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Saturday, May 21, 2016

The 12 Laws of Operatic Karma

I saw a Facebook posting of the "12 Laws of Karma" and it resonated immediately with me.

Many of us might have heard about operatic Karma. It's along the lines of "say something bad about a colleague's high notes and your next high note will crack", or at least that's one way of looking at it. For many years I joked about "Carma": the wonderful moment when, in a totally packed parking lot, you find a space near the entrance of the store. Carma!

Seriously though, Karma is actually quite a different thing. It is defined various ways...

Merriam-Webster (online): 1) The force created by a person's actions that is believed in Hinduism and Buddhism to determine what that person's next life will be like; 2) The force created by a person's actions that some people believe causes good or bad things to happen to that person.

Your Dictionary (online): A force or law of nature which causes one to reap what one sows.

Wikipedia (our source for everything nowadays): What is Karma?

I boil it down to a force found throughout our world and in our lives based on Cause and Effect which makes each of our futures flexible, i.e. changeable.

A last disclaimer -- The 12 Laws of Karma are found in many different forms and verbiage throughout the world wide web. I've tried not to plagiarize, but many of these laws are listed in the exact same wording, so I think many of the translations out there are pretty standard. There's only so many ways you can write "The Law of Change". So here follows the 12 Laws of Karma with my take on their operatic permutations.

1) The Great Law: The Law of Cause and Effect
Whatever we sow we reap. What we put into the universe will come back to us. This must be understood at a very deep level. No one becomes successful in opera, whether as a singer, conductor, or administrator, without a huge amount of effort. Those that become the most successful are ones who tend to understand this notion of acting accordingly in order to get the most positive results, from themselves and from others. The asshole may, it is true, become vastly successful, but the cost is huge - not just to those around him/her but to themselves as well. Looking for supportive colleagues? Be supportive. Looking for serious students? Be a serious teacher. Looking for inspiration in your creative ideas? Be inspirational to others, be inspired in making your lunch, or in personal notes to others, or in your everyday life on as many levels as possible; let inspiration percolate around you. Send "it", whatever that "it" might be, out into the universe as much as possible. Not all of "it" returns, but you'd be surprised what does!

2) The Law of Creation: Life does not happen by itself, one must make life happen
Careers don't happen. No agent is going to call you up and say they want to represent you, sight unseen. Your voice isn't going to get higher, louder, or more flexible by magic. You must make your life happen. Creating is about being open to life and life, my friends, is about creation.

3) The Law of Humility: One must accept something in order to change it
Humility is an important factor in our operatic lives. The humility one finds in any music library -- all those scores, all those notes, all those geniuses. How can any of us be worthy when reflecting on just one composer's life struggles (like Shostakovich)? But are we humble, in a healthy way, about our shortcomings? Your work ethic, for instance, might be something that you need to accept the truth about in order to change it. Are you procrastinating or being lazy? Your vocal technique, as the most obvious example, might not be fully at the top of the form you need in order to be successful.  Are you being honest with yourself? Is your teacher? Do you like the sound of your own voice? Accept your voice, with all of its wonders and wondrous frailties as humbly as possible and then you'll be able to begin to really make change happen.

4) The Law of Growth: Change yourself, change your life
Looking to change fachs? Looking to change your self-esteem? Wanting a more beautiful or louder voice? Interested in becoming a more adept improvisor? Stop looking for answers outside of yourself, particularly where vocal technique might be concerned. Start by taking a clear look at yourself (see Law #3) and begin to recognize that answers might be found within that brain of yours already. As Gandhi said "be the change you want to see in the world", however realize that the "world" he was talking about also includes you. Some might say that the world is you.

5) The Law of Responsibility: We must take responsibility for our actions, thoughts, and efforts
A pet peeve -- people in opera blaming others for their shortcomings. Examples: The singer who didn't get enough coachings -- that's why they are ill-prepared (poor things.) Or the pianist who's never played an opera by so-and-so and therefore shouldn't be expected to know the style. Or a singer who still, after numerous years of study, can't sing that high Q or sing in tune or sing fioratura cleanly because, well, we know why: their teacher's teaching was to blame. Poppycock! Take responsibility please! Learn your own music by yourself. Learn style by listening to recordings or live singers or by sitting in rehearsals. Demand your teacher teach you what you need to know in order to affect whatever change you feel is needed (see Law #3). If that doesn't work, teach yourself to sing high notes. The basics are pretty basic here. It's not brain surgery. Stop putting the responsibility on others. Don't be a passive receiver of knowledge. Go out there and get it.

6) The Law of Connection: Everything in the Universe is connected, including the past, present, and future
Oh opera! Opera is just one of a few magical inventions that connects living human beings to the minds of long-dead geniuses like Handel. When you work, sing, direct, conduct, play, or even listen to any opera you get to swim in a living pool of music and text created by the sweat and tears of another human. You become connected to them. They live, literally, while the opera lives - from the practice room to the theatre. We live in all three time dimensions. How wonderful is that?! The past sits on our shelves, or in our brains, in the form of our opera scores, the present exists as we open those scores and recreate them, and the future exists in every rehearsal room because we are preparing for the next performance, which informs all of our next performances. Creators of new opera understand this connection. Singers understand this connection; the oral traditions of our art form truly connect us to artists from earlier centuries (like the high E-flat at the end of Violetta's act one aria). It's how we develop style, how we uncover the truth of critical editions, how we make decisions about tempi. It's an operatic superpower, this connection to the past and future. Feel it and be empowered by it!

7) The Law of Focus: One cannot think of two different things at the same time
People will strongly disagree with this statement, but I have finally accepted the truth of the matter. People think that conductors eyes see every note on a page in the full score. We don't. People might think that a conductor is hearing all 50+ orchestral players and singers at any given moment. We don't. We can't. Our attention wanders, in a very ADHD way I think, from split-second to split-second focusing on a cymbal entrance to a singer's breath to a tempo adjustment, etc. In the same way, a singer focuses on many things at one time, but their actual attention moves, like mercury, fluidly from one thing to another. From picking up that wine glass to taking an extra big breath before a long phrase, to feeling an emotional connection to the text that follows to moving their torso towards the audience before taking three steps, to their eyes picking up the conductor's upbeat via their peripheral vision to remembering to relax their tongue so that their voiced rolled r's can stay out of the way for the high note at the end of the phrase. All this can, and does, happen within a second or two. There are millions of notes played in just one opera, there are thousands of movements onstage, there are hundreds of cues given to singers by a conductor's left hand. So much goes on during an opera that it is easy for us to think that we are doing it all at the same time. But truly, we are not, it just seems that way.  So try to give yourself a break here. Understand that perhaps if there is a problem at hand, maybe a solution might be to really focus just on that one issue, instead of doing it all. This is also a good idea during rehearsals when everyone is expecting everyone to be focused on so many different things at the same time. It's okay to take a step back and say to a conductor in rehearsal "let me just focus on dealing with popping this champagne cork while standing on a table and then I'll get those dynamics you want the next time."

8) The Law of Giving and Hospitality: Our behaviour demonstrates our true thoughts and intentions
I blogged about this… Here's the link: Giving Not Taking
Give, don't take. Give in your coachings, don't take a coaching. Give to your colleagues in rehearsal. Be a host to guest artists from out of town. Make some cookies and take them to rehearsal, or bring a banana bread loaf to your voice lesson. Be a musical host as well; why not invite the composer and librettist to a soiree in your head? Talk to them, make a dialogue happen. Especially to the dead ones. You'll love it. You'll feel closer to them, and maybe you might understand their ideas more. Most importantly, watch your tongue and speech. Is gossip that fulfilling? Is disparaging a colleague, stage manager, or wardrobe mistress that important? Consider thank you notes before opening/closing night, consider compliments to singers in the chorus, thank the ASMs (actually, thank everyone all the time!). This is a wonderful and fruitful habit, not just from a karmic perspective, but from a human one.

9) The Law of Here and Now: All we have is Now
One cannot be present if they are looking backward! So true. So easy to understand, actually. The moment any of us musicians look backward we totally lose the present. Easy to understand but oh so hard to put into practice while in rehearsals or performances. How many times do we kick ourselves because we forgot to alter the phrase as planned, or forgot to move stage left one sentence earlier, or forgot to enjoy ourselves at the opera? Forgiveness, self-forgiveness, is an important element in being able to focus on your "present".

10) The Law of Change: History repeats itself unless changed
If we learn from history, the future can be changed. The opera business was in danger of losing its audience. Like symphonic and ballet arts organizations, opera was catering to an established audience and, up until recently, languishing in producing the same handful of operas over and over again, as the audiences aged. But that's not happening now. Just this past month we've seen dozens of world premieres all over North America. Opera Company of Philadelphia released news that the majority of their audiences are now under the age of 35. Wow! Let's keep this Law ever present in our minds.
Now from an artistic, musical, or vocal standpoint, this Law is very important. Simply repeating an aria and thinking that that means your'e practicing it, is basically just repeating history without thought for establishing new parameters, new goals. We repeat a lot in opera rehearsal, repetition is basic to how opera gets done. Just make sure your process is not just history repeating itself without any learning connection. Cognitive dissonance is about doing one thing while believing another. Repeating a phrase or a staging without believing in it, 100%, disconnects your process.

11) The Law of Patience and Reward: Everything of value requires persistence
This is hard. When to give up pursuing a singing career if it's not happening? When does success happen in this business? Those are hard questions with difficult answers.
My answer is connected to persistence. Persistence is both a long-term and a short-term focus of energy. Every morning one must wake up and persistently focus on the daily routine, the day's needs, which are normally all short-term in nature. The long-term part of persistence is much more difficult to achieve on a daily basis. It helps to have clear goals, to write them down, and to articulate them to others. Have goals for the semester, for the next audition season, for the next year, for the next five years. Look at them once a week and think about how to patiently work towards these goals.

12) The Law of Significance and Inspiration: Rewards are a direct result of the energy and effort we put into it
Successful people seem to have a few things in common. The biggest commonality is persistence. They just kept at it, with a determination to succeed. They took crappy jobs, sang for peanuts, learned music all on their own cause they couldn't afford coachings, stayed up late at night staging their audition arias in front of a bathroom mirror, pushed their way into auditions, read up on opera companies, knew who was who in the business, networked with colleagues, etc. They just worked hard, perhaps harder, than others every single day. In many cases of singers I personally know or worked with, they were not the most talented, or gifted with the greatest set of pipes, or had the best physical packaged. However, they made up for it in an uncompromising work ethic striving for excellence. Very few won big competitions, and many didn't even get into the prestigious young artist programs. Yet they are out there, making money by singing. Those of us who've been around awhile can spot them in casts at the first sing through, some can even spot it onstage in performances. Persistence requires patience. It seems that everyone, though, has a story of the super-talented yet lazy singer getting the big contract or winning the big competition. These stories make us think that there are many people out there who don't work as hard as others, yet seem more successful than most. But the reality is different. The rewards of success come from hard work. Patience requires hard work, it's not about sitting around waiting for something to come your way. I'd venture to guess that the majority of professionals in the opera business are people who've made it by being scrappy, being able to toss off rejection, and who were open to change.

More about Significance and Inspiration:
Putting in a significant amount of effort and energy into pursuing a career is extremely important. If you find your energy is generally more focused on something else, from personal relationships to social media to working out at the gym, than you should think about what - and why - you might be pursuing your career goals.

There's lots of talk about the importance of inspiration in our daily lives. Oprah has made millions on this subject. Inspiring yourself to significantly focus your energy to pursue your dreams can not be stressed enough.

And if inspiration doesn't come, it's okay. Turn to something else. Find inspiration in your life. It may not be found in singing or in opera or in music. It might be found in baking bread, designing tables, painting houses, gardening. But the order of things is Inspiration, Persistence, Patience, Flexibility, Giving, Focus, Connecting, and Being Present, Humble, and Responsible in your life. You may find then that Creation and Growth happen much more often, and/or easily. For the karmic reality is, is that what you put into your life is ultimately not what you "get" back, but what you'll be giving to yourself and to others.

Finally, one of the points about the 12 Karmic Laws is that the best Reward is one that contributes to the Whole. The end result is meaningless if it leaves little to nothing behind.

As they say: Namaste

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