A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me if choosing music as my vocation has changed the art for me. The answer is absolutely yes. Since he asked, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about why it’s different. The answer to that question is a lot more complicated. I’m not sure I’ve got all my thoughts about it together, but I’m going to give it a go.
I didn’t start playing the piano until I was 13. I didn’t even know I wasn’t tone deaf until I was 14. I was shocked the day my high school choir director asked me to sing in the women’s choir without even making me do an audition. My mother had spent most of my life telling me that I couldn’t sing. (To this day, she still likes to tell people how awful I was as a kid. Thanks, Mom. I’ll be sending you the bill for my therapist.) As it turns out, I was one of those kids that just needed a visual to go along with what I heard. Piano lessons and learning to read music is what did it for me. I think I had decided I wanted to major in music by the time I was a sophomore or junior in high school.
Of course I didn’t take my own music so seriously then. I was a teenager. I didn’t practice enough, I didn’t go see enough, and I didn’t listen to enough. Practicing was tough because I didn’t really know how to practice. Going to shows was tough because I’m not sure my parents would have been able to spare the time or money to take me. Additionally, I don’t think I knew I needed to go see things. I wanted to be a high school choir director and it didn’t occur to me that I needed to be listening to anything I could. I just had to teach the songs I wanted my choir to learn, right? (WRONG, but that’s an entirely different issue.) I didn’t listen to things that were unfamiliar. If I heard something I liked in a movie or something, I found that piece. Otherwise, I mostly listened to things my parents liked. Carmina Burana and the soundtrack from Amadeus were frequently heard blasting from my bedroom.
So then I went to college. I went to the University of Maine and majored in music education. Not a lot changed. I still didn’t practice enough. I still didn’t know how. I did go see things more frequently, but still not enough. In my defense, I didn’t have any money and the number of free tickets I could receive as a student were limited. I did start listening to more because I was exposed to more through my music history and literature classes. I still didn’t listen enough, though.
Before I graduated, I knew I didn’t really want to be a high school choir director. I wanted to perform. Of course, I had no real understanding of what it meant to be a full time singer or even what it took to get to that point. So, I taught. I taught middle school music for a year. I hated it. I worked in a group home for teens for a year. I hated that too, but because of my coworkers. I worked in a day treatment school for three years. That was better, but there were elements that I really hated. (Again, mostly my colleagues.) So, I decided I needed to start singing again.
Graduate school. Finishing graduate school. Listening more, but still no enough. Practicing more, but still not enough. Still broke, so still not going to enough stuff. Continuing lessons. Having a vocal breakthrough, then taking three steps backwards. Crying in a lot of voice lessons. A *lot* of voice lessons. Starting pieces and abandoning them. Deciding to do auditions and abandoning those ideas too. Then there was the year Schuyler died and I didn’t think I’d ever sing again. Of course, I did, but badly. I could not sing in tune for about a year. I decided to quit in the middle of a concert because I just couldn’t sing anymore. That concert was going to be my last. I was absolutely not ever going to sing another note. (Of course, I had to finish the concert because I had a huge solo. That I sang completely flat. I still haven’t listened to the recording.) Eventually I decided that having a baby, but not being a mother was enough of an identity crisis and that I shouldn’t give up singing just yet.
What I’ve come to understand in the last few years is that being a musician (or really an artist of any sort) is complete and utter madness. I can’t count the number of times I wanted to give it up because what’s the point? I’m not going to have an international career as an opera singer. I’m not even going to be a member of a professional opera chorus. Most of the singing I do now is gratis. I occasionally get paid to sing, but those opportunities are very few and far between. Yet I keep going to lessons, I keep learning repertoire, I keep trying. Why? I. Don’t. Know.
There is something in me that keeps me working for this intangible thing. I keep trying to be better. I keep wanting to learn new things. A secret part of me keeps hoping that I’ll “be discovered.” I’m not satisfied with things the way they are, but I have no direction, no goal. I keep working my ass off for some nebulous, abstract thing that I can’t even define. It’s completely mental.
This weekend, I’ll be performing the Verdi Requiem with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. (Volunteer, of course.) We’ve been working on this piece since mid August. We have rehearsal every night this week. I’ve had to rearrange my schedule so that I can be at all of these rehearsals. We’re giving two performances and then it will be done. We won’t be able to get it back. As soon as the first notes are played or sung, they are gone. Even a recording, if there is one, won’t truly capture the moment. Recordings are wonderful, but they rarely capture the true energy of a live performance. (Sometimes you don’t want the moments captured. Because you get one shot. If you screw it up, too bad. There are no rewrites.) After the performance on Saturday night, this thing will be over. All our hard work will have come to fruition and we will move on. There will be nothing to take away except the memory and (hopefully) the satisfaction of having conquered this challenge. It’s not like a sculpture or a painting or a book. There might be a review in the newspaper. People might talk about it for a few days, but then it will be gone. It will have been dispersed into the cosmos. Will it have made a difference? I have no idea.
But I keep doing it. I don’t know why. I just know I have to.