Maya Angelou is a national treasure; she’s one of the most brilliant, talented, prolific and successful authors in recent history.
I first fell in love with this woman when I heard her delightful and profound interview with Diane Rehm a few years ago. I immediately purchased and read a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and I have been a devoted fan of Ms. Angelou ever since.
As someone currently pursuing a life in music, I’m particularly compelled to draw lessons from Maya the artist.
Her poems and stories are stunning and profound, and they will live on for centuries. She also worked as a professional singer and dancer. Beyond that, the overarching story of her life is a beautiful work of art. She endured racism and poverty. When she was only seven years old, Maya was violently raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After her uncles murdered him as an act of revenge, she believed the man’s death was her fault. This prompted her period of silence, which lasted for years. She lived in her own inner world and was paralyzed by fear and regret. Thank heavens she emerged from this place of sorrow and gave the world her wonderful voice.
So many of my favorite artists follow this storyline. Ricky Ian Gordon watched helplessly as the love of his life suffered illness and death. Rather than let despair consume him, he found a way to process those emotions through his music. His poignant and gorgeous “Orpheus and Euridice” retold his story and became a sort of therapy for him. When Jake Heggie was only 10, he tragically lost his father. He could’ve let the despair of the situation swallow him alive; instead he turned to his composing. His achingly beautiful “Facing Forward” was one of the first songs he wrote as a way of working through his sorrow.
Maya Angelou’s life is a testament to the human spirit. If you’re facing hardships and wondering if you can make it, I invite you to look at Maya’s life. See the way she lifted herself up from sickness, abuse, poverty, joblessness, homelessness and lovelessness. If you think you have too much on your plate, look at Maya’s childhood. Each day she faced a full schedule of classes and then exhausting work at her grandmother’s store, but yet she still found time to read voraciously and write poems when she was only 8 years old. She was also a single mother who worked full time in the kitchen at a strip club; but she still never stopped writing and dreaming of something greater. She kept writing new chapters in her poems and in her life. Just consider…. This poor little girl from Stamps, Arkansas grew up to be OPRAH’s mentor!
I reflect on Ms. Angelou’s story, and I have to ask myself: what’s YOUR excuse? Do I face challenges? Of course. Who doesn’t? But much of my suffering is self-inflicted, and frankly a lot of my problems are petty. I can choose to dwell on the pain people have caused me, or remember all the joy and love in my life. I can see my current circumstances as a set of hardships and obstacles, or I can see all of the opportunity for growth, transformation and artistry. I’m currently taking part in a very tricky premiere. The creative team (the director, conductor, composer, librettist, assistants, coaches, etc.) is giving me an overwhelming amount of information, and it’s occasionally difficult to process it all. I have a choice here. I can cower in a corner and bemoan how hard it all has become, or I can be thankful that I’m surrounded by such talented colleagues who are helping me hone my skills and do my very best. A couple of my castmates are wildly successful singers. Their skills are astounding, and I’m tempted to feel like I don’t measure up to them. But HELLO? Remember Maya? She wanted to drive the San Francisco trolley. No other African American woman had ever held that position, but she showed up every day to ask for that job, and she finally accomplished her goal. She didn’t remain a prisoner to her fears. Her dreams were big, and she chased after them with all her might. I could still stand to be a little more like Maya.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend a fancy conservatory like some of my friends. For various reasons my path didn’t include that kind of a pedigree. I received very good training at a state school, but it didn’t come with the clout and connections of some other programs. Again I’m compelled to look at Ms. Angelou’s life. She dropped out of school at the age of 14, but her learning did not stop there. After early years of touring as a singer and a dancer, she wrote and taught in Cairo and Ghana. During her years abroad she studied voraciously, learning French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti. This was a woman who knew absolutely no limits, and she never let the events of her past dictate her future. She always had new chapters to write in her books and in her life. No matter what problems I’m facing today, I can find comfort in the realization that it’s not yet the end of the story.
One of Angelou’s most famous quotes is apt for anyone, but it has interesting implications for an artist: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I’ll take a little liberty and slightly alter the words for my current job: people will forget that extra breath you took, people will forget how perfectly you did or didn’t approach all of your high notes, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The biggest lesson here is to stop sweating over the small details and remember why I’m doing this. The show we’re premiering at WNO tells the true story of Danny Chen, an American soldier who was beaten, stoned by his comrades and eventually took his own life. The victim’s family will be at the performance, reliving the agony of losing their son. Communicating with them is much more important to me than how long I can hold my notes above the staff! So I’m reminding myself to get out of my head and stop worrying about making a mistake. I’m trying to take a step back and once again find the reason why we’re all doing this in the first place: to communicate with people, tell this story and make people think and FEEL on a deeper level.
Maya’s words ring true when I think back on some of the most meaningful performances I witnessed recently. Joyce DiDonato comes to my mind. In La Donna del Lago her “tanti affetti” transcended time and reality. It was absolutely otherworldly. Yes, she delivered Olympic vocalism; but it went beyond technical perfection and came from a place of truth. With each phrase she surrendered to the music and the story. Bryan Cranston is another performer who shook me to the core when he became LBJ in “All The Way” (and as Walter White in Breaking Bad…. Heck, even in his role in Godzilla!). In each of these stories he portrayed a flawed man who believed in something so fervently that he was willing to risk everything in order to accomplish his objective. I don’t remember the way he specifically delivered many lines, but I came away from the theater with an overwhelming flurry of emotions. This man made me FEEL things, and that’s what makes him one of the greatest actors alive.
Angelou’s final tweet is prescient for our current culture: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.” Taking off the headphones and turning off the radio can be frightening. It can be much safer to crank up spotify or a podcast to drown out the doubtful and occasionally toxic voices in my head. But reflection is an important and cathartic exercise. After all, isn’t that what makes us human: the ability to contemplate the complexities of life with all of our choices, joys and sorrows?
Maya’s life is a lesson for anyone, and we are all so fortunate to hear her story and write our own. If you’re fighting through challenges, I invite you to consider Ms. Angelou’s life and find the courage to keep going. Just like her famous poem, you too can still RISE.
Youtube: Still I Rise