All in.

What a week.  I’m sitting here, trying to gather my thoughts into some kind of readable coherency.  Maybe I can start with the touch points as a way of organizing…

1. Revolutionary coaching

2. Revolutionary lesson

3. Faust at the Met

4. Revolutionary coaching

5. Palm Sunday

This post is about singing, but it’s also about fear and courage, authenticity and integrity, hope and hard work, and the power of God.

I’ve been singing my whole life. There isn’t a day of my life that I can recall in which I wasn’t singing. When I was a baby, my parents would write letters to family members about how I was always singing. When I was 1 or 2 years old, my grandfather asked me if I wanted to be an opera singer – we have the recording. One of my earliest memories is telling him that I wanted to be a gospel singer when I grew up.  I sang country, rock, pop, hymns, musicals, art song, nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, songs I made up, songs the babysitters taught me. I sang in talent shows, choirs, caroling groups, musicals, to the church shut-ins, to the babies I babysat, in competitions, and if I felt like I just wasn’t getting enough performing time, I created concerts for my family, standing on the fireplace hearth as my stage.

I went to school and (shocker!) got a degree in vocal performance. And then another one. And then I boxed up my belongings and moved to NYC where I continued to train and to start booking professional engagements. I worked for several years, earning my living solely as a singer. And people liked my work. And I loved performing. And I got great reviews. Great, great, great.

Except that I was never totally satisfied (except for one miraculous performance when I was “in the zone” but which I’ve never been able to recapture).

I’ve been training with my current teacher for a while now.  And he keeps reiterating that my voice is very strong and I know what I’m doing and the coordination is there. Why am I not singing at the level he and I both know I’m capable of?  It’s exceedingly frustrating to him and to me.  I mean… It’s good. It’s fine. It’s ok…  But it’s not great.

I’ve spent the past three months really doing some deep psychological work on myself – unpacking all of those horrendously stuffed bits of baggage – and, as is common to so many of us, I have realized that I am a people-pleaser to the nth degree who constantly asks permission in subtle ways to do anything, especially to sing. I spent my undergraduate and graduate years waiting and waiting to be, as I called it, “anointed”. I wanted the gods of singing (at the time, the teaching staff at my schools) to give me permission to do what I wanted to do. And a few times they did, and how heady were those days! Except, then the next time I opened my mouth, I was listening for approval, rather than to my own inner voice.

And sometimes I would rebel and think, I don’t need anyone’s stinking approval, I’ll show them! Which is actually the other side of the same coin. “They” – teachers, coaches, conductors, other singers – became the focus of everything I was doing. I imagined (because they never actually said this to me – it was all in my head!) – that they had terribly low opinions of me and then I would spend all of my energy proving them wrong.

Good lord!

And what it all amounted to, from a technical standpoint, was that I was always either timidly undersinging, not wanting to be too big for my britches until I had permission, or that I was oversinging to prove ’em all wrong. So I didn’t sing “on” my voice with full depth, resonance and chord closure, or I pressed and sang too loudly and mucked everything up with tons of unnecessary tension.

And all the while, my singing was bullshit.  Not just technically, but from the perspective of meaning.  It didn’t mean anything. How could it? I wasn’t me! I was a projection of some fake person from my own imagination of what other people thought of me. Total bullshit.

So – what about the five events I listed above?

I had a coaching with Dr. Noa Kageyama, and please, if you need his help, run do not walk to his studio. An hour with him is an hour well-spent.  He basically said that I have to stop looking for an extrinsic value and start finding intrinsic value in what I’m doing. In other words, figure out what I like and then do that. And that it doesn’t matter what my teacher or my coach or my husband or my kids or the people behind the table or on the other side of the footlights think. My job is to be the curator of what I think is beautiful and then show that to the world. And to expect that I will come across people who passionately hate it. And that’s cool – it’s not their thing. But eventually, I will come across the people who can’t get enough. And it doesn’t have to be a lot of people. They just have to care a lot. And that will come when I am true to myself.

Then I had a lesson with my teacher. I can’t explain exactly what happened. I’ve listened to the recording to try to figure out what happened, but I think I just looked into his eyes and everything clicked. I started repeating to myself, “You don’t have to apologize for anything and you’ve got nothing to prove.” And all of a sudden, we weren’t talking about my breath or my jaw or the position of my larynx or anything. We were talking about intention and line, and I was singing. Not vocalizing. Singing. My voice responding to the direction of my mind. I went in a few seconds from driving a Pinto to driving a Ferrari 360 CS – I could drive it with my pinky. Freedom I don’t think I’ve ever felt before.

Then I went to the Met to see Faust. I was so happy to be back in that house, but a bit let down by the performance. Still, it was a thought-provoking night, so maybe one of the most important performances ever to me. The cast was good. Really good. Every single singer a world-class voice. And every single one was in some way a disappointment. At the end of the night, I felt like no one was really committing. No one was willing to go all the way. Here we have an opera that is about pure evil and shocking redemption. The story is so horrifying that we should all have been crying and throwing up in the aisles. Instead, it garnered polite applause, with some bravos thrown in for a technically superb aria by the tenor. Every single one of those singers, I believe, has what it takes to commit 100% to the music and the character – to look at evil and decide to go in – but chose not to. And so, missed the mark.

They used to bury performers at the crossroads, so great was the public’s fear of their art. My former acting teacher, Tim Phillips, says that we are the emotional firemen – running into the burning building of the psyche when everyone else is running out.  I want to run in. Bury me at the crossroads, please. These singers, after this performance? I don’t think anyone would have cared where they were buried. They were all so obviously “pretending” that no one could possibly have mistaken it for the real thing.

Ok, so all of this is swirling around in my head. And then I go coach with the wonderful Steve Crawford. I sing through Lucia’s first aria. I’m tied up in knots before I begin. With all my might, I’m repeating my new mantra, to no avail this time. I can’t stop the little voice from telling me how terrible I am and how Steve must hate it, and I sang like a pig. Really awful. He asked me what I thought of it and I said, “On a scale of 1-10, maybe a 2. At most.” We talked it through and starting working on it bit by bit, when he stopped and asked me what my intention is. I said something about my inhalation and getting the right vowel blah blah blah….  He stopped me and said, “So you don’t have a vision for this phrase.” Holy lightbulb, batman! It sounds so obvious. But what a revelation! He said, the problem is usually in either the lack of vision or the lack of execution. I think you can execute – your technique is fine. You don’t know what you want to do, so you obsess about your technique and it self cannablizes. Wow. Knock me down with a feather. We started breaking down the aria phrase by phrase from an aural standpoint. Boom! Legato was there, runs were clean, vowels were pure, etc, etc.  It’s amazing what you can do once you decide what it is specifically that you want to do.

Oddly, I felt depressed after the coaching. I mean, I felt good that we found the problem, and that a Met conductor thinks my technique is fine and not the issue. But I felt overwhelmed. I told my husband, “I feel like I’m standing at the base of Mt. Everest looking up.” Do I have the courage to do it? It’s not about figuring out my vision, per se. I need to work that out in greater detail, but I already have lots of ideas. The question is, do I have the courage to stop the bullshit and be me? To say, this is my vision and I’m going all the way in. I’m singing this phrase to the hilt, I’m going into crazy. I’m going to scare you and me both. I’m going to break your heart and make you laugh and make you throw up in the aisle from fear and horror. And I’m going to do it with dissonance and consonance and text and line and vowels and my body and my eyes and my soul. Do I have the courage to be that naked?  Can I even do it if I’m that brave?

I don’t know. I don’t know.

And then we went to church. I was exhausted and lay my head on my husband’s shoulder and listened to the sermon, my eyes in soft focus on the mosaics above the altar, not really seeing. Until I did see: Be of good courage, wait on the Lord, the mosaic said.  And the benediction was this:

When you feel unwilling or unable, remember that there is a Power far greater than you possess that wants to walk with you. Go the distance. Go the distance. Be at peace. God attends.

Wait on the Lord. Be of Good Courage.

He went to the cross. I can go to the crossroads.

All in.



Filed under Connections, God, Singing

6 responses to “All in.

  1. Beautiful post, Jenny – and I think hugely relevant to so many aspiring/working singers. I hope you don’t mind if I tweet it out!!! Wishing you all the best on your journey forward!! (And way to kick all that extraneous stuff to the curb – it serves NO purpose!!) BRAVA!!

    Joyce DiDonato

    • I don’t mind at all, Joyce! I’m finding my way and hope my thinking-out-loud can be of help to others.

  2. Kristina

    Wow Jenny, you could have not put this in better words!! I too went/am going through something very similar. I too very much was always looking to please my teachers and if they gave me the “go” I’d have permission to do whatever I wanted. I think a lot of us in the process of getting the “technique right” forget what it is actually all about.

    Because singing is so personal, and we are taught all our lives to be polite, be nice, don’t say this, don’t do that, and so on, and because we’ve gotten hurt at some point or other when we opened up to someone, we put up these armors/shields/walls to protect who we really are, and only show this “other” identity we’ve created that society approves. It’s hard to take that shield off and be vulnerable as we’re soo used to having it on in our everyday lives (and we need that shield at work, and on the street and so on), but to be the artists that you and I both want to me, we must be honest with ourselves and what we want and not cut ourselves short.

    This podcast really put things in perspective for me:

    Steven Crawford recently also said to me “you don’t need permission to be an artists” and it made SO much sense.

    I love that you were brave to write about something that I think, most of us go through at some point or other, but very few of us actually talk about it. THANK YOU for being brave enough! Kudos to you!!

    • Thank you so much, Kristina, for the podcast. I listened and now am devouring everything Dr. Brown has written or said. All of it is so, so true, and I feel like I’m reading my own thoughts! (Doesn’t hurt that she’s a Texan who went to my school and is the oldest of four!)

      I’ve got a proposition for you. It can be very scary to be vulnerable when we sing. Our voices feel like our very beings, and it is rough to put that out there on the line for judgment and approval. Not getting it can feel like death.

      I propose that whenever you and I sing in each other’s presence, we be the safe space for each other. You’ll know that if you sing when I’m there, there will be at least one person in the room who will listen to what you are saying without judgment, just to receive. And I would love it if you would do that for me. There’s so much shit in our business – so much negativity and clique-y-ness and insecurity and favoritism and shaming – and I think that there’s not much out there work-wise that demands the kind of extreme vulnerability that singing does – and all of that crap gets in the way of doing what we need to do to realize excellence as artists. So, for each other, we can create a safe and sacred space to create our art.

      We can have courage, compassion, and connection for each other.


  3. petuniaspoppies

    Thank you for writing this! It always amazes me to find others with such similar experiences – i think we all perceive ourselves as the only ones dealing with our “stuff” on a lonely island floating through life! Your post was a huge blessing to me. May this Easter weekend bring you more revelation of WHO you are and YOUR unique vision that He has given only you!

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