Sunday, May 30, 2010

Imagination and Gratitude - a tidbit for the aspiring young artists

These are two words that have been on my mind a lot, lately. I have been avoiding the topic of imagination a bit, mainly because I didn't have any supporting photos to accompany the topic, but I've been consumed with it in recent days, for I truly believe it can be one of the greatest and most necessary weapons for an artist.

While in Chicago I was lucky enough to do some coaching with a few of the talented young artists in the program there - we worked on Romeo and Octavian, two of my very favorite roles, without question. They both arrived in the studio, quite eager and excited to be working these pieces that they knew quite well, and as both sessions progressed, it was as if I was watching a video from my past play out in front of my eyes! I think they were a bit surprised to hear that I had struggled with that same particular phrase, or had to work through the tough passages time and time again before they were ready to be heard in public - it's as if the perception is now that I was born singing the way I sing today, which is just simply laughable! This career is a constant encounter with learning opportunities - artistically, professionally, personally - it never, ever ends! And trust me, we are ALL works in progress. (OK, maybe not Devia, but the rest of us? Definitely!)

In the course of both of these sessions, what I absolutely LOVED watching was the girls' faces light up with the knowledge of "You mean I can do that???" In a young artist program, so much of the emphasis and priority seems to be on getting it "right": the vowels, the consonants, the resonance, the breathing, the phrasing, the words - it's a never ending struggle with perfection. But then there comes that moment where the notes have been learned, the breathing has been worked out, the translation perfected, and you have to actually begin to make it YOUR OWN: to use all the correct tools of phonation and pronunciation to actually EXPRESS something. To express something that you have inside of you, via the score in front of you. This is where, in my thinking, you start to cross the bridge from "student" to "artist", and I'm convinced that imagination is a HUGE key to this transformation.

I start asking questions. I start making up stories. I start imagining others' reactions to me. I start PLAYING. (God help us if we take this TOO seriously - PLAY with it!!!) In the case of Romeo, why does he repeat so many times the same phrase, twisting the notes slightly differently? Why does he go from eighth notes to triplets? (Ah, I LOVE the triplets!) Why is there a fermata over one note and not another? This is where subtext HAS to come into play - otherwise, it's simple vocalizing, which means absolutely nothing. Maybe in the middle of one phrase, Romeo actually understands his culpability in a different way, and so he needs to repeat it with a deeper understanding and empathy; or, perhaps he refuses to see his guilt, so he repeats it to drown out the possibility that he MIGHT have played a hand in this war, because the reality is too painful. Maybe when he firsts says that he can take the place of the killed son he doesn't actually believe it - but as he continues to speak the words, he is actually transformed and begins to truly desire it; then a different kind of conviction comes into his singing.

For me, it's all about asking questions: why...? what if...? why not...? how...? And a different answer will mean a different kind of phrasing. I think the danger for young artists is that you wait to be told how to do things, which is, after all, being a very attentive, good "student" - I understand! But this is the time for you to start finding out who you are as an artist, why you wish to keep singing, why you NEED to sing, and to start taking ownership over your career and your music.

It's bloody difficult, however, because in those institutions, those wonderful, glorious places full of possibility and promise, it's so easy for it to seem as if the constant scrutiny you are under is there to simply do you in, rather than to build you up. You are picked apart, dissected, mangled, and everyone around you is pointing out what isn't working, what isn't right - in fact, everything that is WRONG with you! It can be the most heart wrenching of times,leaving you completely lost and missing the one thing you thought you loved more than anything, and yet it is precisely during those times that you will discover how important this is to you. You will find out if it is, in fact, something you want to fight for or not. And you know what? It's perfectly OK - hell, it's MORE than OK - if you decide it's not for you. What a gift to discover that sooner rather than later! But if you do decide you want this, then you have to find the determination to surpass the criticism and critique - and in fact, find the truth in what those people are saying - and steel yourself to grow.

Trust me, even if you "make it big", you will find yourself in the middle of a production where the director or conductor leaves you out to dry - they offer no inspiration, no insight, and in fact even pull down the entire experience, and you will have no one to rely on to help build it back up - you will have to find something inside yourself to nourish the artistry and integrity of the production. Imagination will help you in those times - finding an inner story that can guide you through the most static, vapid of stagings, and find a way through the space to be true to the music and the emotional, spiritual content of the character. But no one will ever teach you to do that - you will have to discover that within yourself.

What a cool goal to aim for, eh? Here's why I LOVE what we do: we are forced to find solutions like this all the time. I (perhaps naively, I know) believe that we are obligated to continually search within ourselves for the strength to face obstacles and theatrical roadblocks, so that we can serve the music. That, more often than not, brings tremendous opportunity for growth and understanding. Even when our cords don't cooperate in phonating anymore, I'm quite sure we will have all acquired some pretty amazing coping skills along the way - and at the end of my days, I'll take that!!!

Which brings me to gratitude. Ah, this is SUCH a powerful weapon and resource for us! When the times are difficult, even when we are faced with the most demoralizing situations, we still have the music, and for that our gratitude should be endless. Mozart always wins in the end. Rossini will always be left standing, no matter what we do to him, or others try to do to him. They will always win out - art, nature? they're pretty amazing in that respect! So if you can foster that sense of gratitude all the time, it will serve you well and buffer some of those harsh criticisms, and keep you focused on WHY you are studying, and WHY you are trying, and WHY you need to keep working. Yeah, it's definitely a powerful weapon!

And speaking of gratitude - I feel that the timing is right to speak a LITTLE BIT about my amazing ankle!!! I had my surgery 2 months ago today, and my BRILLIANT Doctor, Dr. Boone Brackett, did an unbelievable job on my amazing ligaments - I am just indescribably happy!

I thank you all for your patience and understanding in my request to allow me to recover in relative seclusion - it indeed has been greatly appreciated! I am thrilled that I didn't have to cancel any performances of Cherubino or Elena, even if I had to do them in unconventional manners. Everyone's patience and support has been indescribably wonderful. All the reports from my Physio sessions have been extremely positive. I'm still walking with a light brace - and will continue for another month or two, but I'm very active now (riding my bike all over Paris and loving it!), hoping to start yoga again here in the next few weeks (I've really missed that!), and doing all my strengthening exercises, doing everything I can to leave this little issue behind me! Of course, there is no promise of never having another accident again, but at least I know that I am doing everything I possibly can to keep that from happening!

Taking the cast off after the final show in Geneva was the BEST feeling in the world!!!

It was very good to me, and I'm very grateful for the security it brought, but I was THRILLED to say goodbye to it! Wouldn't it be LOVELY to finish out the year with no more walking aides? Ah, that sounds like paradise to me! Comfortable, secure shoes? Yes! Crutches and casts? No!

You young artists have my total admiration and respect - I've been there, and know FULL WELL how challenging it can be. But try to foster your imagination and some gratitude - I imagine it will help make the ride slightly less bumpy and a lot more rewarding!


me said...

thank you so much for this post, joyce. that precise place of being under constant scrutiny (especially your own!) is sometimes agonizing! BUT it does teach us, on a lot of different levels. anyway, thanks for letting this singer know she's not just losing her mind. :D

and congratulations for being cast-free!!!

Taminophile said...

Great comments about imagination and going beyond the notes and the technique. By coincidence I read an excellent article on Alternet today about the lack of instruction in or encouragement for critical thinking in schools. (One commenter to the article stated that only in upper level graduate education is critical thinking really expected or encouraged. We can make comparisons to young artist programs here.) It is a very fortunate singer or instrumentalist who is truly encouraged to think for herself and use her imagination from the early stages of her training, who is not tied completely to what's on the page without really understanding or thinking about what's behind the page. Critical thinking and imagination go hand in hand.

Singing in San Francisco said...

Thanks so much for your encouraging words, Joyce. It means so much to hear it from you. I'm a young artist myself, and I'm lucky to study with the amazing Cathy Cook -- she is constantly encouraging us to remember the same things you wrote about. I sometimes forget that I am not a machine -- I'm a creative artist! Anyways, I will hold onto your positive words when I'm having a rough time. Thanks again, so much, for the posting! You're such a phenomenal artist. P.S. I was so inspired by your recital in SF this year that I sang the Montsavatage set on my Master's recital last month! Thanks again! Sincerely, Toby Branz, mezzo!

Fantabulitious said...

Dear Joyce, I cannot tell you how much I needed this post today.
I'm participating in my first ever vocal competition in ten days, and applying for another, going through the whole do-it-yourself experience for the very first time (you know: booking hotels in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, don't know the city and have no idea how it will all look when you get there), and trying to keep the music a priority while I plan everything around it.
You have been and are an amazing inspiration. I thank God every day for discovering such a wonderful soul and artist that you are.
I am so happy to hear that your injury has healed. Hope you have an amazing time in Paris with Elena!

Thank you! Ana

sabauda said...

remembering one of John Copley's great teachings about what it takes to be a performer:

"The three I's -- Intellect, Industry, and Imagination; and of these three the greatest is IMAGINATION"

best to you!


GreenThumbShaun said...

It's great to hear your perspective on the plight of students. It's great to know that those who are really singing, went through the struggles I'm facing. Professional singing seems like fantasy, but an true artist does the same things whether for pay or not. Thanks for this post. :)

Connie Nokes-Roberts said...

This was inspirational and just what I needed to read today. Congratulations on being cast-free! I am finishing my doctorate in vocal performance and will be starting my college teaching career this fall. I came to singing later in life than most, but though I certainly don't match the traditional model, singing, performing and teaching has brought me (and I hope others in my influence) tremendous joy. I considered writing my dissertation on imagination and artistry but couldn't figure out how to substantiate it. I agree with you that it is the link between technical work and making a piece the singer's own. Thanks again for your post!

Unknown said...

Great post--I guess it's basically acting via phrasing. I'm not a singer but I'll certainly listen more closely for it now.

*Wolf whistle* at your leg photo. Looking forward to seeing you in Barbiere in July!

Anonymous said...

W.R.T. gratitude. How about a campaign for a round of applause for the composer at the end of performances? The number of times I've thought "yes the continuo were great" and "yes the singers were excellent" but all would have been as nought without Georg Frederic or Giacomo.

Unknown said...

Thank you Joyce,
I have been in an "audition/competition" atmosphere in NYC this past week. It was a milestone as a young performer. I made it to the second round in the competition for high school artists. I gave my all. I felt really good about my performance in the second round, but I didn't make it to the semi-finals.
But, I mean, what an experience!!!!
When I read this post, I felt as if you were speaking to me, and it made me feel wonderful.
I realize that there is a long road of auditions ahead of me, and that it's great to be young and learning.
I will be in Paris soon!! I cant wait, its my first time to Europe.
( glad you got your cast off. Once upon a time I had one of those too)

Katherine Talley said...

Thanks for this post! It's great encouragement. And congrats on getting your cast off!

Mandy said...

Thank you so much for this post. It is can be extremely difficult to know how to transition from student to artist. Thanks to performers like you, we have someone to encourage us along the way and to offer perspective and positive thinking. You have been such an inspiration to all of us at WSU. Not everyone would take the time for us students. It speak so much about your character how you make time for us. Just know that you are a beacon of hope for all of us...the proof that we can make it and have something to say as performers :)

Rachel said...

I took everything you wrote here to heart. Thank you so much for the advice and the motivation that was in this post!