I Am Here

I’m astounded that so many months have flown by since I last blogged.  I’m not sure how that happened, except that life continues.  I will endeavor to post again soon.

I’m currently mulling over the fine line between truly enjoying a musical experience and getting bogged down in the minutiae of a “perfect” performance.  (This is one of those logic puzzles of which my professor of philsophy was so fond.)  If music is meant to be enjoyed, both as a listener and as a performer, then it would stand to reason that it be approached as such.  However, if music isn’t beautiful unless it is “sonorous,” then it would make sense that technique and expression are honed.  What happens when these two aspects aren’t at equilibrium?  I’m thinking, for example, of people playing in a community band or orchestra.  Members participate in order to have fun and make beautiful music together. However, socializing can’t be the driving force in participation because it would come at the cost of musicianship.  On the other hand, if musical skill and performance are overly stressed, then the experience isn’t enjoyable.

I’m trying to find the balance for myself and for those I work with and teach.  Anyone have any comments on your discoveries here or in other areas with a similar issue of balance?

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?

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

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!

Do You Mean to Tell Me that I Can Get Paid to Do This?

Raise your hand if you hate tax season.  Ok, it’s unanimous.  I, too, dread the entire quagmire of receipts, deductions, expenses, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Essentially, I’ve never had any money to be much concerned about past your basic EZ tax form, and my husband and I had just one job each.  Not to mention, my eyes glaze over and I get heartburn just hearing about all the “schedules.” Let’s see, I get a pat on the back for not taking student loan money to pay for courses and paying in cash, but alas, I earn too much money to receive any credit for paying for the classes myself.  Huh?  Oh, and we appreciate the fact that teachers often pay for classroom supplies, but you can’t deduct more than $250 on your taxes.  Ummm…my first year teaching, when I made the very least salary ever, I spent nearly $1,500 on books and supplies for the classroom.

Anyway, in the last few years, things have become very complicated because our income derives from various places (mostly due to my husband’s work).  Thus, I was on the phone, yet again, trying to understand why we were paying more federal taxes when we thought we’d already paid plenty of estimated taxes ahead for 2011 and scheduling a meeting to sign more forms when the conversation turned to the income I was getting for performing.  I stopped.  Wait a minute.  That’s right, I did get paid for performing this year, and I have two paying concerts coming up!  When did that happen?

Truth be told, I’d probably perform for free for the rest of my life for the sheer enjoyment of making music.  However, there is a niggling sense in the back of my brain that if I don’t get paid for this work, it’s not valuable.  Is this a righteous attitude?  In the end, does it really make any difference?  This dilemma is one that I faced when becoming a wife and mother–how does one place value on work that is not recognized by society as valuable in a monetary sense?  We all know that child rearing and housekeeping are incredibly important jobs.  Otherwise, how would anyone manage?  However, if you don’t get a paycheck for what you do, is the work less esteemed?  You betcha.  Is it valued in other ways?  Certainly.  Does it matter?  I guess that depends on your own attitude and whether or not you want to get tied up into gender studies, class studies, race studies, you-fill-in-the-blank studies, etc.

I guess the long-winded point I’m trying to make is that it’s super-cool, as my kids would say, that I’m getting paid for doing what I really love.  However, it’s a far cry from being able to support myself or anyone else for that matter.  (Performers certainly can make a good living, but most of them hustle–teaching, performing, studio work–and may even add a non-performing job into the mix, like waiting tables.)  Nonetheless, I’m trying to view work as productive and purposeful, rather than simply profit-bearing, and value it accordingly.  It’s definitely a hard switch to think in these terms for me, but I’m going to try.  All you unpaid domestic laborers out there, get on board!  My work is my work; it is no more or less valuable a contribution to society or my life if I’m paid more or less than the guy or gal next door.  But, here’s hoping that we fall on the “more” side now and again…

Wait…I Have What? Homework?!

Funny, going through all those years of school until high school graduation, I remember thinking, “Wow.  What will life be like without all this stinking homework?  Awesome!  That’s what it’ll be like!  I can’t wait to graduate”  Then, you go to college and wonder how you could have possibly thought that homework and class demands in high school were difficult because you don’t have time to go out with your friends and hang at all due to all the course requirements and working three part-time jobs to pay tuition.

Grad school comes along, and you knowingly shake your head at all the undergrads because they’re simply going through the motions, not really being expected to think and defend their ideas.  “They’re so naive.  Poor things.  They think they’re working hard, but haven’t a clue.  Look at me.  I’ve actually been locked in the stacks at the library and have developed carpel tunnel syndrome from writing so much!”  You think that once you have those three little letters after your name, all will be well.  In fact, some sort of miracle is going to happen where you are now recognized for the genius you are, and universities will fall all over each other offering you tenure-track positions so that you can graciously impart said knowledge on their fledgling students and write thought-provoking studies supporting their research-heavy institution at your leisure.

You do, in fact, get that job, although the position doesn’t have all the frills you envisioned, and no one seems to be excited that you’re there.  Instead, you work like a dog wishing you could go back to having the time to freely think and write about ideas like you did in grad school.  Instead, you’re attending faculty meeting after faculty meeting, correcting a hundred papers a week, and condemning all high school English teachers for not physically beating correct grammar into their students before they came to college.  You have no time for your own interests because you’re stuck teaching the low-level introductory courses that have 300 students enrolled and completing ridiculous teaching and research performance evaluations.  Just when you thought you couldn’t possibly work more, you have children.  Holy cannoli.

Now, you are working in a salaried position with bennies (i.e., waaaay more than 40 hours per week) and trying to juggle some sort of a stable home life for your kids.  As a childless adult, let me tell you, you can go without washing laundry for quite awhile, and it doesn’t matter if you eat popcorn for dinner.  With children, it’s not quite so simple.  You actually worry about food groups or the nutritional pyramid or whatever it is these days and you try to provide structure with morning routines, preschool, dinners, baths, bedtimes, and so on.  Wait a minute…when’s the last time I even read a book for enjoyment or went to a movie?  (They still have those, right?)  Then you remember that “this is the life,” and quickly thereafter wonder if the originator of that phrase had a career AND kids.  Probably not…

So, where does this rant leave us?  Present day.  You begin to realize that work is both a purpose for humans and a black hole of industry.  No matter what kind of work it is–homework, housework, childcare, or a job–it never ceases until you do.  When I had a brief panic attack tonight realizing that I had not done the homework required for this new college class because I was on load seven of laundry after doing dishes, getting groceries, picking up everyone’s “stuff” around the house (about 50 times), washing the car, and so on and so forth, I wondered whether I was really committed to pursuing my passion.  I mean, it’s one thing to “love” something you do, but a completely different story to be committed enough to work, really work, at it.  *sigh*  Do I have the energy for this?  It would be so much easier to not add one more thing to my plate!  (I think my husband and I had this same conversation before bambino numero due.)

But before I had time to really pity myself, I just sat down at the piano and started singing.  Yes.  I do love it…a lot.  Before I knew it, an hour of solid rehearsal had passed while my daughter was running all over the house playing dress-up and my husband and son were cleaning and organizing the garage.  And guess what?  The laundry was still there waiting for me, but didn’t explode from me not getting to it immediately.

I guess the point of this exposition on work is to remind myself that work is important, but prioritizing work is more important.  A body and mind can only work so hard, so make sure that what you are putting your efforts and energy into is worthwhile.  If it is, then give it all you’ve got.  If not, well, clean bathroom mirrors are overrated…