I’m going to write about fear today. I feel fear and hear fear way too often nowadays in young singers, I see it in young pianists while they enter a room to play for singers, and I read about it on social media all the time now.
Fear is permeating our world!
It must stop.
So – first a few quotes, then a personal story, and then my thoughts on Operatic Fear!
A few of my favorite quotes on Fear:
We have nothing to fear, but fear itself – FDR
(Yes, everyone knows this one, but it is TRUE!)
Fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future – Thich Nhat Hanh
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when man is afraid of the light – Plato
(This is so true in today’s political climate)
I say I am stronger than fear – Malala Yousafzai
(Really, knowing her story, how can ANY of us be afraid?!)
Always do what you are afraid to do – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
- Frank Herbert
I remember reading Dune in Jr. High School and re-reading the above Litany that appears often in the first section of Frank Herbert’s classis sci-fi book. I memorized it.
I had much to fear and this Litany became my friend; my weapon against my fear. It sat in my brain and was turned over and over, both consciously and unconsciously, until it became something second nature in me.
My fear? Fear of death, specifically my death. I was brilliantly misdiagnosed when I was a wee lad of eight; being told, while I was in the room, that I would most likely go blind, or blind and deaf, and that the skin disease would move inward into my neck and perhaps my brain resulting in death by the time I was 18 years old.
That takes a toll on a young child, as one might imagine.
My mother took my hand, said something amazingly rude, and walked out of the office with me in tow saying – very loudly – “we will find another doctor who knows what he’s doing!”
I remember being taken to a Dairy Queen afterwards. I ate a large hot fudge sundae while my mother cried hysterically in front of me in the car, cigarette smoke swirling all around us.
Even though we found another doctor (a much younger, fresh-from-the-Mayo-clinic doctor), and my skin disease was treated successfully (obviously I’ve made it past 18), being told you might die before you reach college does something to you. I was formed by this event.
At exactly the same time, I started playing the piano.
I was fearless at the piano. My amazing piano teacher, Berneil Hanson (still teaching in Council Bluffs, Iowa!) was also fearless. She tossed Bach, Beethoven sonatas, Ravel and Chopin onto the piano and we conquered difficult, college-level pieces when I was in Jr. High. I had no fear of them. I didn’t blink walking into a concerto contest in Omaha with the Beethoven #2 barely learned that morning. I made up the ends of Bach fugues, improvising my way out of them, during state piano contests. I never practiced, because I had no motivation to do so. That motivating fear in most of us – to prepare so we won’t fail – was lacking in me, profoundly so.
I failed. All the time! And I triumphed as well! But failing did not alter my lack of fear. Fear had no place in my mind, and therefore had no place in my music making. Those pieces I learned in the late 70s and early 80s are still mostly in my hands. When I play them, I youthen as a musician. Time turns backwards and I’m once again 14 years old.
But all that changed in college.
I initially studied with a piano teacher who thought the reason I missed notes was because I had a memory problem. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth, which was somewhere between my secret of never practicing and that I had little respect for the notes on the page (still do – I respect the composer’s intentions, but I don’t think the notes are the point). So in just one semester I was pretty miserable, I was having nerves – for the first time – playing publicly, I doubted myself and my talent, I was discombobulated in one semester by a well-meaning piano teacher.
This happens to many, as we all know.
My dropping out of college was a two-fold event: I turned 18 and hadn’t died, but had subconsciously expected to, and my love for playing the piano had died. So I dropped out, had what I’d now describe as a nervous breakdown, and listened to a lot of Tears For Fears, Sting, U2, and Billy Joel.
Dropping out of college was the second most important formational event of my life. It is one of the huge motivations in my teaching:
Allow for failure.
Don’t jump to conclusions about a student.
Think about the big picture
Today is just a snapshot of the student, not a symptom of something wrong.
It’s totally okay to fail, to drop out even.
Too often, we bearers of the classical music tradition who teach in Universities unmake our students in order to “build their technique” or “create a new musician from their raw materials”. Too often coaches and voice teachers “fix” singers. Like they’re broken or need some sort of hole filled.
Musicians aren’t doughnuts. They don’t have a hole in the middle of them that needs to be covered up somehow by sweetened frosting in order to make them more palatable to the outside world. No one is a doughnut.
Too often, young singers and young pianists who enter the world of opera around their late teen years, become overwhelmed by the pretentiousness of the art form, or the sheer amount of repertoire built up over the centuries that they are expected to dive into, or the mystery of what communicating in other languages while embodying a character from ancient Greece means to their emotional makeup as a human being, or they get caught between the entertainment factor and the artistic factor inherent in opera. But most often, they simply stifle themselves as performers because they fear being wrong.
Making some stylistic, linguistic, musical, dramatic, or vocal mistake that someone – usually behind a table – will notice and take off points, put into their jury comments, or not hire them because they choose to place an appoggiatura in a Mozart recitative, or some other egregious what-the-fuck-do-you-think-you’re-doing choice that fills the panelist with profound loathing because they are way too pretentious.
More importantly, fear also affects the sounds singers and pianists make.
Pianists slam on the soft pedal while playing for singers. All the time now. Why do this? What are they afraid of? That they’ll overwhelm the singer? That someone will hear them play a wrong note, or leave out (rightly so) many of the notes in the piano reduction? They are playing an orchestral reduction. Most often opera orchestras have between 30 and 50 players in the pit. Twenty string players all playing pianissimo is LOUDER than one pianist playing softly with the soft pedal on. Stop this immediately! You’re not playing a Debussy song (and one should only use the soft pedal where he specifies una corda!) The meek pianist is a sonic bore, and your musicality can’t be heard if it is way too subtle.
As we say in musical theatre land: Sing Out Louise!
Looking to the singer side of the aisle, I think fear really permeates decisions about what to add onto a score – for instance, ornaments. Nowadays, it is the rare singer who presents their own ornaments in an aria. I’m talking about Handel, Mozart, and Rossini in particular. It’s as if their whole education as a singer has missed one of the big important lessons: ornamentation is a part of being a singer. Finding ornamentation that works for each unique voice is something that singers, their teachers, and coaches should all be working on during their time in school.
The way to becoming an artist is to clarify for yourself what your voice can do that is unique and special, as well as what you can do as a musician that is unique and special. One of those things is ornamentation.
It’s not brain surgery, either. There’s no mystery here. Too often I hear young singers give the excuse that they’ve “never been taught” how to ornament. Or they’ll say they didn’t want to add any ornaments because “they don’t know how to do it” or that they are “afraid of doing it themselves.” Or worse yet, that some important coach told them that if they ornamented, say a Mozart aria, that “they would kill me”.
That sort of nonsense infantilizes a singer and moves the responsibility from creating their own artistry onto others, sometimes onto people who have had only a few hours of contact with them in some Masterclass, summer program, or production.
Look at your own fears and walk towards them.
Are you afraid to learn a new piece on your own and make it your own without any outside help for fear you might be doing something wrong, or it might cause some sort of harm? Run towards that fear and learn a new aria this week!
Are you afraid to play Verdi because you’ve never been taught or coached or had any experiences with Verdi outside of playing a few arias? Well run to the library and pull out Aida or Ballo or Otello and play through the score!
Are you afraid to study with another teacher during the summer for fear that your teacher might find out? Who is the employer here? You employ your teachers and coaches, they do not employ – or control – your freedom to learn from whomever you deem important. Take control of your life. Take responsibility for your own learning, your own process. It is literally your business to do so!
Finally, there is nothing to fear from opera. Opera lives and breathes humanity. You’re creating sounds that only a few hundred thousand people, out of billions, can make. How cool is that?
Celebrate your courage. Celebrate your unique gifts.
One way to step away from fear is to step towards something else. I recommend yoga, or mediation, or walking in the woods, or strolling through a museum once a month, or reading a piece of literature that you can’t find displayed in the front half of the local bookstore. Get to a play, go see “Deadpool” and relish the breaking of the 4th wall, binge on Netflix. Then return to your piano, your scores, your practice room and SANG!!
And then, after drawing courage from your art, empower others to do so in creative, positive ways to help them acknowledges in themselves that when someone takes a chance, when someone turns their back on being correct, exciting things can, and do, happen!