Ach, [should I have put a slight pause in there, there is a comma, but there’s no rest, I feel like I do it different every other damn time] ich fühl’s [ugh, I have to get that vowel more closed, why won’t my mouth just do what I want it to] es ist [spin it, spin it, spin it] verschwunden [I did say ‘schwunden’, right? Because sometimes I want to say ‘stunden’ for some godforsaken reason]…
You don’t even want to know the mixture of wishes, prayers, and expletives I fire off when I get around to that B♭on “liebe.” Pamina’s aria is particularly fraught for me. I learned it too early, performed it for a conductor that wanted to take it way too fast, and dig it out every couple years to see whether the anxiety has melted off yet.
I pace the practice room, pleading with myself to release these ingrained habits and allow my new technical know-how to fix this piece that I really, really need to figure out how to sing well. I threaten, cajole and try to trick my reflexes; I record myself and listen over and over again, trying to dissect the places where I go wrong. The aria just has a lot of baggage for me and I’m pretty brutal on myself when assessing what’s going wrong.
I feel fortunate that historically I have been able to relegate those inner voices to the practice room. That I can make the rehearsal room and the performance space places where I can be present in my character and an empathetic listener to my onstage colleagues. Competitions have been no exception. I talk to myself before I go onstage. I remind myself that I’m here because I love performing. If I don’t move on, I am in basically the same situation than I was before I walked out on stage. If it goes well, that’s money in my pocket.
Being the stubborn ass that I am, I decide to bring Pamina out for competitions regularly. This year, I was actually quite successful, moving on in a major national competition with Pamina as my starter. This made me feel like maybe I was making some headway with my Mozart struggles, UNTIL I got the judges’ feedback. They were really critical of all of the same things I am in the aria, and their words stung and stuck with me like never before.
Perhaps it’s because I am performing less these days. Perhaps it’s because I was diving straight into a new role; one that wasn’t truly written for my voice type, but I got into rehearsals for my next show and those judgmental voices were front and center. They were second-guessing every high note, killing my legato, and actually messing with my stage presence. I was pissed.
So I thought back to college, when my voice teacher (to this day one of the smartest women I know) made us read The Inner Game of Tennis. Not once, not twice, but THREE times. The Inner Game of Tennis teaches us about the difference between Self One (who knows how to do the thing we’re doing) and Self Two (who gets off on judging the performance of Self One). I can’t recommend this book highly enough for singers. Three readings had sunk in deep enough that I was able to take a good look at my voices’ criticisms, address them in the practice room, and then tell them to take a hike!
It might be one of the greatest challenges of our singing lives to take inventory of how we talk to ourselves, but it’s a very important dynamic to be aware of. Yes, be aware of your current technical goals and the steps you need to take to get there, but don’t measure your self-worth by a single practice session. Yes, strive for your best onstage, but don’t let a memory slip or a moment of distraction derail a whole performance. Yes, go out for all the auditions you can afford, but don’t give up if your career isn’t taking the shape you’ve always thought it would. You have to be your own, biggest cheerleaders in this business so don’t let the voices sabotage your success!