Monday, January 11, 2010

Lost in Phonation: Part Two

It’s Me

    It’s one thing to be asked without warning to sing in a restaurant while I’m eating dinner, and it’s another thing to sing in a restaurant and get paid for it (like I did on New Year’s Eve in a rehearsed show with five other singers and a pianist). So, I can’t quite explain my explosive reaction to a friend who asked me to sing in her new bar for its monthly Music Night. 

    For her, it was an innocent request, just looking for acts to fill her calendar. But for me, an odd feeling cropped up inside me immediately, and I felt very threatened and exposed. I can’t blame my friend (or anyone else for that matter) for not understanding why singing impromptu in public is my worst nightmare. I don’t quite understand it myself. Especially in this case, since it would be an official gig, it would be rehearsed, and I’d be getting paid. So what’s the problem?

    I suppose what set me off was the fact that there would be no accompaniment (the place is too small to accommodate even an electric piano, and I’m not sure a pianist would’ve been included in the budget anyway). She said she’d had another opera singer there performing “bits and bobs” by herself, and she couldn’t understand why that was so difficult. Before we even got a chance to negotiate the terms, my emotions got the better of me, and I went off on a tirade, trying desperately to answer the question, “Why not?”

    Come to think of it, I doubt that my friend even noticed how upset I was at the proposition. She was probably just wondering why she couldn’t get a straight answer from me. I guess I just have to learn how to calmly say no - especially to friends asking not-so-small favors. There’s much more to that story than is interesting to tell, but the question remains: 

    Why is it so difficult to just stand up and sing on the spot? 

    When so-called professional opera singers are confronted with a request to sing impromptu, they often retort with something like, “You wouldn’t ask a dentist to pull teeth at your dinner party, would you?” Well, of course not. That would be stupid, and no fun for anybody (except maybe the dentist). Am I being selfish? Even if I don’t enjoy singing for you on demand with no warning, if I were a good friend, I’d do it anyway, right? 


    It has nothing to do with the fact that I earn money by singing. I’m sure if I enjoyed singing spontaneously, I would do it for you at no extra charge.

    There was a discussion on an internet forum for classical singers about this very same topic. It attracted an overwhelming amount of responses, 99% of which repeated my sentiments exactly. This is more than just unpleasant for me. This is Hell on Earth for me. Non-singers, or people who maybe just sing as a hobby, can’t quite grasp the concept that our connection to our singing is a very delicate relationship, one on the verge of a breakup.

    My brother says I’m lucky to be able to have my hobby as my career, and in a way he’s right. I have had the tenacity and the patience to see how things would pan out with the opera business, and that has paid off. The trick is determining just what “paying off” means, and knowing when to throw in the towel. If I don’t net $50,000 a year, does that justify giving up? To be sure, there are singers more amateur than myself who earn more money than I do singing. But do they have the same passion or drive that I do for my art? Perhaps they are content with going around the room selling arias for 10 bucks a pop, like meandering Mariachis in a Mexican restaurant. 

    I might not be getting rich yet, but never in a million years would I call this my hobby. Never in half a million years would I give it up. But if being considered a “professional” singer means having to do gigs like that, I’d rather give it all up and follow my next passion, whatever that may be. No regrets.

    Another woman I know said, if she had a voice like mine, she would just sing everywhere all the time. Put it that way, and I feel like I’m taking my voice for granted. Then again, she never asks me to sing for her when we’re alone hanging out. It’s only when we’re out with her friends, perhaps people that I’m meeting for the first time, as if to say, “This is my friend Christy the opera singer” - not Christy who likes science fiction movies, or Christy who makes delicious banana bread, or Christy who wants to learn Spanish. Or just, this is Christy.

    Of course, singing for a captive audience is what I do every chance I get, isn’t it? Not exactly. In fact, it’s not even the singing itself which moves me. “The Voice” is the instrument I use. My goal is to use this medium on a stage in order to successfully combine the music with the action, to convey emotion, to find the right mix of fun, intellect and challenge in each job, regardless of the pay. Maybe singing for an unsuspecting audience at a party is too easy!

    Singing operatically has always been a very formal thing for me, and also very personal. At Karaoke night, however, I’m the first one to grab the mic and sing “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” If there’s a guitar around at a party, I’ll gladly (and badly) accompany myself and sing numerous rock songs that I don’t know the words to. But to pull out “The Voice” on a moment’s notice?


    It has nothing to do with making a fool out of myself. This I will do voluntarily, and with fervor.

    I don’t think I’ve come any closer to clarifying my feelings. Any comparison I try to make - like pulling out fine china at a picnic, like asking a lawyer for legal advice over dinner  - doesn’t seem to convince people to stop asking. But is there any harm in someone needing a singer to fill a slot in their bar’s music calendar? Is there any harm in someone wanting to share my gift with their friends?


    It’s not them. It’s me.

“I am not the person who is singing,
I am the silent one inside.
I am not the one who laughs at people’s jokes,
I just pacify their egos.
And it’s me who is my enemy,
Me who beats me up,
Me who makes the monsters,
Me who strips my confidence.”
            -Paula Cole

Tune in next time to the Grahamophone!

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