When I think of competitions I have won or auditions that lead to jobs or my best performances, there is one element that stands out above all: Confidence. Confidence that the moment at hand was within my control! Paradoxically, control has a double-meaning, for in those moments I felt that I relenquished control to my imagination–My desire to express something wonderful was dependent simply upon the will to express it. My body, mind and spirit were prepared to act in concert because I had prepared in every way that was necessary. I had no doubt that my preparation was of the highest order and knew fundamentally that I simply had to deliver what I had prepared, as if a beautiful present to my audience or to the judges or casting directors. But what is it that gives confidence? What are the necessary ingredients that yield true confidence–the calm state of mind that is filled with certainty that the moment would simply develop as it was meant to: fluid, effortlessly concentrated, peaceful? There are two fundamental parts to confidence: 1) the certainty that training and repetition of correct habits lead to reliable skills and 2) the ability to let go of past failures that were based on prior inadequacies.
1. Repetition is the mother of all skill~Anthony Robbin: I would add to Mr. Robbins axiom that the repetition of correct habits lead to correct and reliable skill. Recently one of my students wrote the following on a singer’s forum:
…Working that way honestly feels like being a ballerina at the barre. You just do it, and then do it again. Until the strength is there. (And by “it”, I mean the strength exercises. Just continuing to sing off the voice up there every day again and again won’t ever make it stronger.)
The vocal strengthening exercises are not easy. They target the specific muscular coordination that yield a balanced sound. This means that in the interim, depending on the severity of the imbalance, the singer may feel at first uncoordinated, easily fatigued, and unable to trust the voice to do what s/he wants. But what ballet dancer ever felt perfectly strong in the beginning? What athelete did not feel unccordinated in the beginning? But our field has a hard time dealing with the issue that a voice has to be built. It is easier to think that great voices are born. That way, noone has to be responsible for building it. That is the unfortunate state of pedagogy in our times, by and large.
I honor my colleagues who guide their students to confront their weaknesses and not just coddle to their strengths. In our business, it is simply too rare.
To become confident, it is important to have overcome difficulty! A false confidence comes from early success: Ignorance is bliss! Many young singers who developed spontaneously (unconsciously) assume that they have a special talent until they face a repertoire that challenges their weaknesses. It is in facing their fears and overcoming them that such a singer becomes truly confident–Confident from conscious overcoming of limitations not from never having faced their weaknesses.
This reminds me of the legendary Leontyne Price who made one of the remarkable Met debuts in 1961 (the pressures of the Civil Rights movement aside) only to crash and burn in the difficult role of Barber’s Cleopatra written for her for the occasion of opening the Metropolitan Opera’s new house. Can you imagine the pressure? After such a setback, most strong people would crawl under a rock and never come back. Ms. Price took a bit of time off and came back with a solid technique that carried her through a career of big events that lasted more than 30 years. I heard her in recital in 1989 in Ann Arbor, Michigan during her farewell recital tour. She sang a full program of songs and arias with a voice so fresh, with powerful fortes and breath-taking pianissimi–a near perfect vocal technique at the service of a varied repertoire handled with stylistic grace. She was balanced. She was confident!
To that end, I also honor the many singers on the world stage who are too often the target of derision because of their vocal weaknesses.
In the past I have participated in such conversations because I had a hard time understanding why top singers would have obvious vocal flaws. Many of them become etremely successful because of their multi-dimensional skills (that they have worked hard for) and in a world where everything is rushed, their weaknesses were not addressed. I am currently working with quite a few singers singing at very high levels and I find they have certain traits in common: 1) they are very conscienscious and hard-working 2) they are very honest about their flaws (little or great) and really want to work them out 3) they are gentle souls in a tough business that will eat them up and then spit them out at the first sign of insecurity. They are my heroes and I am honored to be in their corner.
I honor most profoundly the students I have who have been misguided in the past and find themselves sometimes frustrated and insecure about their future when they should be reaping the rewards. The road to recovery is not easy, and as one on the other side of a very difficult Fach-change and beginning to really enjoy the fruits of a grueling labor, I do not pity them. I honor their courage for wanting to work their problems out even if it appears late in the game. Without exception they are truly inspired and skilled musicians who just need their instruments to respond to their artistic will. I feel intense joy when I see the light of hope in their eyes, because it is the beginning of confidence. When they see the logical path to the skills they always wanted, then the hardest part of our journey together has been passed. And when a former baritone has gone from not being able to sing F4 comfortably to being a tenor able of coordinating a well-supported F5 (not falsetto), I want to throw a party! And when a mis-fached lyric erupts with her effortless Queen of the Night and sings Ab6 regularly in her warm-ups I almost want to cry. And when a tenor whose passaggio was all but broken can now sing a perfectly supported pianissimo in that part of his voice and is now free to make music I go to sleep feeling that what I do truly matters. But my knowledge and skill as a teacher means nothing without their willingness to confront those weaknesses and the problem is not just physical…
2. Let sleeping corpses lie (1974 Italian horror film in which disturbed souls wake to wreak havoc on a small town). It is important to face the errors and horrors of our past, and I have seen more singers sob great bitter tears at what they perceive as time lost because their weaknesses were not addressed. I see their eyes burn with seething anger when they come to understand how easily their problems could have been addressed. But too often the teacher had said: “well, your voice is just limited!” or “You just don’t have a great voice!” or my favorite, “You don’t have any voice!” Lucky for me, none of my own teachers ever told me I had no voice. Other teachers did, but I just assumed they were quacks, since the statement literally made no sense. Figure that those same teachers would say I had a beautiful speaking voice but no singing voice, as if I had two different sets of vocal folds for each!
But what does it really matter what a teacher did in the past?
Yes a certain amount of anger should be expressed, for the life of an opera singer is so much easier when technical issues have been dealt with at a younger age. Ageism is a plague that is eating the operatic field alive. Because of the inadequacies of academic pedagogy (there are great teachers in academia but too few), singers need a lot more time. Unfortunately when singers reach true preparation it becomes much more difficult to get auditions. So indeed it is important to take a moment to grieve for lost time…
But some singers are paralyzed by the ghosts of the past and even when they have achieved great skills, they spend their time talking about what this teacher or that teacher did or did not do. It is not belittling the tragic impact of such experiences to say: “Now what?” Do you remain victim to the inadequacies of the past or do you follow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prescription:
Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.
Quantum physics shows us that reality is simply thought. The brain responds precisely the same to an experience as it does to the memory thereof. Reinforcing painful or negative memories is as bad as reliving them. To be able to move forward we have to let go of the bitter past. In three years I have almost forgotten my 25-year experience as a baritone. I keep the good parts of course. The special concerts and auditions remain fresh, but I look forward to having greater ones as a tenor.
The way to make peace with our past experiences is to realize that our teachers were human beings who were growing and learning, and that if we are honest with ourselves, we learned more from them than we did not learn. This does not soften my indictment of those who wallow in the mud of their own ignorance and pompously blame their students for their lack of achievement. I for one have no ill words for my teachers. They were all people who had a great thirst for knowledge. They always wanted to learn more. They are my role-models. It is because of them that I wanted to learn vocal science and conducting and composition or whatever else my colleagues in academia considered distractions. Of course I wonder why my beloved teachers never perceived I was in fact a tenor. Perhaps it was because I identified so much with being a baritone that my zeal convinced them. But indeed the question is simple: “What can I do now to make my future a fruitful one?”
This is the question I try to answer every morning. Some mornings it is simply getting up and doing my Tai Chi form. It brings clarity of thought and physical balance. Then perhaps I gain the strength from it to do my daily vocal practice, from which I might have an idea for a blog post, which develops into an idea in addressing a student’s concerns, which leads to a discussion with a colleague who invites me to do a master class in a new city, which leads to the acquaintance of a new General Manager of a new theater, etc…
Progress is not made by mourning the past, although as human beings we may need a little of that once in a while. But bitterness must not reign over anything we do as artists. Our job is a heroic one! We live in a world that puts us last! When there are financial concerns, the Arts are the first that people deem expendable. Yet when there is a baptism, or a bar mitzvah or a wedding or a funeral or a tragedy, who brings balance and meaning to the moment? Usually a singer!
In a lifetime, a singer probably spends more than s/he takes in, but if we valued the heroic adventures of an artist in terms of money we would have no music to listen to, no paintings to see and no poems to read. Indeed we would have been better off blind, deaf and mute then!
We can give ourselves so many excuses why we are in the predicaments we are in. We can blame all kinds of people and experiences in our past for the problems we have, but in the end what does that help? Let sleeping corpses lie!
And so confidence is achieved from the practice of correct habits that lead to reliable skills and in the great spiritual ability to avoid being victimized by past experiences. As a teacher I can bring my students the former, which if practiced in the present can help with the latter. But in the exorcism of evil spirits, a priest will tell you that his greatest ally should be the soul he is trying to save. If that soul does not want to be saved, then the demon will win. And since I don’t believe in demons except those that we create ourselves, it is up to us to decide which reality we want to live in: the prison of the past, the pressure of the future or the empowerment of the present?