“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