How hard to push yourself

  • No pain, no gain.
  • You have to want it more than anything.
  • You need to have some serious drive to be an artist.
  • You can’t just do this for fun.
  • You have to prioritize your art above all else to succeed.

Those of us who have been serious about pursuing the performing arts have heard these things many times. There is a little truth in all of them, yet all of them also are simplistic and false.

Many instrumentalists observe that singers do not practice as much as instrumentalists – so they think. They don’t understand the vocal journey. They don’t understand that our instruments are our bodies, what it means to sing lyrics, and that we have to embody the music and not just deliver it.

I have a BM and MM in flute performance. Those were two very intense degree programs. Flute is the most overpopulated and competitive of all the orchestral instruments. I studied with some of the greatest flute teachers in the world, including Thomas Nyfenger, Judith Bentley, Betty Bang Mather, and Bernard Goldberg. ALL of them had huge respect for singers. ALL of them insisted that it is essential to study singers – their phrasing, their comportment, their breathing, their intense expressive abilities. Yet at the conservatories, singers are belittled by the instrumentalists, with remarks such as: singers are not smart, they don’t have any depth of musical knowledge, they don’t spend much time in the practice room, they are drama queens.

I posit that we have conservatory and music school feeder systems that have gotten so ridiculously obsessed with speed and accuracy, with so called “note perfect” performances, and “proper performance practices”, and with competition, that the flutists and pianists have lost their minds when it comes to being well-rounded people who can create art long-term. I am seeing this now with much musical theatre training as well, unfortunately.

So, my singer friends, when you want to excel; when the musical career means a lot to you, remember that the instrumentalists are eventually going to wake up and realize that they too, want to sing on their instruments! They can only dream of the uniqueness that each voice brings to the art. If a singer pushes too much physically, the voice will not reach its potential. By contrast, the flutist who plays the instrument for four hours every day with an aching neck and shoulders, tendonitis in the wrists, an obsession for playing millions of notes faster than everyone else, and a nagging feeling that no amount of practice time is enough, is in a kind of hell. Many of them can carry on that way for decades and succeed professionally before an injury occurs. I didn’t get to that point, but I was also told in no uncertain terms that I didn’t bleed quite enough to have the career I thought I was supposed to have as a flutist. My “lack of drive” probably saved my mental health.

Being well-educated, understanding all the different forms of the written word, learning how to act, learning how to care for a living instrument, learning how to command a stage and tell stories – we singers are so lucky to be able to be performers who bring so much more than a line in the score.

Sometimes you have to push, sometimes you have to coax yourself and settle for modest results, and sometimes you just need to rest. Consider this question daily: What can I do today to take care of myself as a performer and human being? Regular practicing/ workouts/ woodshedding are definitely part of the picture, but there is so very much more that goes into singing. And sometimes, less.

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