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Departing the Validation Station

Sometimes singing is just like flying. When I’m in the zone during a performance, I feel like I’m soaring emotionally and vocally. But just like the fabled Icarus, we all can sometimes fall.

The truth is that sometimes mistakes happen. It could be a missed lyric, a botched bit of staging or even (gasp) a cracked high note. It happens to EVERYONE from students to the world’s biggest superstars. Of course I do my best to prepare mentally and vocally for each performance, but the risk of live performance always brings unforeseen obstacles, many of which are beyond our control (allergies, technical mishaps, a faulty cue from a conductor or stage manager, etc.).

These challenging moments remind me to ask the question: WHY do you sing? Is it to achieve perfection? Is it a desire to feed a constant hunger for affirmation? Occasionally I’m guilty of craving validation. Compliments from coaches, colleagues, reviewers and audience members can bring an overwhelming high and sense of achievement. But truthfully once in awhile I might have a bad day. And even if I do well, others may not respond to it positively. Does that mean it was all a massive exercise in futility?

Positive recognition and affirming words certainly aren’t bad. But if that’s the only thing that drives me, I’m setting myself up for major disappointment. I’m still discovering ways to be grounded in something much deeper and more consistent. Sometimes if I’m out of town, I don’t have any friends or family in the audience. We have a great show, the curtain falls and I go home to an empty hotel room. Those lonely moments provide a beautiful opportunity to find meaning and purpose that transcends fleeting and occasionally superficial praise and excitement.

How can we singers plant and nurture deeper emotional roots?

  • The joy of the craft: It’s fulfilling to mine the depths of text and music and to discover new layers of character and shades of color in a 300-year-old opera or oratorio.

  • The thrill of communicating (even if not in a flashy or technically perfect way): I’ll paraphrase one of Maya Angelou’s best lines: People will forget what you sang, people will forget your cadenza and your breath control, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Did people worship Callas because she was technically flawless? Certainly not in the last few years of her career. Despite the imperfections, her ineffable ability to connect with people through her voice drew made people love her.

  • The music itself. Halfway through my most recent performance, I found out that a powerful person from a major opera house was in the audience. Usually those circumstances would freak me out, but this time I decided not to let it distract me. My goal was to stay present and enjoy each note as it came. I was singing for Mozart, not for this intendant whose opinion I couldn’t control.

  • The power of purpose. Last Friday we all witnessed a historical milestone for equality in the U.S.; in light of such monumental events, the opening of our opera seemed insignificant. Inspired by such an unforgettable victory for human rights, I publicly dedicated my performance that evening to all the brave souls who fought tirelessly for LGBT equality. It was a small gesture, but it released me from my anxieties and helped me to focus on more important matters.

  • A healthy sense of humor. Last week I saw a video of Jonas Kaufmann singing an encore of “Nessun dorma” at La Scala. Early in the aria he started singing the incorrect strophe. Kaufmann quickly realized the mistake, made a silly face, comically threw his hands in the air and then triumphantly finished the aria. Arguably the world’s most famous tenor, Jonas didn’t fret when he faltered. He laughed at himself, stayed focused and retained the connection with his audience. He might not have achieved perfection that evening, but he sang with his heart and soul. Surely nobody in the audience was disappointed by a momentary mental slip.

Conventional wisdom claims that a singer is only as good as his or her last show or audition. I quote Judge Judy and proclaim a resounding “baloney!” The reality of the singing world means that we will all be judged by our performance, but I believe that I’m much more than my throat. Of course I’ll continue to work hard and strive for excellence each time the curtain rises. However, in those rare moments when something goes awry, I’ll return to my roots for strength, purpose and motivation to soar once more.

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