earlier that year, found a journal to do morning pages in, and resolved myself to finding a therapist the minute I got back to Houston. It was then that my attitudes began to change.

I discovered that gratitude and humility were important aspects to life as a musician and a performer. I discovered that my love of and passion for music had been usurped by ambition and “career” aspirations. My desires began to change and become more specific. I stopped fantasizing about a vague future and became more focused on the details of the present. I became more focused on doing the best work I could possibly do and constantly trying to improve as opposed to being the “best”(whatever I imagined that was) and comparing myself to other people. Competitors became colleagues, and I discovered that it is not the flashy result or performance that is important, but the substance of the work and the journey to get there. I discovered that in reality, there is no “making it” or “getting there” – there is only the going.

As much as I hated to admit it, I found that I had sort of stumbled into life as a musician. I liked music, first as a violinist in my youth, and then as a singer in my teenage years into college. Looking back, I realize I was responding to a calling that I had to answer. But by blindly following that call, I never bothered to ask myself why I was pursuing the path I had chosen. I decided it was what I wanted to do without a single thought as to why, and I naïvely thought I was entitled to a successful career doing it.

Speaking with Jeremy last night, the differences between his path and mine as professional musicians were interesting to me. His attitude is inspiring to me, especially in the fact that it has always been present in his work ethic. He pointed out to me last night that regardless of whether he is playing for a choir of junior high students, playing for a bevy of young violists trying to learn how to deal with their instruments, coaching professional singers, or playing a rehearsal at a great opera company that he always chooses to try play musically and with inspiration in the hopes that whoever he is making music with will respond in kind, and be that much better, enjoy the experience that much more, and come that much closer to discovering that extra level of beauty, technical proficiency, or whatever truth it is they are after. “Isn’t that why we are here? Isn’t that why we do this?” he asked me. Listening to him talk, I agreed, wishing that I had realized that when I started on this path.

Jeremy’s primary goal has always been to be able to make a living as a musician. He always has known that it is an earned blessing to be able to call music our vocation and to be able to support ourselves from this work. As a result, every milestone he has reached and every accomplishment he has achieved are real privileges to him and opportunities to be savored. It also shows in his fierce commitment and care for the work, which is something I marvel at. It was never something I realized until I was far into my training, and I must say that I am glad that I can see it now. It allows me to do this and find real happiness and fulfillment as I explore the paths that this profession opens for me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Working / Cold

I said to someone recently that I have not ever worked as hard as I am now here in Lille.

I think between my work-aholism and an adventurous and intensely fun visit with Jeremy this weekend, I’ve pushed myself a little too hard, as I now find myself at home with a nose that is running like a faucet.

My comment about working so hard wasn’t a complaint, actually. I have really been enjoying toiling away on this role, because it is the scariest thing that I will ever sing. It is high, it is fast, it is slightly uncomfortable, and it is a lot of singing. Technically, it requires me to walk a very narrow tightrope in order to pull it off, all the while trying to be expressive and run around on stage. Working diligently on it everyday both in my practice room and in rehearsal is how I deal with my fear. It’s a great feeling to confront my fear – it’s like lifting a fog that pervades my mind, and I see more clearly and proceed more confidently with every step I take. As the days go by, I find that I am learning to enjoy myself as I negotiate the technical traps that riddle the piece – my fear begins to give way to fun.

The most enjoyable aspect of rehearsal has been getting to rehearse in the theater itself. Oftentimes, either for expense or budgetary reasons or simply because the theater has so much going on, rehearsal time in the theater is severely limited. Oftentimes we only get about five or six rehearsals in the theater itself, and we spend almost a month in the rehearsal room. Here, we have the opportunity to have almost a month of rehearsal time in the theater, on the real set, with our real props. It is great to be able to get to know both the physical space of the set and the theater’s acoustic so well, especially because the theater here is such a gem.

Now I wish my cold would hurry up and go away so I can get back to working this music into my body and voice.

*The top picture is a picture of the exterior of the opera house in Lille. The second picture is the view from my dressing room (which is also functioning as my practice room while I am here).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stepping on Out

Today is National Coming Out Day.

Oddly enough, my mind has been on the subject of coming out a lot lately. One of the ways I’ve had of occupying my alone time here in Lille has been to watch various coming out/gay storylines from a couple of British and American soaps on YouTube (cheesy, I know, but it passes the time). Frankly, I wish in some ways that my coming out had occurred a bit more like those storylines – beautiful guys coming out to parents who quickly deal with their issues about homosexuality and reassure them that they love them no matter what, and then finding beautiful boyfriends shortly thereafter, sometimes helping them come out in their own turn. Not that my own story is so awful…I was just chubby with a waistline that was 5 or 6 inches bigger and there were no potential boyfriends (beautiful or not) in sight. Still, I had so much to be grateful for.

I came out in 1995, when I was 16 years old. Early in the year, I confided my attraction to members of the same sex to my good friend Emily during our free period, because I just couldn’t bear to keep it a secret any longer. She kept my secret for me and was the first positive influence I had in regards to my sexuality. Later that summer, I came out to the rest of the world. While at Interlochen, I met a fellow camper who I had a crush on. When I realized that he was openly gay, I found the courage to come out fully myself.

When I arrived back at school in the fall, I found that it had actually earned me a bit of respect, much to my surprise. I think it was a combination of being lucky enough to be in a liberally minded environment where bigotry of any kind was not tolerated and the newfound confidence and happiness I found in just being honest about myself. The friends that I made and became close with that year have become like extended family to me. It was the first time that I had a group of friends in my life, actually.

When I was in college, I worked up the courage to come out to my parents, which was not the most pleasant experience. They had a really hard time with it – they mostly felt betrayed and lied to, I think. I think it hurt them deeply that they were among the last people to find out. The night I came out to them was one of the scariest I’ve ever had to endure, but even then, I had those same friends out in the car, waiting in the sub-zero weather to make sure that I was ok. I wasn’t ok that night, and they took me back to my apartment after the fighting with my parents became too much to bear, and they tried to comfort me and support me in my time of need. I’ll never forget my friend Erin saying to me that they thought I was perfect exactly as I was and that they loved me no matter what. Never had I needed to hear those words more.

Over time, my relationship with my parents has improved, and while it is still an awkward subject for us, I am able to communicate with them honestly, allowing us to have any sort of relationship at all – one that heals and grows each day.

Thinking back on coming out, I realize it is a process that is never fully finished. I will continue coming out to various people everyday for the rest of my life – there are always situations I encounter where I wonder if people know. It takes courage, and I am shocked when I realize that sometimes I am still afraid. Then I think back on those earlier years, and I see that there has always been someone there for me to support me, hold my hand, and to tell me it’s ok. I hope and wish that other people are able realize the same thing as they struggle with their journey out of the closet.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


I fight a tough battle with loneliness on every gig that I travel for. I’ve been lucky during the past year – almost every place I’ve worked recently has either involved colleagues that I already know or has been in a city where I have friends that I can catch up with. Lille is the first new place that I’ve been where I don’t know anyone in a long time. I also am going to be here in France until the end of December, so I feel like I’m staring down a very long tunnel, where the light at the end is still very faint. This time it feels pretty overwhelming.

Mornings are the worst for me, but once I get my morning pages written and get out the door to rehearsal where I can immerse myself in work, it’s better. Then I have the treat of being able to call Jeremy in the evenings before I go to sleep and start the cycle all over again.

The thing is (and that I have to keep reminding myself), I am not totally alone. I am so lucky to be loved by so many family, friends, and Jeremy.

Still, I wish they were here.

Monday, October 01, 2007


You never know what is going to greet you when you arrive in a new place, and unlock the door to the housing that’s been arranged for you at any given gig. During my last Frankfurt gig, it was a lovely rubber ducky. Here in Lille (where Fall’s chilly grip has already taken hold), I was greeted by some lovely turquoise furniture from Ikea and a bunch of mosquitoes.

I opened up my closet door and five swarmed around, disturbed by the clatter. I’ve killed about 25 of them in the last two days. It’s disgusting, frankly.

I asked to be moved this morning, and was told it was not possible – apparently they are full. They promised me a mosquito “trap”, but it never arrived. You could say that I’m less than pleased. I plan on paying the front office a second visit tomorrow morning to complain again. Ahh…what better way to exercise my French skills? Always looking for that silver lining…

Otherwise, my first day of rehearsal went pretty well, considering my jetlag. I was nervous for the “first day of school”, as usual – this role is the most difficult one I’ve sung so far, so that didn’t help the butterflies. I was relieved to have a good beginning today and to find that all of my colleagues are very nice people.