Essay #2: Anything Worth Doing.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

It was a curious thing for the keynote speaker to say at a Classical Singer convention. He made this declaration to a sea of identically dressed singers, poised young women in solid colored wrap dresses, stockings, and heels and confident young men in dark suits. These were the uniforms of the opera audition. We were all professionals, dedicated to refinement and pursuing perfection, and this stage director was asking us to perform our art badly. He had our full attention.

He went on to explain that if you were going to do something well, you must do it badly the first time. You can’t be perfect in the first iteration. He recognized that this is tough to do for classical singers to do, because perfection is not only expected but demanded by the public and the critics. Opera singers must take risks, though, if they are going to reach their full potential as artists. You need to play new roles if you’re going to grow. So many of us are afraid to mess up, because we’re worried about losing our reputations as performers.

I took this stage director’s message to heart, and it’s become my mantra in my voice studio with students:

  • Auditioning is a skill. You can’t learn to do it in the studio. You must do it in public in situations that aren’t completely under your control. You can’t learn how to do it well until you stumble the first few times.
  • Singing as a soloist is a skill. You’ve been singing as a chorister up until now, which is a completely different experience – much less exposed. You must take the risk of doing it badly so that you can learn how to do it better the next time.
  • Singing a role in an opera is a skill. The roles grow as you play them multiple times. There won’t be multiple times without a first time.

I’m a big believer in having my students see me in my element, doing work as a professional singer. It’s important to model different ways of having a career once school is done, like an artistic serving suggestion on a TV dinner box. (Although, I’d like to imagine that my singing is more lovely than Salisbury steak with peas. Okay, this is a terrible analogy.)

When I sang Mozart’s Requiem and Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” with a local choral society, I wanted as many of my students in that audience as possible. I hope that in seeing me sing that they could imagine themselves following their own path in classical music. My performances aren’t perfect, but that’s not the point. The point is that they can see it can be done.

In the spirit of “anything worth doing is worth doing badly”, I decided to sing a recital in 2015.

Recitals are the toughest type of performance that a classical singer can take on. Each individual song is its own little world with its own narrator, and the performances are incredibly naked. It’s just you and a pianist up there. There’s no place to hide, and you alone have the responsibility of making the text and the character come to life.

The focal piece on my full recital program was Mahler’s song cycle, Kindertotenlieder. The title translates to “Songs of the Death of Children”. As you might imagine, it’s not a cheerful piece of music. However, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of German Romantic literature ever written. The piece follows a father through the stages of grief after his children had passed away from a serious illness. It explores darkness, light, denial, anger, desperation, faith, and hope. As painful as it is to hear and to sing, I feel it’s so important that this piece’s truth be performed and experienced.

I programmed the Kindertotenlieder with lighter fare, some cute British folk songs and another Romantic song cycle, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Four Last Songs”. Vaughan Williams had set some of his wife Ursula’s poetry to music, and the songs are mysterious, emotional, and intimate. I felt that pairing a parent’s feelings of anguish with songs of mature intimacy would balance the program out. Both song cycles are sung by characters who have lived in the world and have a deeper understanding of human experience as a result. A 16-year-old would never sing these pieces.

The Kindertotenlieder scared the living shit out of me.

Their difficulty of the subject matter wasn’t the only challenge I was taking on. I was also taking on my fear of failure and my feelings of technical inadequacy. All my classical singing heroes had performed this piece. Dame Janet Baker. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Marilyn Horne. Each of these great singers put their mark on the piece. Baker sang it with heartbreaking subtlety and restraint. Horne sang the piece with beautiful lines and a flawless delivery of the composer’s wishes in the score. Fischer-Dieskau’s performance of the piece was always my favorite, because he really embodies the character when he’s singing it. If you see video recordings of him performing the piece, his face looks dark-eyed and hollow, like some part of his soul has gone black and necrotic.

What sort of mark was I going to put on it? How could I have the audacity to sing this piece?

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

So I ended up performing the Kindertotenlieder twice in one week. I have no idea how I managed to do this, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I said to myself, “One of these performances will act as my dress rehearsal and the other will be a recorded performance! The piece will grow over the course of a week! It’ll be a great experience!” I was so stupid to have done this. It was physically and emotionally exhausting.

My first performance of the Kindertotenlieder was in a classical music recital series at a local church in my hometown. Without knowing how heavy my piece was, the music society programmed my set after a flute soloist who was playing cheerful songs that mimicked train whistles. Everyone was cheering and gave her a standing ovation at the end of her portion of the concert. I stood up, gave a brief and mentally scattered intro to the Mahler piece, and started in on the Kindertotenlieder. The song cycle was a 30 minute brick to the face. The hall was silent for what felt like an eternity after I finished. The audience applauded, but you could tell that their minds were still stuck in Mahler’s emotional nightmare.

I staggered out of that hall. I had done it, and it wasn’t entirely bad. In fact, I was able to envelope myself in the acoustic of the church and the character in a way that protected me from any scrutiny in the audience. Their judgment melted away in that half hour. The music was the only thing that mattered.

The second time I performed the Kindertotenlieder was as a part of my solo recital. I had rented a community studio space called The Green Room in Somerville. The space had a beautiful, mellow sounding piano, and the walls were exposed brick and sage green. The room had a Tiffany stained glass lamp hanging from the ceiling and the floors were a light wood. The space could only seat about 20, but that’s about as big of an audience as I wanted for this music. This performance was different, because there wasn’t as much space between me and the audience. I had a sound engineer record this performance. It wasn’t as strong as the church performance, but I was proud of myself for making it through.

The surprise hits of the night were the Vaughan Williams pieces. When the Vaughan Williams came up on the program, the Kindertotenlieder was done. I could relax into the lyricism and the lines of the piece. It’s rare that I get the opportunity to sing tender love songs in my work, so I gave these pieces all I had. At least two of my students were in the audience. I was so glad that they could be there with me.

When all was said and done (sung and done?), I had to sit back and say to myself, “Oh my God. You just performed the Kindertotenlieder. You sang one of the most difficult pieces to deliver, and you didn’t break down or lose your shit. You can do this again and it will be better.”

It wasn’t perfect, but anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

***********

Below I’ve included links to recordings of the performances I referred to above. It’s scary to put my own recordings out there in the world, but the story can’t be told properly without the actual sound of my voice.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings part of the first movement of Kindertotenlieder with sad, hollow eyes: https://youtu.be/Be-g3DqZg98

Our heroine sings the first movement of Kindertotenlieder, knowing it’s worth doing badly the first time (and it wasn’t so bad at all!): https://soundcloud.com/user-534836077/mahler-kindertotenlieder-nun-will-die-sonn-so-hell-aufgehn

Our heroine sings “Tired” from Vaughan Williams “Four Last Songs” – shorter, lyrical, and a little easier to digest than the Mahler: https://soundcloud.com/user-534836077/eileen-christiansen-tired-from-four-last-songs-r-vaughan-williams

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Essay #1: Up in the Air

I was sitting across from my boss in the lobby of a Marriott Hotel. The sun was setting. I thought we were going out for drinks or an early dinner.

He had flown in from our corporate offices in Illinois. It was a scene right out of that George Clooney movie, “Up in the Air”. John had a Kleenex box in one hand and a navy-blue folder in the other. The folder contained COBRA benefits coverage information and contact information for an outplacement agency. We were in a public place. This was a text book choice on his part. I wouldn’t be able to make too much of a scene in a public place.

My job was being terminated.

It was a reduction in force.

It had nothing to do with my performance.

I could see the patterns on the furniture. The floral carpet. The dark wood and brass of the lobby desk.

Everything was appropriate. By the books.

While I was surprised by the timing of the layoff, the business decision made perfect sense. I was a Human Resources professional who was responsible for taking care of three campuses within the corporation that had acquired our little tech start-up, one in Boston, one in Illinois, and one in Utah. They had slashed our travel budget during the recession, so I couldn’t effectively serve my disjointed team. I wondered if I had made some disastrous misstep in my work, but it didn’t matter at that point. I had no job. I was no longer connected to this company.

I worried about the employee files. I worried about whether they were labelled properly. I worried that the HR staff in the corporate offices wouldn’t be able to find what they needed. These were ten years of files. Would they hold up against an audit? Was the employment paperwork in good order?

I remember so clearly thinking this. I didn’t think about me. I didn’t think about the loss of my livelihood. All I could do was fret over those files and the state they were in.

These are the thoughts that run through a person’s head when they’re in shock, when they’re about to engage in the grieving process.

The same thing happens when a person dies. We ask ourselves the strangest questions. Who can we get to cater the reception after the funeral? Are we going to have to roll the luncheon meat ourselves? Can we get someone from the church to set out the cups and the plates? The crying happens later.

My boss’s colleague Joe joined us at the table in the lobby. “Eileen, you don’t have to worry about this anymore. This isn’t your job.” He was incredulous and kept repeating that: this isn’t your job.

They had decided to let me go first, because they wanted my layoff to be a dignified private discussion. They didn’t want me to be let go with the others the following morning. I appreciated the gesture. Would my colleagues have asked me questions, like I was in on it? Would I have been a part of those individual termination discussions in the morning? My bosses were sparing me that pain.

The rest of the conversation was a blur. I asked them if I could spend some time in my office, putting the files in boxes, labeling them. I wanted to take my things. My photographs. My business cards. I wanted to do this when my colleagues couldn’t see me. John and Joe gave me permission. They weren’t going to shut off my access to the company email and HRIS systems until the next morning.

I saw one of my co-workers leave when I got back to the office. We waved at each other with a smile through the window. He had no idea what was going to happen the next morning.

We would never see each other again.

This was the start of my career as a musician.

*****

Weeks later, the whole conversation with John came rushing back into my head. I remembered saying as he handed me the folder, “Thank you for making me a mezzo-soprano. Thank you.”

John was relieved. He said, “I hoped you’d see it that way.”

Outside of my full-time job, I had been working part-time as a classical singer. I performed for a little bit of money at a few churches and I was a member of two local choirs. I sang solos. I took voice lessons. I didn’t think beyond that. Only special people got to be professional musicians. I wasn’t special. I was a workhorse.

John had heard recordings of me singing Vivaldi and Handel arias. John felt that singing was my differentiating talent. Lots of people could be strategic business partners in a Human Resources department. Fewer still could be organizational design and development consultants. However, only the tiniest fraction of the world’s population could sing like me. John knew that then. I know that now.

After a day or two in drawstring pants, watching mindless TV and eating Haagen Dasz ice cream, I decided to drop the pity party and to start thinking about next steps. I set up my unemployment assistance through the state right away, and I started to look at potential consulting gigs. The former president of my tech start-up offered me an admin job. He thought it was insulting that I was terminated like that in the first wave of layoffs. A part-time HR job was opening at a tech firm in Cambridge. I could keep some money coming in while I was figuring things out.

My husband asked, “Why don’t you sing? You should sing.”

The thought of it was terrifying. I knew I was good, but I had no way to know how good I was. What right had I to sing? Only special people – blessed people – sing. I was not blessed. I was a workhorse.

My heart shook my mind. Wake up. Wake up.

“I should sing.”

*****

Singing is a strange profession. To teach voice, at least at the college level, you needed to have a DMA or a PhD. To perform you need to sing well. That’s it. School connections, flashy resumes, and glossy head shots might get you in the door, but that 10 minute audition was the key to securing a place in a production or in a company.

The world of the performing arts is cruel. Singers were coming out of conservatory master’s programs with their piece of paper expecting a job. The fancy degree and the years of hard work were no guarantee. A soprano with an incredible instrument could roll in from a school in the rural Midwest, sing the most amazing coloratura runs, and they would get the job.

Plus, in an economy like this one, singers need to be more creative in building a career. Very few singers could follow the traditional path: undergraduate program, master’s program, and then on to a doctorate degree or a young artist’s program with an opera company. There was a prescribed way to build a career in opera, but there are too many singers auditioning for the same roles.

The rest of us had to cobble together a portfolio of work. Most singers have admin jobs or teach during the day. We have a mix of church work, choral gigs, and concert work on the evenings and on the weekends. We take on opera roles whenever we get the chance. It’s feast or famine. While the cubicle dwellers are working, we rest. While corporate America is enjoying its weekend, we are cramming in as much paying work as we could get.

Holidays were a thing of the past. Christmas. Easter. Those are the most lucrative times of year for a singer. I had to let go of all those things if I was going to make it.

My voice echoed inside my head: Thank you for making me a mezzo-soprano.

*****

I remember at a barbecue that summer, my dear friend, a choral conductor and tenor, was chatting with my husband about the music business. It felt like an out of body experience. We were all sipping beers in the sunshine as burgers and hot dogs sizzled in the background.

Murray explained to Chuck, “I know Eileen is figuring things out right now, but she’s going to be okay. She’s going to make it work. She’ll have a career. One way or another, she’ll have a career.”

Chuck nodded. He had no doubt.

Was I even there? They were talking about me like I wasn’t there.

I thought to myself, “How does he know? Well, I guess he’s the professional. Murray would know best.”

That was the feather in Dumbo’s cap. In that moment, I knew I was going to fly.

*****

It turned out that Murray knew about as much as I did about my chances for success. He had no idea whether a career was waiting for me on the horizon. He told me as much years later. John had no idea either. They weren’t making me a mezzo. Their predictions were only acting as permission slips. It was my hard work and my talent that were going to get me there. My differentiating talent. John was right about that.

I was going to sing, because singers aren’t special. Singers sing and they sing well.

What are the singer’s metrics for success?

Get hired and then be rehired.

Leverage yourself up to the next level. Be rehired.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Someone once said that the best thing about my voice was the sound of my voice. I’m no master technician, and you’re never going to hear me execute pyrotechnic coloratura runs in the stratosphere. Instead, music and tone pour out of me. My voice is unstoppable. My robust sound has pathos and warmth. Its color is burnished, like swirled chocolate and honey. I have the voice of a mother, of a comforting angel, and of a heroic warrior. I was going to be hired because my voice was different. No one else sounded like me, and no other voice communicated emotion in the same way mine did.

In the end, that’s what made me a mezzo-soprano: my voice.

I had to find the repertoire that it sang best, and I needed to follow it where it needed to go.

There would be no more file folders. No labels. No performance reviews. No outplacement firms. No men in business casual attire telling me when it was time to say goodbye.

There was only my voice, and it was the only pair of wings I ever needed.