As we prepare for our California auditions, I thought this would be a great opportunity for a guest post. Joshua Winograde, Artistic Planning Manager for LA Opera, is a great friend and colleague of the WTOC, and he spent several chunks of his career so far with us – as a Filene Young Artist, as the originator of the title role in Volpone, and as the administrative engine behind the development of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio.
I keep telling Josh he should have his own blog, but he seems to prefer sending guest posts for mine… Hmmmm
Sweating Small Stuff… Seeing Forests for Trees… Wholes Being Greater than Sums of Parts …
There are endless adages encouraging people to see the larger point, even at the expense of detail. They are wise sayings, and apply to many situations. But believing in these morsels of wisdom too much can be a downward spiral for singers. I’d like to propose that seeing too much of the bigger picture (or at least DWELLING on it) can be bad.
You know when you learn a word for the first time, and then over the course of the following week you hear it seemingly in every newscast, radio show, and conversation you have? Well, over the last two weeks I have come across 3 situations that involve the exact same theme: “DO
SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF” (AKA “PAY ATTENTION TO THE TREES”, AKA “THE PARTS ARE GREAT, TOO”). So I saw it as a sign to get this information out there …
I offer this important disclaimer first: Nothing applies to everything or everyone across the board. So don’t take this too literally …just some food for thought.
(By the way, all details have been adjusted ever so slightly without altering the point. So don’t bother trying to guess who these are about … you won’t, and you’ll end up spending 10 fruitless hours on google :))
A young and very talented conductor friend of mine was lamenting recently about his career not being quite as important (yet) as he had hoped it would be by his age. He used the wondrous, spectacular, unreal, phenomenal Gustavo Dudamel as an example of what he hoped he would have accomplished by HIS 30th birthday. The large picture was this: “Dudamel is my age, why am I not famous? What can he do that I could not, if given the same opportunity? Why don’t I have MY own orchestra? Why are LA’s streets not covered with posters of ME?”
First I want to just point out that my friend is NOT an egomaniac. He is just concerned that the WHOLE seems to be LESS than the sum of his parts. So I asked him the following questions: “Well, what about the time you guested with the XXXXX Symphony last year?” “Oh,” he said, “that was kind of a bomb. The orchestra hated the piece and I had a cold so I wasn’t very pleasant or charismatic or inspiring.” My response? “When was the last time Dudamel was UN-inspiring, do you think, even with a cold and a horrible composition?” The answer, of course, is NEVER.
My advice was simple. Don’t worry about the big picture. Just be excellent. Don’t think about Dudamel’s explosive career. Just conduct well. Don’t worry about whether there might be a chance for you to catch up with someone your own age who is doing much better than you. JUST. BE. EXCELLENT. The next time you conduct, do it well. Someone will hear it and will tell someone else how amazing you were, but DON’T think about that. The next time you are in front of an orchestra, just be excellent. They’ll love you because you were excellent, and you’ll get another job from it, or an agent, or a poster on the street. But you’ll have gotten those things because you were excellent, not because of a larger, abstract agenda to be famous, likable, charismatic, etc. And I am sorry to say that, very often but not always, if you didn’t get good things as a result of your performances, it’s because they weren’t excellent. Got it?
One of today’s most famous directors just told me this story about his first big break. He had been the assistant director for many years of another SUPER famous director, and was given the opportunity to finally direct his own show. It happened to star several of the most famous singers in the world, and he was FREAKED. “How do I make sure they like me? How are they going to react to some young, unknown punk telling them what to do? How will they take me
seriously? What if I bomb?” This young director took his concerns to his mentor (the SUPER famous one), who replied with this: “Start by fixing their mistakes.”
It was a revelation to this young AD (who by the way had a HUGE success). In other words, don’t worry about their perception of your expertise. Just fix mistakes. Don’t get hysterical about whether this will get good reviews. Just direct well. You can’t control whether they have already formed an unjust opinion of you since learning their director was an unknown punk. JUST. BE. EXCELLENT.
The famous singers will tell all their famous friends about how great you were. People will ask you for the DVD to see your work. You will be hired again by the same company. But it will be because you directed excellently, not because you somehow strategized to become loved, or successful, or to get good reviews.
I saw a video of a cello master class taught by the most successful cellist in recent history. The student he was working with was getting flustered by his critiques, not because the teacher was impatient or unclear, but because the young cellist student said she “couldn’t quite get a complete picture of the appropriate Bach style” he was asking for. His response: “Start by playing beautifully. And in tune.” There was dead silence for about 10 LONG seconds before they just continued. It was as if the statement was so simple that no one could understand it.
By this point in my ramblings, you get it …
So in summary, how does this apply to singers? Are you anxious about your career? Do you want us to like you? Are you unclear about which managers to approach? Are you confused about which YAPs might want you? Do you want desperately to understand bel canto style? Mozart recits? Handel ornamentation? Do you want to make a good impression and be re-engaged by the company you are working at currently? Do you want to get on the good side of someone important? Blah blah blah … forest for the … whole is greater … too big picture … waste of time … yuck.
Start by singing excellently. The next time I hear you, be excellent. Sing beautifully. And in tune. Pronounce your words excellently. Is your top short? Fix it. Do people tell you that you go flat sometimes? Fix it. Make it excellent. Are your runs sloppy? Fix them. Are your recits unnatural and “un-Italian”? Make them idiomatic. The next time you sing, and the time after that, too, just do a REALLY good job. Trust me, if you are excellent, we’ll like you. You’ll get re-engaged. You’ll get a job like Dudamel’s. Your Bach style will be wonderful.
YES … I can hear the screams from here. “Do a good job? That is so abstract and more complicated than you think! This makes no sense! If I COULD just be excellent I wouldn’t need to keep studying! You can’t just WILL yourself to sing in tune, JOSH!!! Coloratura is hard!”
And you are absolutely right if you thought any of these things to yourself. I have completely over-simplified the process and I myself can hardly believe some of the idealistic and intangible things I’ve said. But if you REALLY don’t think anything I have said applies to the coming audition season and to the rest of your career, then please allow me to tie this up cleverly in a sweet little bow: maybe you just can’t see the forest for the trees.