Feeling Existential

Wow.  It’s been nearly a month since my last blog post, which says something about my daily life.  Somehow, way back at the beginning of the year, I thought I’d be able to juggle a thousand balls without dropping any.  Perhaps I could, if I was really determined, but at what cost?  So far in 2012, my family has been hit hard with two major illnesses costing the children and me many days off from school and work.  During the fall semester, we hadn’t missed a day!  I’m not saying that doing too much is the cause of illness, as viruses do as viruses do.  However, having days constantly filled with “stuff” certainly doesn’t make things easier for your body or mind.

What has surprised me about being home with sick children now for the seventh (yes, seventh!) day in a row is the sense of relief that accompanied me canceling, well, everything.  On any given day, I typically have lessons, rehearsals, and classes that I teach.  Combine that with taking care of my own kiddies and trying to make time for my husband, and I’m amazed each evening that the day is already over–this scares and saddens me.  Am I truly not present enough in my daily life to even notice as each hour passes?  Am I hustling my kids through each part of the day in order to “be on time” so much that I’m teaching them not to value what’s happening at that moment?

This realization has really prompted me to stop and appreciate what I have.  Now, I’m not saying that I’m not thankful for my life.  In fact, last Thanksgiving, I decided to give thanks on Facebook for something or someone each day until the New Year.  It was really a profound experience that prompted me to start this blog, in fact.  However, what I am still searching for is not just gratitude, but satisfaction–contentment in my life.  The concept of Hungry Ghosts in Tibetan Buddhism has always resonated with me.  Hungry Ghosts are often depicted as ghosts with tiny mouths and huge stomachs that can never be filled.  The underlying idea is that people often try to find fulfillment by meeting goals or physical desires that prove illusory.  I can’t tell you how much this metaphor represents me and how disturbing that is to me.  Let’s see…earn college degrees–check, get married–check, get a “good” job–check, buy a house–check, have children–check, do the best possible job I can do at everything I do–check, check, check, check, check…

It’s almost as if I “conquer” one thing in order to move on to the next challenge and that next challenge will be “the one” that will change my life.  Add to this obsessive goal-setting the need to be outstanding at everything I’m involved in and you have someone who cannot “stop and smell the roses” because she’s too busy making sure the roses are the right size, shape, color, etc. to compare to the neighbor’s and planning for next year’s blooms.

Back to feeling existential and connecting that to being an “opera singer.”  Notice that my blog subtitle is “Story of a music teacher turning opera singer.”  Why?  I’m actually already an opera singer–someone who sings opera–and have been for the last two years.  Now, I’m not employed by the Met and I’m not earning a salary playing roles on stages across Germany.  However, I’m learning and singing beautiful opera music.  My blog subtitle is very telling of my mindset, though.  Can this facet of my life simply be part of my life, part of who I am?  Does it have to be all or nothing? Perhaps I need to brush up on Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s writings on personal life fulfillment and creating meaning for oneself from our daily experiences.

A good friend of mine who did have a fairly long first career as an opera singer is now in school studying to be voice faculty.  When I asked him why he decided to make the change, he simply stated, “I want stability.”  We chatted about how being on stage is thrilling and a huge boost to the ego and performing beautiful music with others is an amazing experience.  However, he also said that not knowing when your next performance is can undermine that thrill.  You’re left hustling for engagements, saving money because you aren’t sure when you’ll be paid again, and not having a stable relationship or family either because you’re traveling or don’t have normal working hours.  In essence, he wants what I already have.  Huh?

Lately, I have talked to all my close associates in music about their opinions on my career–continue as a music teacher or make a break as a performer?  Inevitably, they have all asked me in response, “Well, what makes you happy?”  Easing my anxiety, they have all been kind enough to add that I have the required “equipment” to do either job, as long as I’m committed to putting in the work needed to succeed.  The funny thing is that I haven’t been able to answer the question.  I assumed that once I’d progressed enough to have professionals in the opera world tell me I had chops, my decision would be a no-brainer, but this is confusingly not the case.  I’ve realized that if I’m going to plunge into performance and leave all the rest behind, that I will be abandoning a flourishing music program that I started (at my own kids’ school no less), juggling schedules with my family in which I won’t be seeing them as much since rehearsals are often at night, existing on little to no pay (which our family could manage, but I’m not sure I could accept), and relinquishing teaching.

My surprising reaction to this potential change is reluctance.  Certainly, fear of the unknown is also involved, but for the first time in my life actually, there is little struggle.  Sure, there is the daily struggle that everyone has, but I mean real struggle, like moving across the country, finding a job, finishing a college degree (out of state), facing a major health issue, fighting to adopt a child (twice), making ends meet…you get the idea.  Do I want to create struggle where it doesn’t exist?

Perhaps even framing it this way is wrongheaded. Perhaps, the issue isn’t all-or-nothing.  Perhaps, a long-term goal requiring a sacrifice of everything and everyone isn’t needed.  Maybe, just Imagemaybe, it’s okay to simply take each day at a time without judging myself; accept that I’m actually successful at lots of things and so are other people, which should be celebrated.  Enjoy the fact that I can teach, sing, play, and be a good wife and mom without being perfect at any of them.  The only need to be “the best” exists in my mind, which is the same place where contentment resides.  Which cause do I want to give space to grow?

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Direction and Balance

ImageLately, I’ve had a struggle that I didn’t anticipate, although it’s an ongoing struggle for me–wanting to do too many things as a professional!  I have to admit, though, it’s kind of the struggle of my life that also reflects my personality.  I mean, the world and its inhabitants and experiences are so amazing and interesting, how can anyone possibly NOT want to explore everything?  Of course, the problem with this as a professional or student is that the more breadth you have, the less depth you have in a particular area. 

I’ll use my friend, Andy, as an example.  I know he won’t mind, and I’d say he’s fairly typical of the patchwork career that many of us musicians share.  First, he’s an amazing performer and plays piano with many different musicians in the area and as a soloist.  Then, he has his own private studio where he teaches piano.  He also teaches courses at one of the local community colleges–class piano, music theory, and so on.  Finally, he is the accompanist for a local church. Wow! That’s four distinct jobs right there.  And by the way, he just finished his D.M.A. in piano performance, so he had that in the mix until last year.

My teacher, Isola, has been harping at me (and I mean that in the most loving way) for going on two years now to stop spreading myself out in this same way–I’m the music teacher at a local school, perform myself as a singer, play trumpet in a local concert band, was conducting a local community band until a short time ago, and am trying to study opera and voice through college courses, lessons, and coachings.  Honestly, it’s exhausting, although exhilarating, most days, and the thought of doing one thing well (i.e., sing) is very appealing.  However, focusing on a single type of job is a totally foreign concept to me.

I asked Andy at a rehearsal we had yesterday if he thought he could only perform–no teaching, no accompanying.  He paused, and said he really didn’t know because he had always taught. 

After a bit of discussion, we both agreed that the cool thing about performing is that you are affecting audience members in that very moment. You are directly communicating with them and fellow performers and sharing what you are able to do as a fellow human being.  Perhaps, you evoke memories, emotions, or ideas that will mean something to them.  The present exchange is like no other, and you hope that the audience members will be moved and remember the moment.

On the other hand, teaching is having faith that what you do now with students will have a lasting effect.  Perhaps you will help to shape a future concert pianist or music teacher, but equally and perhaps more important, is that you will instill an appreciation and love of music in someone who will play an instrument for enjoyment or attend symphony concerts for pleasure.  You help students to think in a completely different way through music that doesn’t come from any other area of study.  While the present is certainly important, moments build upon one another to create significant connections that affect the future.

Certainly, teaching is a laudable way to spend one’s life.  The question remains as to whether teaching can be balanced with performance (and any number of other musical endeavors).  There are only so many hours in a day, so an hour spent teaching or prepping is an hour not spent rehearsing or performing.  I certainly can’t work on dentalizing Italianate t’s or supporting long legato lines if I’m teaching beginning flute or recorder fingerings.  Viewed as an opportunity, though, I understand recitative rhythms better because I also play an instrument, I am facile at singing different languages in part because my mouth is strong and flexible from playing a horn in particular,  I can explain relationships between culture, history, and instruments because I know the Hornbostel-Sachs system of classifying instruments, and so on.

Is it better to do many things fairly well or one thing extremely well?  Isola says that fear holds us back from going to the ultimate level with our talents, and she might be right, but, it might also be more complicated than that.  What does my heart say?Image

“Identity” Is Just a Word

Yesterday, it occurred to me that despite myself, I was enjoying the challenge of planning some exciting lessons for my show choir. The reason I say, “despite myself,” is because frankly, I don’t like show choir music that much. I’ve never been a fan of Broadway as a performer, and pop music is too repetitive for my taste. Not to mention, my students, while enthusiastic, want to be just like Glee after only a couple rehearsals; they don’t realize that singing and choreographing just one song takes many rehearsals! However, I offered this after-school class because the kids wanted it, nay, demanded it. As a music teacher and musician, can I deny this in good conscience?

Then, I began thinking, does “becoming” something new (i.e., an opera singer) demand that we shed our old skin (i.e., music teacher)? There are many reasons why the answer is, “yes” for me–time, energy, focus, germs from kids (seriously), speaking too much, etc.–and plenty of people have told me to do so. On the other hand, does “being” something exclude “being” something else? Is identity singular?

I finally acknowledged that I’m a good music teacher, and I have an obligation to share that knowledge and skill with others. Perhaps that sounds weird, but I’m a perfectionist and have a hard time admitting that anything I do is good enough.  Well, I’m done with that. I’m a good teacher and a skilled musician. If I’m going to leave a legacy in the world, aside from my own children of course, then it will be what I can share of myself.

What are your gifts that you can–must– share?

Got My Mojo Risin’

Good evening, boys and girls. It’s been awhile!

So, nearly two weeks ago, I came home after band rehearsal with a little twinge in the throat and a headache thinking, “Geez, not another cold!” I quickly went from a sniffle to nearly crawling from bed and onto losing my voice entirely. Wow. You just don’t appreciate your health enough until you don’t have it.

A friend of mine, who’s also a singer, said, “Are you the kind of person who just pushes through?” I thought it a strange thing to say, but suddenly realized I knew exactly what he meant. Ego, it’ll get you every time. What he meant was that while I might think that being Super Woman is a requirement for the job of career woman, wife, mom, and aspiring opera singer (in no particular order) and stopping to take care of myself is a guilty pleasure, it’s actually hubris to think that I can do this or be this in the first place. Virus or no, I think my body just said, “Listen. I’m tired, and you’re not paying attention to me. So, I’m taking a break, whether you like it or not!” The fact that I truly lost my voice and couldn’t even speak, let alone sing, made the point hit home.

With an entire week of not rehearsing and canceling two concert performances, I was very depressed. At one point, I actually talked myself into thinking that performing was too hard, too time-consuming, too much stress, too whatever, and that I’d be totally happy to focus entirely on teaching for the rest of my life. I mean, how in the world can I be careful about viruses with two preschoolers running around and teaching kids every day?! Not to mention, I’m competing against other singers who know the daily humidity level and the reason people freak out about brain-eating amoebas in sinus flushes…I’m not exaggerating.

But, today I sang. And I didn’t sing just anything. I sang glorious music by Donizetti…bellissima musica! It was heaven. Even when sounding like a foghorn and getting raised eyebrows from the tenor, it was bliss. Think my mojo’s on the upswing now.

Will the Show Go On?

This week has been just awful. After falling sick last Thursday evening with a bad head cold, I’m still not well, and my two kids have come down with it to boot, albeit in lesser degrees, thank goodness.  I have a major concert tomorrow that’s been planned for months, and I can barely phonate.

I tried to rest as much as possible this week, but still had to go to several rehearsals, teach, and be mom…as you do.  So, the question now is, will the show go on? I am heartily disappointed at the possibility of The Three Sopranos being the Two Sopranos or rescheduling a major concert (assuming the venue will still have us). However, the hard lesson this week is acceptance of what is. Sometimes, no matter your will, there simply isn’t a way, and you just have to live with it. I don’t like this lesson because I’m very stubborn. I suppose that’s why I end up learning it again and again. Stay tuned for the conclusion of…Will the Show Go On?

Does Weakness Make Us Stronger?

Some of you avid readers might have noticed that I haven’t blogged for the last couple days.  As it turns out, I had a great day on Thursday, working through some kinks in a lesson, teaching a few classes, and landing the role of Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor for my opera scenes class.  Yay!

That evening, though, I went to band rehearsal and began to feel crummy through the evening.  (Did I mention that I play trumpet in a community concert band for enjoyment?)  At any rate, Friday morning I was feeling lousy–headache, body aches, sore throat, stuffy head and nose, and my voice was sounding froggy.  Saturday came, and I had a final rehearsal for a concert I was invited to perform for on Sunday.  I still sounded froggy, and now my head was in the clouds from taking cold medicine.  Today (concert day) arrived, and after not sleeping well for three nights due to a nagging sinus headache and a lack of oxygen (i.e., my nose was stuffy), I was exhausted.  How in the world was I going to perform three demanding arias back-to-back when I was getting winded walking up the staircase in our house?!

I sent frantic texts to my voice teacher, accompanist, coach, and mom, wondering what I should do.  I have never canceled a performance in my life–not as a performer and not as a teacher.  In fact, last year, I stayed up all night retching from stomach flu, but still made it to an 8am performance my students had for our annual school fundraiser breakfast.  I rarely miss any obligation I commit to, unless it’s because my children are sick.  It feels weak, and I don’t like being weak.

However, everyone I spoke with said it was better to cancel the performance and get some rest, especially since this week is going to be very busy with last rehearsals for a big concert on Friday.  I was disappointed because some of the musicians today were part of the AZ Opera orchestra, and it would have been great to connect with them.  On the other hand, it would have been awful if I wasn’t at my best in front of them.  So, in the end, I canceled.

My husband reminded me that although most people can slog through jobs when sick, singers are sort of like athletes.  If your body isn’t working at its best, you simply can’t do your job.  Your instrument is your body.  So, I guess it’s time to really pay attention to my body.  I’ve been sort of skirting the issue for the last year–working too much, not eating well, not exercising enough, etc.  *sigh*

My  mom reminded me that sometimes being weak forces us to pay attention and teaches us to be strong in other ways.  She should know; she’s certainly had her share of struggles in life.  I guess today’s canceled concert is a lesson in acceptance of a situation out of my control, forgiveness of myself for being human, and patience to analyze what might be out of alignment in life priorities.

I want to succeed at what I’m doing, but pushing myself will only cause stress fractures.  It’s important to pay attention on the journey.

Failure Is a State of Mind

Well, I just received word that I didn’t make the study cover program for AZ Opera for this season.  I’m disappointed, to be sure, but I just read my blog post from yesterday which stated I would not feel less about myself if I didn’t make the cut.  Hmm…sort of feeling unworthy right now, but did I expect to simply have everything magically work?  I guess not, but it sure would be nice.

Funny, when I was running down the whole scenario (i.e., lamenting) to my husband this evening, I said, “Just when things were going so well!”  He replied, “Things ARE going so well.  This is just a little bump in the road that you didn’t even have planned.  You just auditioned for a major regional opera company on 30-minutes notice!”

I guess that’s true.  At this point a year ago, I had just finished the second recital of my life, the first being about something-something years ago, in which I forgot all the German text and literally German scatted through the whole thing.  This month, I have three concerts–one as an invited guest and two paying full concerts–that’s pretty good.

Tomorrow, I have a voice lesson and my opera scenes class, so the the world really does keep turning.  I now have to decide if I’m going to make the most of these experiences or cave into self pity and insecurity.  I choose not to fail!