When people speak about that “it” factor that propels a singer to success they often speak about “it” like a mysterious component that can only be described unspecifically as “it”. I dare say that the undefinable does not help any singer to go forward, except to imprison him/her in the thought that this undefinable “it” may be the missing link that is keeping him/her from success. Wether that “it” is defined as faith or mental strength or self-control or self-confidence, those that have it know precisely what it is. It is an absolute belief that what they have to offer is valuable, of a desirably unique quality and positively good.
This is a quality that I possess and that is the one thing I can hold most important in my arsenal as a singer and indeed as a human being. Some of you know my story in detail. I was supposed to attend college as an engineer but instead went to music school. As the story was told to me later, all of the teachers at Westminster Choir College when I applied for Voice Performance, except one, the visionary Daniel Pratt, thought I did not have enough vocal material to pursue a singing career. Three years later they not only gave me the voice prize but also an additional prize that I share with a soprano colleague, Robin Massie, for the most likely to have a professional career. That was a golden day when all doubts were dispelled. The freshman who began in what was lovingly called by one of my classmates “bonehead solfège” became the junior who won the composition prize that year. What is it that drives one beyond the the hurdles of what might have been called conventional wisdom? Why would a kid from an economically challenged family, born in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, challenge the professional viewpoint of 11 voice teachers at one of the best schools in the United States of America? What right has he? What makes him feel so entitled?
I have to take a page from Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant book, Outliers, which I have linked in the previous post. Despite my geographic and economic challenges, I grew up in a tightly knit, sometimes very dysfunctional extended family lead by my saintly grandmother, Marguerite, who passed away a couple of years ago. Her love and wisdom, despite a limited education, is the kind of thing that one find in books about saintly figures like Ghandi and Mother Theresa. I am not exaggerating. My grandmother was a saintly woman in every way I can imagine. I had the honor of delivering the eulogy at her funeral and was so filled with her strength and love that I had no problem singing at the funeral as well. How do you sing at the funeral of one of the most important people in your life? Her limitless love gave me the strength.
From the time I was small, maybe 5 years old, I could remember my Aunt Jacqueline telling me how special I was. She also sang a song to me that says: “unfortunate young schoolboy, be patient. One day you will be a man. Then you will grow and life will smile on you.” My Aunts Margareth and Yolande, back then also told me this regularly. They expected me to be at the top of my class not as a weight on my shoulder but as a given because I was special. I accepted before I could question it that I was supposed to be at the top of my class and that it was within me to make it real. So is it any wonder that I make a change to tenor some 20 years into my career, left the academic institutions that did not value my gifts in favor of politics, and became a private teacher who seems to defy the New York challenges to have a viable studio in three years? No.
Add to that my two sisters, Karling (known to me as Peter, a biblical reference to the rock upon which Christ wanted to build his church) and Nadine (lovingly know as The Bean, for her lanky model-like figure) and my mother Nicole (known as Mouse, for her quiet strength)! These three people are the foundation of everything in my life. When I have doubts, as any human being does, they are the ones who say: “Keep going! You have come so far already!”, instead of reminding me about the economic realities that dictate I should give up and do something more lucrative with my gifted brain.
Finally for a son, a father’s approval means everything. When I decided to go to music school, my father expressed his doubts. I was giving up scholarships from Ivy League schools for engineering and even invitations for the naval and military academies, all because of high math scores on my SATs. To be minority, and particular black in the US and have Math SAT score in the upper 700s guarantees such opportunities. My father must have thought that I was squandering my life, but he did not let me know that. I know that my mother convinced him to support my decision, which he did in his usually theatrical way. He told me he was proud of me that I was man enough to challenge him and follow my own path. That was already armament enough. But the last thing my father told me before his brain was encapacitated with cancer was the following (and this right after expressing regret for the errors of his life): “When I came to Michigan to see you sing Don Pasquale (yes a bass role), that was the first time I saw you sing opera. I knew then that you were following the path that God set for you. No matter what anyone ever tell you, do not give up ever!”
If I express myself in bold ways on this blog or elsewhere, it is not out of some sense that I am better than others in some way, but rather out of a belief that my hard work gives me rights to an informed opinion that is as good as anyone else. I am open to being questioned and corrected, and have been by dear colleagues who follow this blog. Being corrected does not make me less, it gives me information for deeper reflection and study. This blog is informal for that very reason.
If I follow Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in Outliers, then we are all products of the circumstances of our lives. This has been a theory that I have harbored for a long time. Gladwell had the better anthropological skills to prove the theory for which I am grateful because proving such a theory is not my priority. Nonetheless I am happy to be armed with his research.
The bigger question for me as a teacher (and this is a source of great agony as I feel profound empathy with my students for the mere fact that they have the courage to undergo the pursuit of a career in opera) is what Mr. Gladwell does not answer: Do we remain victims of the negative influences of our upbringing or can we escape them? My extremely optimistic view says yes! To believe this is to believe that my students can overcome any obstacle if they put their mind to it, but putting one’s mind to it is only the starting point. Deciding to accomplish anything requires the commitment to see it through and when that includes not only muscular habits that need to be undone but also mental patterns, anyone can come to the conclusion that it is impossible.
In my own mind one thing overrides all other directives: I can do whatever I put my mind to and I am not afraid of the work involved.
I have had students with extraordinary talent who simply do not believe that they are good enough or worth being successful. It is supremely difficult to deprogram oneself that way. I was told by many that I would not succeed as a singer, but I was shielded by the above “prime directive”. My brain does not compute impossibility. That is one of the reasons I was good in math. I do not believe a problem is insoluble and that alone gave me fuel to find the information or the teacher or the circumstances to advance to the next step of my career.
What is agonizing is that I cannot give my students my sense of belief in them. I am not just telling them they can. I truly believe it, because I do not see what it is that stops them. I made technique my priority because many believed that one either has a voice or not. The very teachers who believed I was not talented changed their minds. Everyone has a voice. I graduated from “bonehead slofège” to winning a composition prize and becoming an orchestral conductor. Musicianship skills can be learned and they are the foundation for informed interpretations. Charisma is based on a profound belief in oneself and I have seen singers who have very little self-esteem who manage with some encouragement to believe long enough to give unforgettable performances. But I have also seen the very same singers despair in the belief that they are not deserving and so perform way below their ability.
In the end it is they who have to be convinced that they are worthy of their dreams. Once that is the case, I can help them with the technical-musical obstacles and how to navigate an operatic world that makes no sense to most of us. But first they have to believe. Just as my family helped me to believe from childhood, I try to show them through their successes that they can erase the obstacles including their self-defeating beliefs. For those particular students who grew up not believing in themselves there is a difference. We have to build a new paradigm for them that overrides the old. We have to inject a brain virus that obliterates the old programing. It’s like Mickey yelling in the side of the ring to Rocky “Ya gotta chew iron and spit fire!” (Not an exact quote). But in the end, it is Rocky who had the heart to stare Apollo Creed down. I can’t sing for them! They have to want to sing with a rare passion such that every negating programing is rejected. They must have an anti-virus software that protects their sense of worth, for that is the “it” factor that obliterates every obstacle.
I believe in paradoxes. That has always been the nature of my world and it serves me well in the very uncertain world of music. I believe that my programming is unshakable and I believe it is positive. Yet I believe that negative programming can be erased and should be erased. I have negative programmings too. Otherwise I would have been more successful in academia (probably charming my bosses out of their jaded ways rather than challenging them). I might be more successful in my romantic relationships, etc. Still because of that “prime directive” of mine I believe that I can become more charming and I have, because I have built the working environment that is conducive to my success. I believe I will learn to be more discriminant about who I enter into a relationship with, and I have. Ultimately I believe that my best days are ahead of me.
Can I infect my students with my own prime directive? Perhaps! Is it enough to help them believe in themselves and overcome self-doubt and self-flagellation? In some cases maybe! It took more than one person in my life. It took an entire family, Mr. Pratt at the right time, the Westminster faculty became infected with the idea that I had something special and it follows me even now. Before Mr. Pratt, there was my High School music teacher, Kathy Prudon, who taught me for free every day of my junior and senior year of high school after I decided to become a singer. She was also my drama teacher my senior year who helped me overcome stuttering, which I thought was a curse, a plague back then. I still stutter, but imperceptibly and I have done musicals and straight plays all my professional life without ever stuttering not even in rehearsals. Thank you Kathy Prudon.
And so to all the families and friends of my students I cry for help. If you are the parents of one of my students, you know them best. Instead of telling them all the reasons why not, search hard and find the reason why “yes” and tell them often. If you are a friend or colleague of one my students, tell him or her how wonderful they are because you experienced something about them that is an ingredient for success. Don’t lie to them. Reinforce the positive that you see and preach it sincerely! It might even challenge you to find the positive in yourself.
I will end this already long post with another idea featured by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. It is called the Matthew Effect. The term was first coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton. It refers to a passage in the Gospel accoring to Matthew:
For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an
abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be
Give your child the gift of self-confidence and every one who meets them will believe that they are worthy. Tell your child and friend, my student, that he or she is worth it until they start to believe it. For only when they believe in themselves will others believe in them. That is the crux of the Matthew Effect. The virus of self-doubt must be erased if we are to succeed.