Over the last year, I’ve begun to realize that while I am no longer a performer in the traditional sense, my new career as an entrepreneur has taken me back to my performing roots in many ways. All the activities I do that involve other people – networking, pitching, negotiating, lecturing, teaching, & coaching are a form of performance. Improvisational, open-ended, revelatory performance. This realization, and the emotional roller coaster that comes from being that “on” for long periods of time has made me flash back on my years as a musician rather a lot.
On top of that, there have been a few times in the last few months that I’ve painfully felt the loss of music in my life. Random moments where I feel as if I’ve been living without a limb, and have just noticed its painful absence. I stopped pursuing music as a career in 2001. I stopped performing as a musician (with a few exceptions for friend and family weddings) in 2005. I used to sing all the time, now it’s rare and usually when I’m alone. Sorting through my feelings around this has been a sticky and harrowing process.
Music was both my gateway to the hell of self-annihilation and the heaven of self-transcendence. Some of the most spiritual moments of my young adult life were when I was performing and felt as if something beyond me chose my voice as its instrument. In those moments I felt as if I was the priestess and the sacrifice at the same time. I know that sounds mildly insane, but it was as if I was controlling and creating this experience of ritualistic catharsis on one (somewhat detached) level, and concurrently experiencing total surrender, ecstasy, and spiritual nakedness on another.
At the other end of the spectrum was crippling self-doubt, constant external and internal criticism, jealousy, extreme-sport competitiveness, isolation, codependency, and auditions. Oh man, did I get to hate auditions. At first they were kind of fun. Then I realized that every time I got in front of that opera company I was cementing some kind of impression of what caliber of singer I was with one more conductor/director, and there was very little I could do to control or change it once the audition was over. Pressure.
Singing for an appreciative audience is one thing. I’ve always had stage fright, but it’s never been enough to keep me off the stage. Hell, I’m still perform any chance I get (bellydancing, lectures, teaching…). But auditions – singing for people who are bored, exhausted, and whose job consists of disqualifying 99% of the hopeful young singers who they see – is hell. There’s no energy exchange, no ritualistic, shamanistic deeper meaning. You’re a show horse. They look at your teeth, your stance, your gait, and determine if you have the stuff. And when 90% of my singing became auditions, it ate my soul.
I think the moment I realized it was over was when I got 30 seconds into my first aria in a major audition and noticed I was already mentally out the door, deconstructing what I’d done to fuck it up this time. At the time I had the best and worst teacher I’d ever had – another polarized contradiction. He could hear the sounds my voice had never made and could help me find them. He could coax my vocal chords and abdominal muscles into feats of Olympian strength, endurance, and control. He was funny, encouraging, and supportive. He was also immature, egotistical, petty, and sometimes quite cruel.
Finally something (I think in that one audition) snapped. I had been trying to extricate myself from a crumbling destructive relationship that had spanned most of my 20s. And the moment I gave myself permission to leave it, I left my music career too.
I coach people on their core values now. And sometimes I help them create a personal narrative wherein they map which values were being expressed (and which repressed) during different phases of their careers. In many ways music was more in the service of my needs (approval, acceptance, adulation) than my values. It also was an expression of what I consider my greatest gift, which is creating connection. Music can connect people to the divine within themselves and others. It can connect us to the humanity of people who lived hundreds of years before us. As Joseph Campbell says, the artist is the shaman of our time. So I think that music served my need to connect to Spirit, and certainly utilized my core values of Courage and Compassion, although I think in a somewhat limited, self-centered way.
What I find strange, is that my other two core values, Inquisitiveness and Humor, had almost no expression during this time of my life. I took myself far too seriously. The ability to laugh at yourself comes with the willingness to look like an ass, and I had no tolerance for looking stupid. And Inquisitiveness – my God. I drank up every bit of academic, analytical juice I could find at the Conservatory, but there just wasn’t that much room for it. Even when interpreting the music we sang, better to trust the interpretation of someone who published an edition with written cadenzas and ornamentation 50 years ago than put your own stamp on it.
Don’t get me wrong, we could meddle with the dynamics, the tempo, the tone, and the articulation. But that was it. How many times was I told I think too much, I’m too smart? Leave your brain at the door (except for memorizing stuff) was pretty much what you were encouraged to do. And rightly so, in many ways. Singing is very athletic, and not very intellectual. You can’t really engage your brain until your body is under control, and the body part is about physical training and biofeedback much more than intellectual understanding and cognitive learning.
So this huge chunk of who I am lay fallow for the first 10 years of my adult life. I did a lot of reading, but I didn’t really exercise my brain the way I now know I’m capable of. Fast forward to 2006 and grad school (take 2). Once I got my head around the concept of critical thinking, I was in heaven. Instead of trying to get my brain out of the way of my creative process, it was my creative process! Being inquisitive and analytical helped me get good grades and start to write at a level where I would eventually get published. I began to integrate the creative, emotional, non-verbal side of myself with the analytical, discerning, intellectual side. I can’t express how much happier and more fulfilled this made me.
I’ve always been very verbal (ask my parents), and I know that I’m good at helping people find ways to express feelings that are difficult to verbalize. I considered being a therapist for a while because I know I have that strength. But I seem to have found my new muse (which is actually an old muse) in writing and speaking. While I’ve never had the ability to use words like paint the way a creative writer or poet does, I am good at using words to help crystallize and articulate aspects of the human condition that are hard to express.
It’s taken me a while to realize that I can be a writer without being a Writer. I’m not a wordsmith, I’m an ideasmith. There are lots of those out there these days, but I don’t think too many of them are women. Daniel Pink, Malcom Gladwell, and Thomas Friedman spring to mind. These are people who tap into some strand of the collective consciousness and articulate ideas that we are all becoming aware of simultaneously. While I don’t know if the ideas and concepts I can articulate are universal enough to land me a book deal like Gladwell’s, I think this is ultimately what I’m here to do now.
I still like performing – I enjoy teaching and lecturing and networking – but I also find it draining. It’s a great way to try my ideas out on people and see what turns the lightbulb on for them. There’s nothing cooler than seeing that happen. But coming to terms with wanting to write for a good portion of my living is this huge relief. It’s solitary and protected, and uses a totall
y different kind of energy than speaking of singing.
So words are my vehicle now. Not the words of poets or librettists that died centuries ago, my words. Are my words important enough to be considered by others? Actually, it doesn’t matter. I think that we all have an unique contribution to make, and this is mine. There is no other me, and nobody is going to talk about things exactly like me. So there’s no competition, because nobody else can have my voice, and I can’t have theirs. Will I find an audience? I hope so. Over the last year of this crazy experiment called entrepreneurialsim, I’ve had the most success finding publishers for my articles, and places to speak about my ideas. That part has come much easier than learning how to use Quickbooks, for example.
I miss music, and I hope I can find a way to re-integrate it in my life. But I think I’m okay with the Music Epoch being over. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Writing Epoch unfolds.
If you’re interested in reading some of my stuff, visit DiaMind Dialogues, my business blog.