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!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lost in Phonation: Part One

iPod, I.C.E. and I

    It’s the first Monday of the new year, and the I.C.E. train to Frankfurt was pretty packed. Still I managed to find a spot in a four seat compartment with two men and one other woman. My journey had begun earlier this morning - first taking a bus from the hotel near the theater where I’d had my last performance, then switching to the regional train at the Mönchengladbach main station, and finally to the InterCity Express in Düsseldorf. By that time I was well into a very interesting Podcast of “This American Life” and was looking forward to boarding the comfortable, heated, high-speed train, kicking back and listening to the end of the story.

    As one does before taking a seat next to someone on a train, I asked, “Is this seat taken?” Then I began the five-minute winter ritual of peeling off numerous layers of outerwear, found a place to stow my things, set my coffee cup and sandwich on the table between the seats and sat down to listen to my iPod. Ahhhh... 

    The two gentlemen next to me were conversing intensely about something - I can’t be sure what, because they were speaking in a foreign tongue. Turkish? No, not that. Persian? Hindi? Maybe. I turned my attention back to Ira Glass and tried to relax.

    Several minutes later the men were still talking, as they had been incessantly since I sat down. Even with my fancy in-ear headphones “drastically reducing unwanted outside noises” - that’s what it says on the box they came in - the voice of the man sitting to my right penetrated the barrier. It now took all my concentration to follow the story on “This American Life,” so I chose instead to resume listening to it later and play a round of Scrabble with my iPod. Even focussing on Scrabble became a challenge amidst the babble. The iPod ended up winning the game by a 100-point margin. Damn those confabulating fellows!

    It was then I began to realize just how enervated I was by this discussion going on next to me. They just would not stop talking! And when they weren’t talking to each other, one of them was on his cell phone. And while one was on the phone, the other one got antsy and placed a phone call himself. At one point, they even traded phones so that the other person could talk to whomever the other guy was talking to. It was obviously business-related, I deduced from the anglicisms threaded throughout their seamless conversation.

    The man with the more penetrating voice had an ordinary ringtone, but the soft-spoken of the two had a cell phone that vibrated so loudly that it defeated the purpose of setting the phone to vibrate in the first place. Meanwhile, this conversation cumconference call had captured the attention of passengers on the other side of the aisle, some reacting with sharp glances and others with outright laughter.

    When one of them got up to go to the toilet, I thought, ‘Relief!’ (not just for him, but also for me). After half a minute of precious silence, however, the other one felt the urge to make yet another call. No!! I thought at this point that they must indeed be speaking Hindi or some sort of Indian dialect, because I could imagine that someone who hails from a country with over a billion people might become uneasy if it gets too quiet.

    By this time I had a headache (having grown up in a land with wide open spaces), otherwise I would’ve taken the next logical step of drowning their voices out with loud music. Instead I put the in-ear headphones back on, attempting this time to use them as earplugs. Unfortunately, as promised on the box they came in, the earphones only ensured “accurate, detailed sound across the entire sonic spectrum.”

    Usually I’m able to tune out conversations in foreign languages, but it wasn’t exactly the content nor volume of the men’s voices that was bothering me. The man sitting diagonally across from me was even rather soft-spoken, and their language (which I later found out was in fact your average household Hindi) is actually pleasant to hear. Why is it, then, that I found the one man’s voice so annoying, yet the woman across from me seemed oblivious, reading her book peacefully the entire time with not one single tsk-tsk of annoyance or piercing glance? On any other day, I probably could have found another place to sit. Asking them to be quiet didn’t seem fair, either; after all, everyone else in the train was talking. 

    After 90 minutes of my supersonic odyssey (on a train which really only travels one-fourth the speed of sound), my right ear literally ached, and I felt as if I was about to lose my composure, stand up and start screaming the Hindi equivalent of “Shut the fuck up, Gee!” 

    Stepping off the train into the din of Frankfurt’s bustlingHauptbahnhof during lunch hour was like entering an idyllic meadow of tall grass and listening to the soft cooing of whippoorwills. When I got home, I refrained from turning on the radio and granted myself two hours of silence. Even Ira Glass was going to have to wait.

Tune in for Part Two next time on the Grahamophone!