Friday, June 3, 2011

Musical Nirvana (or its rough equivalent...)

 “His influence on me was never in inflection or in voice. What drew me to him was that hearing his voice, I could tell he was very lonesome, very alone and very lost in his time. That`s why I dug him.”  ~Bob Dylan (About Woody Guthrie)

          To say that I never think about quitting singing would be to lie. It pops into my head often. It pops into my head when I have to transfer funds from my savings account to pay for a lesson or coaching. It pops into my head when I go to routinely check my email and an audition rejection is waiting for me that I wasn’t prepared for mentally. It pops into my head when I am out with friends and can only have one drink because of that perennial reason: “I have to sing tomorrow”. Sometimes it just pops into my head when I am brushing my teeth in the morning and thinking about the grueling, overscheduled day ahead of me. It pops into my head when I realize how masochistic our field really is.

          Being a classical singer involves inviting people to scrutinize and criticize intensely personal aspects of one’s being on a regular basis and it means giving up a lot to do so. I am aware that I have made compromises in my life to make this goal of classical singing a priority and I don’t always take these compromises with the grace or gratitude that I should. After all, I do have a good day job, and I have made it through what we all hope to be the worst of these economic times. I have a wonderful support system of singers and non-singers alike.

          A combination of things seems to have me reflecting on my career and its path as of late. The foremost reason is probably that I performed in three fully staged operas back to back between October and April with quite a bit of extra gigging. When at New Year’s, I might have been reflecting on my life, like many others, I was simply not. So maybe it’s this late spring that has me thinking about rebirth, or maybe it’s simply the fact that summer is my absolute favorite season and I am looking forward to savoring it and want to be able to do so; you know, like the real people do. Fortunately I think I am able to. I have a wonderful opportunity to sing an alumni recital at my college in September. This means I get a full excuse to focus on my beloved art song instead of opera for a change and it’s all a program of my choosing with no parameters.

          I had one of these “…aaaah…” moments today in my voice lesson-
 one of those that reminded me of why I do what I do. Sometimes even having a voice lesson stressful, because I beat myself up if my week's practice isn't effective enough.  Sometimes, if I have a lot of rep to learn, I am anxious about making sure I make the most of the money I pay for lessons.  But this wonderful moment can happen in a lesson, as it did for me today. Often in performances I can get so caught up in the extraneous influences that seem to come upon me, that it is rare for me to recognize these moments when I am really in it. 

          I was singing Richard Strauss today- a song that I absolutely love. It's a song about romance and memories set amidst a celebration and is scented with all of that sensuality. Of course, because I haven’t sung it in a lesson in a while, I had my head up my ass worrying about the placement and size of the sound. My teacher, who does in fact do a lot of talking about placement and breathing, (as she should), stopped me and had me sing everything again. She asked me for something different. “It’s a personal song and only comes across if you bring yourself to it,” she said. This is certainly a neo-Romantic sentiment, but a true one. Well, I found the moment I was looking for at the end of the song. The things in the room changed for me. The objects of the room, the piano, the pianist, and me, melted away and became song. For me this means I felt the sound of it all in my body the way I hear it in my head. It was the way I believe the poet and composer intended it. Very little can be more gratifying, and the only thing that could make this moment better would be to share it with an audience. These are the moments that keep me coming back to music. More than the technical details, these are the moments I should strive for in performance. This is a hard lesson to learn and hold onto though. As my teacher told me: “That was you. We heard you come through there and that’s how you’ll remember how to sing this."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wack Attack

          Last night there was a state of emergency declared in Massachusetts. After an entire spring season of rain leading to a week of welcome sunshine and extreme humidity, the humidity broke in a series of violent lightning storms. Many people enjoy the austere beauty of a thunderstorm from the inside of their safe homes. For me, this is generally not the case. As a 5 year old, I became so hysterical one morning during a thunderstorm that I refused to wait at the bus stop and my mother had to drive me to school. I remember running from the parking lot to the front door of school, screaming and clutching my umbrella.

          My fear of thunderstorms is only outweighed by my fear of tornadoes. As a child, (presumably after a recent viewing of The Wizard of Oz), I asked my parents if there were ever any tornadoes in Connecticut. They laughed at me and told me that Connecticut is too hilly for tornadoes to form- that tornadoes happen in flat Midwestern and Southern territories. My dad still periodically brings this up in my adulthood and has a good chuckle: “Remember when you were little and you were scared of tornadoes? Ha ha ha.” Oh yeah, Dad, and what happened a year ago in our very own Nutmeg state? Just sayin’. Laugh all you want at my childhood fears…

          So, when at 5:30 last night, lightning actually struck the other side of my office building and there was no little commotion, I became pretty frightened. There was no damage and no one was hurt, thankfully. Things seemed to clear up for the commute home and dinner. I flipped to my new favorite sitcom last night (Modern Family, for anyone interested) only to find that the news had taken over with a special report about further tornado watches after one had hit Springfield, MA. I was now in downright panic mode. Then the lighting started at a ridiculously frenetic pace and Governor Deval Patrick held a press conference urging people to stay off the roads because the storm was moving from Western and Central Massachusetts to Boston. This only sent me into more of a wack attack because I knew that the boyfriend was out in Worcester for rehearsal.

          Since Brendan was not answering his phone, I sent him a long series of texts, which I am fairly certain, made no sense but to sum up, urged him to stay where he was. Ideally I envisioned him holed up safely under a blanket in a church basement somewhere. My panic did not stop me from calling nearly everyone I know to distract myself, including my parents, to whom I said: “See! All of my paranoid childhood fears are coming true!” My dad laughed and told me about the pleasantries of his day. When he found that he could not get me to talk about anything other than the weather, he passed the phone to my mother, whom he knew could be more sympathetic. In future situations of this nature, I would probably do well to put down the remote and stay away from the media's scare tactics.

          In the end, B called me several times from the road. By the time he was leaving Worcester things had calmed significantly, and it was merely drizzling. I don’t have to tell you which one of us was the more nervous of the two for his ride home, but he was very fortunate and made it safely and uneventfully.

          There is only one time and place that finds me at ease in thunderstorms. This is a certain kind of perfect thunderstorm in the summer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where my family vacations. These storms are usually brief, lasting less than an hour and when they stop, the hot sun makes the steam rise off of the pavement and the world around you is filled with the most earthy and delicious smell. Maybe, it’s just that when I am there, I have no place I need to be and my worries melt away with the steam.

Footnote: The expression "Wack Attack" is not a Katrina original.  Credit must be given to my dear friend Rita Dwan for this extremely useful and particularly palatable turn of phrase.