Monday, June 23, 2014

Striving for perfection - Choir Tour Day 11

Today was another travel day, as we left Germany and made our way to the Netherlands.

Being on a tour like this can be challenging.  Rehearsals often happen on very little sleep (we had one right after our red-eye flight from Canada to Venice), after long days of travel (more than once we’ve had to come off a 6 hour bus ride and go straight into a rehearsal), or when you’d rather be eating, resting, or exploring the new country or city you’ve just arrived in.

Not only that, but you have to be alert and focused and ready for every detail, every subtle or not-so-subtle change that needs to be made in order to adapt to a new church, a new acoustic.

And yet the reason we’re on this tour in the first place is the music, and the music must always come first.  There’s a reason we all decided to do this in the first place, and that’s for the love of this music.  So day after day, sometimes minute by minute, we have to remind ourselves of that, renew that passion and energy and jump into a concert with the same love and commitment each time.

It can be very hard. 

When I first started training in classical singing, I was a bit all over the place.  I never seemed to be able to be on time to lessons, to learn my music quick enough, to have the right photocopies of the right pieces at the right times.  I would misread things, misplace music, and just generally be in a state of confusion and unpreparedness.... and then there was the time I sang a concert without any shoes at all as I’d forgotten them at home...

There were of course many “reasons” this – I was struggling to figure out how to live on my own with little financial or emotional help or support; I was dealing with various illnesses and disabilities that I was in various states of recovery from, trying to balance several jobs and always taking way more than a full course load, and a lot of other “invisible” factors that meant my life was in a constant state of chaos.  But reasons are not excuses, as I was soon to learn.

Choir was my haven.  Choir rehearsals in university were where I learned to force myself to focus intently, to clear my mind of all distractions, to take responsibility for my own music making.  Mistakes were not acceptable, being distracted was not acceptable, and not being organized or prepared was not acceptable.  I learned that when I was making music, the music was the only thing that mattered. 

Rehearsals quickly became my meditation, my exercise, my grounding place, and the place I grew out of my scattered tendencies.

I’ve developed a lot of very fine tuned focusing and listening skills over the years, and more often than not I can come to a rehearsal regardless of my physical or emotional state, put everything aside, and just go.  But occasionally, the challenges of life, especially on a tour like this, somehow all combine at once and I go through a rehearsal unfocused, distracted, make stupid mistakes, and struggle to adapt to the changes that are needed.

When that happens, I get very frustrated with myself. But frustration is unproductive and only feeds on itself, un-focusing me even more.


A couple of years ago, I made a very big mistake during an actual performance.  To this day I don’t really have an explanation for it – my mind just stopped working for a spit second and I forgot to come in.  During a solo.  It was part of a larger piece with a quartet of soloists and choir, and of course my mistake not only affected me, but had a domino effect, and everyone else derailed in panic as well, not knowing how to get back out of the disaster. Eventually we did, but we were all frazzled and it wasn’t an enjoyable performance.  I don’t really like remembering this at all, and the only reason I write about it now is because I learned something very important from that mistake.

Reherasing in Marienkirche,
L├╝beck, Germany
The next day, even though we were in Europe and everyone else was out exploring yet another new city, I stayed in my hotel room and I sang.  It was the only thing that calmed my anxiety and the awful feeling I had at making such a huge mistake.  I sang all of my music, going over and over everything, every detail, every entrance, every note.  If I stopped singing the anxiety came back, so I didn’t stop.  I sang, and I talked myself through it, because I still had to do this solo again for not only one but two more major concerts.  I knew fear would be the end of my ability to do it properly, so I sang and meditated and immersed myself in the joy of the music.  I immersed myself in the details, in the breathing, in the rhythm.  I knew that was the only thing that would save me from my anxiety.

By the end of the evening I felt ready.  I had come out the other side, and my next two concerts went flawlessly – I didn’t hesitate, I wasn’t afraid, and I gave myself into pure focus and joy.


It was a very hard thing I had to do, but it was good that I learned how to do it...  so now when I get frustrated with myself after a rehearsal where I was all over the place, I go back to my music, I sing and I lose myself in intense focus and I ground myself again this way.

Mistakes are always going to happen.  But for me, it’s the ability to trust myself and keep going that makes the difference between a complete derailment or just a tiny little moment.

I’m not perfect, and not everything we sing is always perfect.  But I do know what perfection in music can do, and that’s the only standard I ever want to try and meet.

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