Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The singer's brain

This is a post that has been percolating in my brain for some time, and I am finally ready to get my thoughts together and write about this very complicated subject.

The other day, when I had my audition for the Deutsche Oper, a colleague and friend of mine whose singing I greatly admire was also auditioning, so I stood backstage and listened to his audition. As I listened to him sing, I was impressed by so many things about what he was doing, and thought his audition was pretty spectacular. As he exited the stage, I, in my american exuberance was jumping up and down and giving him the thumbs up, thinking he was going to be thrilled. Instead, to my shock, all he said was, "Wow - that totally sucked," and he proceeded to detail all the reasons why it was not a good audition. I happen to know this person is extremely self critical, so I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised, but I was thinking - how can I have thought it was sooooo good and he have thought it was sooooo bad??? "Are you insane?" I asked him. "Did you not hear how perfectly you sang that high note and then decrescendoed it into a perfect pianissimo???" He was despondent, "Yeah, but what about x, y, and z," he had a list of his flaws, which to my ears were so miniscule even a voice teacher wouldn't notice them. I just shook my head.

Fast forward to Monday night's performance of Barbiere. It was my second and last performance, which is not a good combination since second performances are always difficult after the excitement of the opening, and last performances often carry with them the pressure of "this is your LAST one - make it GOOD!" As I was singing the performance, I found myself being really self critical and kicking myself for every little flaw, unlike in the opening where I really was having a fun time and enjoying myself. At the end of the first act I was so busy muttering to myself and yanking my costume off as I exited the stage, that I forgot we all take a company bow, and by the time the stage manager got my attention, everyone was already bowing. She sent me on anyway, but by the time I got there half the cast had left, but the few that remained took a bow with me so I wouldn't be by myself. It was really embarrassing and weird. I spent the intermission trying to collect myself, and the second half did go a lot better, but there were still a few moments I didn't like. By the time the performance was over, and a friend of mine who was in the audience came backstage, I was despondent. As soon as he came in my dressing room, all I could say was "That sucked." and his response was: "Are you insane?" When I started detailing all the things that I thought "sucked" about the performance, he kept answering, "Nope - couldn't hear that. No, it didn't sound like that from out there. No, I didn't notice that at all." I was practically shaking him, yelling, "TELL ME THE TRUTH!!!" and he almost had to slap me (think Cher in Moonstruck GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF) and scream "I AM!!!" and he's someone whose opinion I trust. So who do I believe? My own ears and brain, or him (or my other colleague, who said that he did hear one of the things I was complaining about, but the rest he had no idea what I was talking about)?

The next day I sat down and assessed what I thought of the performance. I could come up with one thing I thought was bad, two things that were not good, but probably completely not noticeable if I was being honest, and one thing that wasn't as good as it could of been, but probably nobody would call bad. That is four moments, each lasting less than 3 seconds, in a three hour show. I won't detail what those moments were here, because I've learned that blogging your flaws is really a bad idea, but they were vocal things which I am capable of doing much better than I did. On the one hand, beating yourself up over 12 seconds of material within three hours of singing seems incredibly ludicrous. However, I really believe that continuous striving for "perfection" is important and necessary in this particular job. If you work for x number of years to make sure your voice remains beautiful and even from top to bottom, and then one note really ISN'T, you need to keep working on that. Because why not expect yourself to thrill the audience every time with every note when you know you are capable of it?

Your thoughts are powerful, and they can make or break you. I have been learning to control my brain and my body in new ways, and all my "problem spots" have definitely improved as a result. I've even gotten better about not hating myself too much when I sing notes that I deem imperfect, and allowing myself to accept that every single singer has things that they worry about, and that give them problems. I will probably never be completely satisfied with my own singing, and that's just the way my singer brain works. But I also know that what I have to offer is something worth offering, and that knowledge keeps me getting up there time after time, and allows me to keep striving and growing and changing. And it keeps life interesting, to say the least.


Rafael Rivera said...

A lesson that applies to all of us who strive to have our gifts be perfect.

Unknown said...

What you do is so amazing that it is almost unbelievable to the rest of us normal people. That you or anyone can put it all together and deliver perfection every single time is expectation beyond which we humans are capable. Perfection is where we come from, we don't have to be it. Give the poor girl a break.

Anonymous said...

EVERYONE has those moments of doubts and of course you (or anyone else for that matter) can do everything better. It's all part of the learning process.

You could have sung smt a tad better?! So what? Next time you will. Move on! I think that guy who was all down on himself made a negative impact on you. I bet you were actually great!

Positive thinking is IMHO fundamental. Of course you will never be perfect and thanks God it is so. You are improving and THAT's important. But agonizing over the small/unnoticeable imperfections that you KNOW you can do better [NEXT TIME!] - hey!!! Life is too short for that.

Cheer up and keep us posted about your fab operatic ride :)

Katypracht said...

I thought about you tonight and had so much fun during my performance. Why? Because I wasn't worrying about being judged by anyone in the audience and I chose not to judge myself. What a carefree feeling!
Now, looking back, I'm positive I could have sung some things better and I know there are people in the audience who prefer a different approach to singing coloratura, but I sounded like myself tonight and I'm proud to have done that very well.

No one else sings quite like Jenny Rivera, and you do it exceptionally well! :)

I hope you're learning a little German while you're there. Now that the stress is over, enjoy some Kartoffeln for me!


Anonymous said...

Excellent post - I had roughly the same experience this past weekend, closing a run of "Man of La Mancha." I was highly critical of my performance, but everyone around me kept saying how great it was - both me and the show in general. My inclination was the same as your's - to think that they were just being nice. But even people I can trust to be honest with me were saying it, so I decided to relax and stop being hypercritical. It's human nature, especially for performers. And "beating oneself up" can be cathartic, as long as you don't take it too far.

Julie said...

Thank you, Katypracht, for saying what I wanted, but couldn't find the words for. I think there is always something, whether its a note, or some other detail that we wish we could go back and have another chance with. The choice to focus on that, or the good things we did during the performance, is up to us.