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

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.

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…

Hope for Tomorrow

This evening, my husband and I went out on “date night” to hear the Phoenix Symphony and pianist, Gabriela Montero from Venezuela, play a bit of Gershwin and Porgy and Bess.  They played in Symphony Hall, of course–the same location (currently) of Arizona Opera.  It was the strangest feeling to walk into Symphony Hall (run actually, because we were very late) and contemplate the possibility of rehearsing right there in another month if I am lucky enough to have placed in the study cover program.  Perhaps I’m just a bit melodramatic, I’m afraid that it’s the opera singer in me, but how amazingly cool!

I suppose it’s best not to dwell on hope because you’re most likely to get disappointed.  However, simply thinking about possibility brings me joy right now.  It also helps to think about all the musicians up on the stage in human terms, “Hmmm…not a good choice for performance attire.  He sounds as if he’s using a large bore trumpet.  Did that bassoonist really just use a mute?!  Do those even exist? Wow. Beautiful glissando.  Whoah. A bit heavy handed on that phrase.” Etc. etc.

I do think it’s important, though, to visualize possibility as reality not YET actualized.

Indeed, there was a time when I adored graduate students and professors.  Adored, as in worshiped in awe.  I thought that they must be so dedicated to understanding Truth (capital T) and amazingly smart.  I couldn’t imagine being in the upper echelon like them.  Here it is almost exactly eight years since I completed my doctorate, and I’m quite disappointed to realize that it’s not all that impressive.  It’s simply hard work.  You pay your dues (and your tuition), take the classes, write about a hundred papers, read about a thousand books, talk people’s ears off, and there you go.  Certainly, you must have a certain level of skill and knowledge, but in the end, winners are those who work hard.

So, I’m trying to remind myself that assuming I have an adequate skill and knowledge base, which I do now believe I have, then it’s all up to dedication and work ethic.  This is a good thing because if there’s one thing that grad school taught me, it’s that I can slog through grunt work like nobody’s business. I’m also trying to remember that if this particular opportunity doesn’t pan out, I didn’t even know about it before Thursday, and up until that point, I was quite content with the trajectory of my performance career.  I have lots of balls in the air with two upcoming concerts and a couple of upcoming recitals, regular rehearsals now with a great voice teacher, wonderful opera coach, and two excellent associate musicians, and participation in a new university opera scenes class.  Life will continue regardless.

I read a great (and appropriate) quote today at, of all places, Wildflower Bakery & Cafe when I was having lunch with my daughter while shopping:

“Learn from yesterday.  Live for today.  Hope for tomorrow.” ~Albert Einstein

Here’s to hoping for tomorrow, my friends!