May 1, 2017

The Neurotic Zone

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Despite its title, this is not a post about politics. It’s about the weirdness of being a performer. I used to do a lot of performing and the truth is I didn’t enjoy it. The feedback I got was that I looked and sounded poised (for the most part) but inside I was terrified and miserable. On the morning of a day in which I had a performance I would awake with the thought that today was the day of my execution. If I could get though it alive, I would never agree to sing anywhere ever again.

My friend Nina says that music operates in a circle and you haven’t closed it, you haven’t had the full experience, until you share it. In my early experiences as a singing student, I felt pushed into performance long before I was ready for it. No one asked me what I wanted to do. Educators assumed that of course the end of all music lessons was to perform. As a singer and educator, I agree with Nina in large part because of her use of the word share instead of perform. There are different ways to share. Teaching is sharing. I think I make a better teacher than a performer.

Still the desire to perform was buried somewhere in me. I kept at it for years and years until performance anxiety won and I stopped for a long time. When I began singing in public again, I chose easy venues where the audience was in the Smile and Nod Category. I didn’t consciously think that singing at a little church or for my students was a stepping stone to anything else. It was its own thing. What counted was the song and how I sang it. This was a good decision on my part; it allowed me to explore the difference between singing privately –and having ecstatic experiences—and sharing myself with others.  I took my time. I only shared on my own terms and as I felt ready. That’s been my policy for the past twenty years. I kept working privately until parts of me caught up with other parts of me, the stars aligned and desire asserted herself.

Four months ago I agreed to sing the two Queen of the Night arias in a concert performance of The Magic Flute. This concert was a project after my own heart: my colleague Susan Strick conceived the idea of putting together an opera “by community for community.” Susan is a like a lint roller among musicians, singers and theater folk in Seattle. She rolls over town and collects talent. Thus she put together a group of teachers, students, professionals and amateurs to perform The Magic Flute stitched together by an engaging narrator, Ed Mast.

I had sung both arias in the 1980s so I knew them. I got them out, memorized them and then spent two months wallowing in the luxury of discovering, playing with and refining them. Tommie (beloved teacher) and I could spend hours on two or three notes, bits of phrases, dipthongs, and always the chiaroscuro of tones: the ratio of the light and dark sides of a pitch. This work brings its own high; I go into an altered state.

Though I am approaching the entire concept of performing differently than I used to, one thing that hasn’t changed is the neurotic zone I enter into when a performance is looming. I have conversations like the following:

Tim, my gardening compatriot: “Is there a time this weekend when we can get more compost?”

Me (flustered): No, I can’t do anything this weekend. I’m singing in ten days.”

Or when I think about my cousin in Wisconsin (Hi, June!) who I haven’t talked to in ages. I think I want to schedule a call (we always make dates) but then I think, “No, I can’t do anything til this performance is over.”

I entered the neurotic zone two weeks before The Magic Flute concert. In addition to my routine practicing I started going around checking my voice. Checking my voice. You know: to see if it’s still there.

Once during a rehearsal when I was singing the soprano solos in Schubert’s Mass in G, the conductor caught me sitting alone, (neurotically)massaging the little muscles around my hyoid bone, which if you don’t know connects the root of the tongue with the top of the voice box.

“It’s still there,” he said.

In the neurotic zone, everything is heightened: apprehensions about getting a head cold and wanting to wear a respiratory mask around my children students—that would be classic neighborhood piano teacher eccentricity. Checking my car tires just in case one of them might be flat the day of the performance. Just keeping a lid on this kind of stuff takes a lot of energy. I tell myself it’s all an overflow of the anticipatory excitement of a performance.

I’ve learned to cope with actual performance anxiety in the way that I practice. Whether it’s a single tone or a whole aria, I arrange my mind like this: “This is all there is, this tone, this phrase, this sensation. My voice is singing and this is what it feels like.” I try to inhabit every tone and every moment. Singing in front of an audience is a continuation of my practices, the difference being people are listening and watching.

There is a kind of performing that involves putting on a show and dazzling the audience and it’s a very popular kind of performing for both the performer and the audience. I don’t find it compelling. Back when I used to get so frightened it’s because I was trying to put on some kind of show that I knew wasn’t true to who I was.

What I find compelling in a performance is vulnerability. And paradoxically, allowing myself to feel vulnerable in front of an audience has reduced the performance anxiety to manageable levels.

We sang The Magic Flute concert yesterday and it was magical. The continuum of ability and experience displayed made my teacher’s heart overflow. The whole process of music education and performance was there and it was a glorious thing to be part of.

I sang my arias rather better than I expected to, better than in the rehearsal and I had been satisfied with that (with thanks to Nicole Truesdell who accompanied me.) All the playing around with the music and the tones and phrases became the material of performance. This is what singing is to me: the continual exploration of a note, a phrase, a song, an aria, whether alone or in front of people. There’s vulnerability to that but it’s also freeing. I’ve nothing to live up to.

My big take away from this amazing experience is a sense of how much I don’t know. There is no end to what I could do with those two arias if my technique were up to it. There is no end to what I could learn about singing, performance, stage protocol. I’m lost on a voyage in which I feel more and more at home. Give or take a neurosis or two.

Queen of the Night, not currently enraged.





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