Fear is not the enemy. Fear is a necessary part of life. It is instinctive, a part of our warning system. It is in fact a call to “focus,” to heightened awareness. However, when fear yields a lack of focus, a state of mental disarray, it becomes chaos, panic! As performers, we cannot afford to allow panic to take over. Indeed nor can we allow this mental state in life.
The two most challenging performances I have ever done have yielded the greatest strength.
1) My second doctoral dissertation recital at the University of Michigan was such a failure. It came at the heals of my first dissertation recital, which many of my teachers back then called the best student performance they had seen in some time. So when the second recital went south, I could have panicked. But I did not. A bit of background first.
The second recital was an Italian program covering from Monteverdi to Respighi and beyond. A very special program dedicated to my mentor, George Shirley on his 60th birthday. It was supposed to have been a very beautiful program. It was well-rehearsed, well-researched, etc. But in the end, I had too many performances in one week and my recital ended up being the last of no less than 7 events, big and small.
In the middle of the recital, that on average had a tenor tessitura, at a time when I felt firmly like a baritone, I felt myself struggling. But this was not bad. I kept trying to find ways to make it through the program. Even though my body felt tired, my mind was focused and I kept looking for solutions.
But of course, at the end I was disappointed because I failed (as I saw it) in my attempt to honor my mentor through music. Throughout my years at the University of Michigan, I had a benefactor, a lady from my church choir who besides taking voice lessons from me gave me an annual scholarship of a thousand dollars. She attended most of my performances and this was no exception. After the performance, my wonderful supporter came to greet me and told me how proud she was of me. As she hugged me, I whispered in her ear: “Thank you for being so supportive, but you know I did not do that well tonight!” She swiftly pulled away from me and looked at me with anger and disappointment and left.
She did not show up to church for several weeks and did not respond to any of my calls. It was more than a month later, when I saw her in church and approached her. At which point she taught me a lesson I will never forget.
She told me how proud she had been of the way I dealt with a tough situation. She had been proud of my ability to focus when things were not going perfectly. She knew I would succeed in life by the way I handled that moment. But then when I did not see the value in my own “correct instinctive response,” she had her doubts and felt terribly disappointed and dismayed.
Things can go wrong at any moment and most of the time, they will not go perfectly. If those moments of difficulty can inspire us to gather our energies and focus our thoughts, we will be ok. Indeed, in such situations, there is so much to do that there should not be time for “panic!” But many of us chose to panic when we do not see the obvious answer. I have seen some start to cry because a traffic jam might make them late to a rehearsal. They are defeated by life’s simplest challenges.
I often ask my students:
“What do you do when you come to a dead end?” The answers never cease to amaze me:
“Do I get to use my cell phone?”
“What if I say you don’t have a cell phone?”
“Can I knock at someone’s house?”
“There are no houses to be seen!”
It is not many who say: “Well I’ll just go back the way I came and make a different turn!”
2) My other major moment of extreme difficulty on stage, was around the time my voice was telling me it wanted to do something different. I had never had allergies before and in early April–when I was supposed to sing Vaughan-Williams’ Five Mystical Songs and the Duruflé Requiem, a program that a conductor created specifically for me–my voice fell to pieces and I found myself in front of an auditorium filled to brim with enthusiastic onlookers, going down in flames! My voice was simply not working. I stood in front of that crowd, as if some fighter fighting a lost battle. I felt surrounded by flames and was certain the floor would collapse beneath me and swallow me up. Yet in mind, I kept saying: “Quiet your mind! You have a job to do! One note at a time!”
I survived but the dear conductor told me: “I know what kind of musician you are. It was hard to see you struggle like that. That was heroic. But I got someone else to do the second performance. Give yourself a chance to get healthy!”
I was fired from a job for the first time in over 20 years of singing for pay. I got on a plane the next day to Europe and on that ride I kept wondering what was next. Perhaps, that is the way my mind works. I just look for the next task at hand. Whether it is the next note or the next life decision, it is all the same. That instinct is the greatest gift I have. It is the one thing that came relatively natural to me. For everything else, I had to work hard. But that one gift, helped me figure out how I was going to work hard. I am now a dramatic tenor who flirts with high Eb and even F sometimes and I am enjoying singing again. The struggling steps are behind me and now each new step is an enjoyable one.
I wrote this blog for my friends, my students, my children and whoever else may benefit from this one idea: