I haven’t been blogging on any sort of regular basis, so today’s entry is more of a hodgepodge collection of thoughts, feelings, observations, and memories. You’ll have to forgive me if I appear to be an ADD blogger. I’ve been ill for almost two weeks now, and it doesn’t let me concentrate as well as I should. Needless to say, creativity has taken a back seat for now.
Today, I woke up in an emotional and contemplative mood. It struck home today that I often end up feeling like I care about a lot of people in my life so much more than they are willing to care about me. I often feel cast aside and minimized, because people want me around when I’m useful, have feelings for me when it’s challenging to ignore them, enjoy knowing me until the novelty wears off, and want my company when it’s convenient. Worse yet, they may actually wish I weren’t around most of the time, but realise I am something that must be tolerated—so I never know that someone I actually like knowing would prefer not to have to interact with me. I get that it’s the way the world works—at least three friends have spoken about this recently as it relates to their own lives—but I realise that I feel angry about this way we relate to one another in this world. The idealistic side of me cannot reconcile reality with how things should be, and because I don’t think I am so wrong on this one, I’m not sure I should have to learn.
I feel angry that people are temporary, and we’re expected to accept that of our friendships and relationships. I feel betrayed when someone I considered a friend tells others they dislike me. I feel used when someone I considered a very close friend suddenly can’t be bothered to make time for me. I feel hurt when someone who has been in my life for a long time tends to tear down my self-esteem as a result of their own unhappiness. This is just not how I treat people. I deserve better. We all deserve better when we allow someone to occupy space, time, or feeling in our lives. Our thoughts and feelings and experiences, and what we share with others, should be treated with great value and handled honestly. Everything in life these days is just so casual, that emotions are kind of a luxury.
Earlier today, in my FB posts about my 30 days of being thankful, I said I was thankful for my sensitivity..but that being said, it would be easier if I were wired a little differently. I wonder what it’s like to be the kind of person who doesn’t cry over others, but simply replaces them. I don’t think I’ve ever been that sort of person, however hard I’ve tried.
I realised today that I feel hurt, and underneath all of that, I feel angry about not being of any great importance to people who claimed to love and value and admire me. I feel angry that someone should smile and joke with me to my face, yet talk about how much they dislike me to my friends when I am not around. I feel angry because I should not be a doormat because my heart gets so easily involved in the lives of others.
Before I started blogging about that particular topic, I was working on a blog about reality TV, creativity, and why teachers and coaches are important in life. So, allow me to switch gears, and discuss a different aspect of human connection.
It’s absolutely no secret that one of my favourite (and least harmful) guilty pleasures in life is reality TV. I’m actually not into watching most of the “talent-based” competitions on TV these days, such as the Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc. Odd for a performer, I know, but they give off such a manufactured, produced vibe. At the same time, they give the impression that performing is something everyone can do. Winning a reality TV talent show isn’t about talent quite as much as marketability, and the idea that many of the producers have about marketability is a narrow-minded, formulaic one. American Idol is a good case in point; most of the winners put out their obligatory album and were never heard from again. Many of those who did not win used the exposure as a launching pad for a career, and some unconventional contestants became marketable. I believe Jennifer Hudson has an Oscar, as well as some Grammys.
I enjoy watching Dance Moms, and the spin-off show, Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition. The young talent that is showcased is impressive, and the overbearing stage mothers and fathers (which are a serious part of life for anyone who begins performing before the age of 16) are often portrayed in a realistic light. Everyone wants to be famous, to be a star, if they have those performance-based gifts and inclinations. However, performing is a high-pressure environment that isn’t for those who aren’t resilient, can’t handle rejection, or have low self-esteem. These shows give an inkling of why so many young prodigies self-destruct before the age of 30, or quit whatever they do by the time they leave high school, major in accounting, and call it a day. These aren’t shows that exploit very talented young kids and neurotic parents; rather, they reflect the real world of competitive performance.
A new show premiered, which I had no intention of watching, called Chasing Nashville. Not only do I tend to not watch talent shows, but I do not care for country music. However, it drew me in, this show that’s more of a documentary about a few very different girls between the ages of 13-17, who dream of being Nashville musicians. I’ve now added it to the list of shows I watch, but something about it struck me as ludicrous.
They will show these girls singing, show they are talented, and make it obvious that they have been chosen because they are very gifted—gifted, not perfect. It is amazing how offended some gifted, untrained young people look when the feedback is “I think you could use a vocal coach”. They should all be introduced to an opera singer or a Broadway star at some point in time. While it’s arguable that having a degree in something like musical theatre or vocal performance is a great way to spend four years and $40,00-$120,000 without much to show for it in the “real world”, it’s equally ludicrous that a singer would be offended at being told he or she needs a vocal coach. Of course you do. You’re a singer. If you play piano, you have a piano teacher. If you’re a star athlete, you have a trainer. Why would you need to show someone singing badly to point out “You need a vocal coach?”. Every singer has a weakness in his or her voice, whether it be a physical issue or one that can be corrected through technique. Most people at that age have no idea how to work with their range, or that their vocal range will change and develop over time. Few know how to deal with breaks in the voice for women, or switching to falsetto for men. I know 30 year-old adults who can’t be heard above the crowd because they’ve never been taught projection.
Someone telling you that you have the talent to benefit from working with someone better than you is not an insult, but a compliment. If you’d like to be a singer, or an actor who can carry a tune, you need a vocal coach. If the pop music industry pushed this as much as professional singers elsewhere, you wouldn’t have bad singers using autotune the same way the modeling industry relies on Photoshop, and amazing singers with improper technique and smoking habits getting polyps removed at the age of 23. It is not an insult. Yet, the thing that is the most challenging and intimidating to these young girls is the idea of working with a vocal coach. A coach is, of course, just a teacher. In theory, taking a class in something you enjoy should be the least frightening thing ever. Oddly, the performer on the show who has the most natural talent is the one who breaks down in tears because she can’t handle a voice lesson.
People think that voice lessons are for people who don’t know how to sing or can’t sing, and that can be the case, if someone with no experience or ability needs to learn the skill. For the most part, voice lessons are for singers who have potential, voices that can go from good to great, or great to utterly impressive. People also think that voice lessons are simply about running scales over and over again.
However, there’s something about working with a vocal coach—or an acting coach, or having private lessons with a dance teacher, or whatever it is you do as a performer—that requires vulnerability. There may only be one other person in the room, but there’s nowhere to hide. There is no way to dress up your flaws and make them look good, or hope they will go unnoticed.
In reality, about half of every session with your vocal coach is pure silliness. You do tongue twisters, and make siren noises, and other things that make you feel incredibly stupid. Where I went to university, the practice rooms were soundproof, and you’re totally glad for that. Like many sopranos who also have a decent belt voice, I have a note where there’s a clear break between the two, and it is a problematic vocal flaw. I am very insecure about it. There are roles I could never sing because of that freaking note. I’ve done countless exercises to learn vocal flexibility and to avoid that note, but the most traumatic experience? Well, I had a vocal coach who made me yodel.
I don’t yodel. The first few times, I flat-out refused. Then I tried. I failed horribly. Not only do I not yodel, I absolutely could NOT yodel. It was painful, physically and emotionally. It was probably even more painful to listen to me try to yodel. But the biggest problem wasn’t that I couldn’t yodel, it was that I was terrified to reveal a horrible, awful, embarrassing flaw I had—even in front of one person. It was like waving a sign saying “Hey, this is why I suck”. And, for that reason, I empathise highly with this very driven perfectionist who can sing in front of a ton of people with all the confidence in the world, but can’t work with a vocal coach.
That type of insecurity is the major reason for any singer to work with a vocal coach. Everyone has insecurities, weaknesses, things that can be improved. But, for almost every performer, the most limiting factor is fear. You may think it’s an odd problem for a world that’s based on doing things most people would never do. Simply being a performer implies a lack of fear and inhibition, since more people rate “public speaking” above “death” on the list of biggest fears. But it simply isn’t true. Every performer has a weakness, a fear, an insecurity. The right vocal coach identifies where and what that is and helps to conquer that. But it is scary.
I watched the show again this week, because I was curious about the continued struggle of working with a vocal coach.The episode focused on two talented teenage girls in for voice lessons. One has a very strong mezzo voice, and can belt impressively, and knows that is a skill that wins competitions. The other has a beautiful stage presence, but a smaller lyric voice that is good, but not developed. She has neither the physical size nor vocal strength to have a large belt voice, and country music emphasizes that. The first, who captivates every audience she sings in front of, runs out of the room crying because she can’t let go of her inhibitions and work through the silly vocal exercises. The second girl is willing to do just about anything the vocal coach asks, but on stage, reverts to looking like a girl doing a decent rendition of something for a beauty pageant. The solution? The vocal coaches unknowingly set them up on a “karaoke date”.
Here’s a secret most people don’t know: Singers are afraid of karaoke. Often, professionally trained singers are downright TERRIFIED of karaoke. You don’t know what key your song will be in, what song you’ll be singing, and you have no time to rehearse. Sometimes, the crowd is silent and judgmental. Other times, they won’t shut up to listen to you. Many, many singers are absolutely petrified of karaoke because, like making silly faces or yodeling, it is unrehearsed. It can be a train wreck. It can be embarrassing. I literally stopped singing for two years because an ex-boyfriend and his friend laughed at me at karaoke. It didn’t matter that I have degrees in musical theatre and vocal performance, and until that point, would sing for anyone, anywhere. I’d been told when I wasn’t good in the past. I’d had bad performances, bad auditions—but being judged by people you will see again, when you want them to like and respect you and think you’re talented, it’s difficult. Karaoke is something that may just present your talent in the worst light ever, and nobody enjoys that. If you can get past the element of the unexpected and let go of the need to be perfect, it’s terrific fun. But, a lot of singers are as nervous–if not more so—to sing at karaoke than to audition for something.
I think it was awesome to see experienced and knowledgeable coaches that could identify performers with opposite attitudes, insecurities, personalities, stage presences, and vocal ranges, and realise that putting them together to sing “for fun”, unexpectedly, was a growing experience. However, it did not look like either of those young performers were having much fun. They were clearly just insecure and terrified. However, the experience was as much for their teachers, who saw clearly what their students excelled at, and what needed to be worked upon.
Good teachers exist to break down walls. I had a vocal teacher who worked with me only on jazz and blues music, an odd choice for someone working with a lyric soprano with a controlled and naturally ornamented voice. As it turned out, she herself had a similar voice, but had a mother who was an opera singer and a father who was a jazz musician. From her, I learned a lot about emotional expression. I never would have ended up working as a cabaret singer if she had not taken me out of that comfort zone. I had another vocal coach who would put together students she thought could learn from one another, and say “Experiment. Form a musical act”. I ended up working with a talented tenor with impeccable technique. Between us, we could sing in 7 languages and play 5 instruments. But we were about as entertaining as a cardboard box, until one day, we suddenly had an electric guitar, drums, and me belting (sometimes terribly) into a mic. Our “band” performed in front of crowds of whoever would listen to us, off and on, for 6 years.
When I was in NYC, I had a favourite vocal coach, a petite blonde woman with a voice three times her size named Yvonne. Those who have known me for a long time may remember Yvonne. She was the type of vocal coach who only worked with a certain number of students, because she developed a genuine interest and relationship with all of them. I swear, she was at every musical and revue and cabaret and opera one of her students was in, and we all adored her. Consequently, her students stayed with her a long time, and we inevitably got to know one another well. Many of us ended up performing together, completely by chance.
Arriving to see your vocal coach often means sitting and waiting for the person before you to finish his or her lesson. The guy with the time slot before me happened to be singing the role of Don Quixote in Man Of La Mancha. He was a very talented tenor who didn’t seem to need extensive work on his song, but when you’re almost performance-ready, that’s not really what your sessions are for. Yet, I seemed to arrive whenever he’d work on the key change and hit his high notes (or not), over and over and over again.
He was a friendly guy whom I (very mistakenly) concluded to be gay, and always smiled and said hello on his way out. I was working on a musical called The Fantasticks at the time, but one day, I remarked to Yvonne that I knew the title song from Man Of La Mancha well enough to be that actor’s understudy. The next week, after 10 minutes of silently singing along with Don Quixote, I went in for my lesson. Yvonne’s response was “I’m tired, and it’s been a long day. Why don’t you just sing this one?”
And, the next thing I know, I’m at the piano, belting out “I am I, Don Quixote, the lord of La Mancha…” A few weeks later, when I actually knew the song well enough to get through it, Yvonne detained this other young actor and said “Wait a minute! Alayna has something she’s been working on, and I think you can relate.”
It was one of the funniest moments, and one I will always remember. I think it’s because actors in general have a kinship–what we do is hard, and fosters insecurity on a daily basis, and not everyone gets that. Performing the song I heard my fellow student working on week after week gave me new respect for what he was doing, and how talented he was.
Yvonne was married to a man quite a bit older than her, and he ended up needing a heart transplant after a long illness. Her students all came together to put together fundraisers to help her cope, because she was almost like a mother to us (although, in reality, she was no older than I am now.) When the transplant didn’t work as well as planned, Yvonne directed a musical, Camelot, in which she cast many of her students. It was meant to be another “for the benefit of”-type productions for her husband, but the benefit was something much different. He never missed a rehearsal, even the one-on-one sessions with the actors or the deadly Sunday morning group vocal rehearsals. No matter what we did in that theatre, he was there. There were 25 of us in that show, and he talked to every single one of us extensively. I’d like to think us doing that show was of immense benefit to him, because it gave him something to love, something he could share with his wife and her students, and engaged him in a world where he was not sick and broken.
He passed away a week into the run of Camelot. It is heartbreaking to remember that day, because a theatre feels empty when the love and energy that goes into it disappears. There was nobody prouder of us on opening night, even if he couldn’t get out of his wheelchair for a standing ovation. It was a tremendous loss for everyone when he passed, but we never missed a performance. I think he would have been very displeased if we had. To this day, though, I can only hope that when I am dying, I am blessed enough to live my final days surrounded by love, family, and creative energy.
For those young artists out there who don’t understand why you need to work with a vocal coach if your voice doesn’t suck, there are so many answers. The most important one, though, is that for many people, the world of theatre is an adopted family and your coaches, your teachers, your mentors—they play a significant role in helping you grow, not just as an artist, but as a person.
The world of performance simply isn’t for those who imagine they’ll travel through life alone, with their talent, and actively pursue success. It is for those who understand how special it is to work with other talented people to build something that may exist only for a day, a week, or a month…but is there forever. I wish *that* was the lesson today’s young artists were receiving.
We live in a world where people are disposable, where people don’t say what they mean, where everything is taken so lightly—friendships, relationships, talents, emotional connections. However fabulous you are, there is another, better version waiting to replace you. Few connections are forever. And that’s simply not a world I feel comfortable in, because I think I had the honour of seeing many examples of love and friendship and dedication and respect around me, in between all the crap.
I am angry that, in our society, when it comes to what we value and how we relate, the crap seems to be winning.
I deserve much better than being anyone’s option, convenience, half-hearted friend, or person you like well enough, but not well-enough to invite to your parties because your real friends have something to say about it. I deserve better than being just another person you pay attention to when you have time and interest. I deserve better than having my work not even read because it’s long or difficult or you just don’t care that much. I deserve better than the way you call me a friend but never say one nice thing to me because it’s not your job to prop up my ego. I deserve better than to think you might actually find me charming company once in awhile, only to find out from my friends that you struggle with merely being around me.
I am fucking awesome and irreplaceable, and it pisses me off that so many people don’t see it. Maybe I’m not as insecure as I think I am. I’m just angry at a lifetime of being minimized, overlooked, valued as something less than I deserve, or told without words that I’m not as special as that prettier/smarter/sweeter friend you’d prefer to spend time with, or made to feel like I’m not good enough because you’ll only associate with me when your real friends aren’t around.
I’m old enough to know better, and to believe I deserve better. And when I look around at those who occupy space in my world and see that’s not what I’m getting, I feel hurt and pissed off and used and lied to. And I am angry when those things happen to me, and I think, well…maybe that’s just OK.
Somebody, somewhere, is bound to appreciate my fabulousness. If it isn’t you, I shouldn’t cry over it. But I do, and I can’t help it. But I’m still angry, and wonder why I never feel good enough in this world of ours. Unlike reality TV, life isn’t set up to be a competition.