Stop Looking Sideways, or How I Embraced My Own Path

I am a University of Michigan Musical Theatre grad and I wear my Maize and Blue proud. Being a U of M grad in the world of musical theatre has given me opportunities that never would have been open to me otherwise, and dear friends and a network of professional artists that I am blessed to have. It’s like having a golden ticket- a degree from Michigan is a privilege, an honor, and a great accomplishment.

It’s also a burden to bear.

You graduated from U of M? Wow! You must be so talented! Are you on Broadway? Have you been on Broadway? How many Broadway shows have you done? Are you friends with Gavin Creel?

The answers are no, no, none, and no- although we do live in the same neighborhood and I smile at him when I see him walking his dog.

What no one tells you in your four years of preparation to enter this crazy field is that there is no guarantee of success. And what’s more, the expectations we have for ourselves as graduates of such a program can be too much to handle.

I graduated in 2012 thinking I would make it ‘big’ right away. Every week my classmates and I would hear the awesome news of friends of ours in previous classes making their Broadway debut (or second or third appearance) or getting a tour, or even a TV gig. It was Broadway or bust for all 24 of my classmates and I. We saw the standard of excellence for Michigan grads and we were chomping at the bit to have our chance at success.

Things did not play out how I imagined. I finished showcase, didn’t sign with an agent, and set out on a year and a half of auditions where nothing really came to fruition. I was called back for Broadway shows and tours, I performed in small things here and there, but there was no “I’ve made it in New York” moment for me. It was discouraging to say the least.

But what my real mistake was, and the whole point of me writing this, was… I was looking sideways the whole time.

You know Mr. Wagner’s line? Something like, you can’t go forward if you’re looking sideways? That was me. And that was so many of my friends. And that is so many of my talented, incredible, hard working students now. I was absolutely comparing my life and my success to people on completely different paths. I kept happiness at arm’s length because my life looked different from theirs.

My life started to look more and more like this: spending time in the studio teaching voice lessons to people who valued my skills and whose energy brought light to my life, pursuing relationships, growing my teaching business, pursuing continued vocal education, pouring energy into my friendships and family and getting back the same.

I always knew I wanted to be a full time voice teacher one day, I just didn’t imagine it meaning so much to me so quickly. In fact, I’ve been teaching, training and re-certifying as an instructor every year for the past ten years, with what is now the Institute for Vocal Advancement. What was initially going to help me avoid waiting tables has become my real passion and the thing that I am most fulfilled by.

It was hard to admit this to myself, let alone my friends, a few of whom were making huge strides in their acting careers right about this time. It was honestly embarrassing for me to say things like, “It doesn’t seem like now is the right time for me in this business. But you know what I might like even more? This whole teaching thing.”

Did people think I was “giving up?” My professors and family expect more from me, am I letting them down? Am I letting myself down? Isn’t acting what I was “supposed” to do?

I just found this “journal” entry in a forgotten notebook tonight. It’s from the day before last year’s incredible Maize and Blue on Broadway concert in honor of Brent Wagner. I wrote,

“I am sad not to be important enough to to be in the Maize and Blue concert. Not to not be in it, but to be of so little consequence in this field, I’m useless… I’m afraid to feel fat, unimportant, untalented by my friends and colleagues at the concert tomorrow. I feel like nothing I’ve accomplished matters, especially in the Michigan MT context.”

Have you ever felt this way?

Here’s what I’ve learned. My path is not the same as yours, and yours is different from the next person’s. When I have let success be defined as just one narrow outcome in a world FULL of opportunity, I have absolutely let myself be miserable. When I measure myself against my friends with Broadway credits or Broadway bodies, I keep happiness at arm’s length.

If this is your dream, do it! Do it with all your heart, mind, and strength! If it’s taking longer than you expected, that’s ok. Breathe, relax, and keep working. And if it turns out this funny business of show isn’t where your heart lies, then give yourself permission to follow it elsewhere. I admire my friends and colleagues who have found themselves in law school, behind a casting table, teaching children’s dance classes, writing Oscar winning songs, directing commercials, starring in their own plays, becoming parents, launching a community theatre, and going to med school.

The world is wide enough. You are important just the way you are, and Broadway credits or not, that will not change. We each have inherent value, and this life is too short to not find out what your unique contribution to the world will be.

Today, seeing my best friends’ names in the playbill is a thrill. I genuinely rejoice in the success of those around me, and I’ve allowed others to celebrate mine as well. To my fellow Wolverines and all dreamers out there- I can’t wait to see what you create. Keep looking forward, because I promise you don’t want to miss the beautiful path you are on.

Photo credit to Lauren Hartman

Making Progress

We sometimes think of making progress as a slow and steady climb. If we’re working hard consistently, then surely we should be reaping rewards on a similarly consistent basis.

I’ve found that’s not usually how progress works. A few weeks ago one of my most regular clients was in for her weekly lesson. We’d been plugging away at this one particular song for weeks, making subtle improvements each time, but to her frustration, she still couldn’t sing it quite how she wished to. But in this lesson, after weeks of practicing, she had a breakthrough. Something ‘clicked.’ The muscle memory had finally developed, a newfound strength was discovered, and she sang the crap out of this song. It was amazing! It was magical!

Why does it sometimes take weeks and weeks or months and months of doing the same good things to reap the desired result? More often than not, progress is achieved in minor breakthroughs after longer periods of plateaus. This is why it’s so crucial to not give up in that interim doldrums space of practicing with no visible progress. A swimmer may work for a year to increase their time in the 100M freestyle by only second. Why would we as vocalists expect to achieve vocal progress without putting in the necessary time?

Mastery-Curve-e1357761804247

If you’re studying with a good teacher, in your very first lesson with them you may see incredible results. It may feel like more progress or insight than you have ever had before. However, the following lessons may not feel like the same exhilarating high you had in that first lesson. In fact, it may feel a lot more like work.

Some singers are surprised to hear that singing takes work! It actually is work! Training muscle fibers, brain synapses, and channeling emotional energy to create a beautiful and consistent sound is just as much work as training for the 100 meter freestyle. Once a singer agrees to this process, the process of work, time, effort, and dedication, studying voice becomes much more enjoyable. This is when we realize that good singing is a journey of mastery. There is no finish line.

If this topic interests you, I highly recommend reading George Leonard’s book, Mastery, which completely changed the way I think about learning and progress in every area of my life.

Musicianship and the Singer

Musicianship

Have you ever heard that singers are often the worst musicians? I’d hate to say that generalization is true, but I have experienced what it’s like to realize my musicianship needed to level up.

When I was a junior in college, I gave a concert in my hometown as part of an ongoing Christmas concert series at a beautiful and esteemed venue downtown. It was a one night event put on by me; I chose the program, and asked a few friends to duet with me on two numbers.

I was rushed in my preparation- final exams and performances at school kept me occupied until what was probably just a week or two before this concert I was going to give. But at the time, I thought, “No big deal! I’m a music major, I can pull this off. Most of the songs I’m singing I know already.” That was in fact the case, or so I thought. You know when you’ve heard a song so many times, you just assume you ‘know’ it?

I asked a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a tremendous singer and voice teacher himself, to duet with me on “The Prayer,” an epic ballad with a passage in Italian I was pretty sure I could just breeze through.

He’d sung it many times and in our one rehearsal before the actual performance, he coached me on the pronunciation and rhythm of the section. On top of that, the melody was tricky and I was unsure of what was correct versus what I thought I had heard Celine sing on the recording. I started to feel a little nervous at this point.

“But! I’m a musical theatre major! And I’ve been studying singing all my life! I’ll wow them with charisma and personality, there’s no doubt I can just wing it,” I continued to tell myself.

The concert came. There were a few great moments, there were many decent moments, and then “The Prayer” came and it all went to hell.

I’m sure my mother has video footage of this that I could share here, but I won’t because honestly it would be so embarrassing.

The point is, there is no substitute for preparation. There is no substitute for time spent rehearsing something so many times, there’s no other option but to do it right. You may be a great singer, but a great voice won’t disguise wrong notes, off-kilter rhythm, and Italian pronunciation that totally sucks. 

The fact is, I’m still working on becoming an excellent musician. As I’ve studied, listened, and learned more, I realize my very favorite singers are equally talented musicians- dedicated to their songwriting, or arrangements, or musical storytelling.

The very best aren’t lazy in their preparation, nor do they rely on their natural talent or pretty voice to get them through a song. They know they are one piece of a larger musical ensemble- whether they have an orchestra of 50 or a single piano accompanying them.

I’ve learned through personal failures and triumphs of preparation that the only vocalist worth being is one who is a musician as well.

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2016 Resolution: Learn to Sing!

Why learning to sing should be on your 2016 bucket list

I have countless clients that come in to me with similar stories: “I always wanted to take lessons, but my parents thought I should learn a more relevant instrument,” “I could only take one extracurricular, and soccer always won out,” “I loved singing when I was young, but as I got older, I just never made the time for it,” “I think I might have a good voice, but I never learned how to sing properly.”

For some reason, singing often takes the backseat when it comes to musical training. Parents think it is not as serious of a musical skill, or as impressive on a college application as, say, the soccer team or math club. Even more so, people believe that you’re born with or without natural singing talent, which discourages many would-be singers from improving their voices.

Here’s the deal. Anyone can learn to sing. Anyone! And it’s never too late to start. Never!

I have a fantastic new client. She’s 65 years young and thrilled to finally be developing her voice in lessons. She’s enjoyed singing her whole life and has recently developed the attitude: what better time than now to do something for myself? Each week she progresses, and her dedication is evident in her hard work and improvement.

Your voice is the purest form of communication there is. Whether you enjoy singing in your car, in your choir, or at Carnegie Hall, singing is always a joyful expression. It’s an instrument you already own, constantly carry with you, and can keep your entire life. Learning to use it is an investment that will reap rewards for a lifetime to come.

Ring in 2016 with some joyful noise!