Rediscovering Joy in Practice
To begin, I will go against every piece of performing advice I’ve ever received and issue a disclaimer: For some of us, meaningful practice during these days of quarantine is inconceivable. We are after all, experiencing a sort of mass collective trauma that has suddenly rendered the never-ending quest of finding the perfect [a] vowel a little less pressing. And that’s fine--dare I say, good? At the very least, it’s a healthy dose of perspective and a necessary jolt from the tunnel vision so many of us find ourselves in, daily.
For me, after being knocked out by a nasty flu and out of commission for about a month, getting back into good voice was a process. I was fortunate enough to have Zoom lessons and classes online to keep my sense of structure relatively intact, but patience with myself and with my instrument was at an all-time low. Every practice session was riddled with relentlessly negative inner dialogue, frequent mid-phrase stopping and exasperated groans, and dissonant stings on the piano punctuating coloratura-crash-and-burns. I was in this circular pattern of failing to meet my own expectations, and practice became a looming chore that I knew would leave me spiraling into imposter syndrome, impatience, and jealousy of those that seem to have it all together. Yes, I was still getting back into shape after my dear friend Influenza A overstayed its welcome, but I think the mental block that was beginning to calcify was stronger than the symptoms had ever been.
But a few weeks ago, my improved health overlapped with a particularly fruitful ten-minute meditation, and I was able to gain some clarity on the nature of the thoughts that were setting up shop in my consciousness. I realized I was operating under this dark umbrella idea: that all the vocal challenges I was facing were temporary blocks on the road to technical perfection. As though perfection were the natural state of things, and I had cluttered things somehow. Practice had become nothing more than a means to get to an imaginary end--an end of never having to think about getting more space ah not that kind of space more soft palette now get under the sound but don’t let your consonants get punchy but now your words are muddled just speak the text but you need some cover through the passaggio no not that much cover on top now it’s too spread and on and on and on. The problem wasn’t that these thoughts existed, but that I had assigned them this negative halo--like they were unnatural, unwelcome, and unique to me. Stubborn little hurdles on the course to a fantasy world where singing is easy and fun all the time.
I almost never lose the joy when I’m performing. Something in my bones and blood and brain hums on the moment before getting on stage, and things fall into place in a way that I can’t account for. It’s peace and clarity and electricity in one. Like everything that occurs (technical challenges and all) is in service of a true Purpose, which just doesn’t exist in the same realm as petty frustrations. As such, the joy is ever-present, self-multiplying, and boundless. Where was any of this joy, or even the memory of it, in the practice room? Invitation lost in the mail? Never. Sent.
DISCOVER THE JOY, reads the sticky-note on my piano. The very moment I made this distinction, I’m not kidding, it was like the sun breaking through the clouds in my practice space. I’m not drilling exercises; I’m deep diving into the true miracle that is muscle memory--I mean actively delighting in it. I’m reconnecting with why I sing the pieces I sing--not to show this or that or because I’m a light-lyric-coloratura-who-knows-what, but because they move me. And reconnecting with why that is. I’m naming and specifying technical hangups, approaching them with playfulness, humility, a beginner’s mentality, and--most importantly--not giving them any larger significance than they inherently have. This is a radical shift that allows me to forgive myself for not meeting my expectations on any given day, to be curious about my voice, to be scientific, to tap into the admiration I feel for the work of my colleagues and friends, to celebrate when something feels a little easier than the day before, and to every once in a while put something away for tomorrow. And for what it’s worth, I know I’m singing better (whatever that means) than I have in months.
I want to be clear: I’m not floating into every practice session on a Glinda bubble, suddenly able to appreciate every part of my singing. It’s less romantic and more systematic, this project of re-programming joy. And I am one of the fortunate few who have been gifted with some unstructured time during this pandemic, not facing anywhere near the share of burdens that I know are weighing on so many right now. But, for me, this quarantine has proved the best time for this practice. Unlike my usual life of weekly lessons, coachings, rehearsals, (talk about fortunate!) where my vocal Concern of the Hour is governed by the last thing I was advised to do, this life at home is malleable, slow, and open ended. Warm ups aren’t squeezed in before class, I’m not saving my voice for anything in particular, and what I sing isn’t governed by anything other than what I am moved to sing that day. Yes, I have a list of goals, roles to prepare, and music to learn for when this is all over, but the immediate future is mine to devise. And I’m choosing joy.