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If you had told my sixteen-year-old self that in six years, I would not only have the confidence and skills to sing in front of any size of crowd, but that I would have a large role in an opera, I don't know what she would have done. Probably laughed it off in disbelief, or maybe smacked your arm before sticking my tongue out at you and running away. It would just seem too far-fetched. Especially since I couldn't hold a pitch to save my life.
Growing up, I had played piano from a young age, and started flute when I entered the school band, but I always had this dream, this fantasy. I believed, one day, my soulmate would come flying through the door, I would jump out of the crowd, and we would sing a flawless version of the Phantom of the Opera or something equally as dramatic, my voice knocking everyone back with its beauty and power.
Needless to say, that isn't quite how it works.
When I was sixteen, even with learning that people don't burst into song in daily situations, I decided to go ahead with some singing lessons. I found out the hard way that just because you pay for lessons, it does not mean you will instantly become the next Christina Aguilera or Anna Netbrebko. Ouch.
Instead, it was a lot of making weird noises and jumping around the room in an attempt to 'connect with your body'.
It was a lot of sitting on the floor, crying, as my teacher would become life coach, trying to help fix whatever emotion I was dealing with that day.
It was trying to form my mouth around words from foreign languages I had never heard spoken before (like Italian — can there really be that many different ways to sing about love??)
Through all this, this fear, this shame permeated my singing. I knew what good music and singing sounded like, and I was not it. I was so worried that I would be seen as less of a person if I sounded bad when I sang. Trying to get me to perform at a recital was like trying to dump a cat in a bathtub, and you could just forget about asking me to sing in public. Singing is an extension of who you are, and I wanted to be magnificent, not what I actually was.
When the time came around to go to college, I decided to go into music, choosing singing over my significantly stronger piano skills. I would make it, gosh-darn it! I would become someone worth listening to!
My first two years only taught me to harness my sound into a drill that could cut through diamond and the backs of people's heads. I studied with a misogynistic old man, who kept telling me that I wouldn't become an opera singer, that I should just stick to choirs, that I would be lucky to make it into any other university as just a first year.
My self-worth and anxiety about my singing are only just starting to improve now.
But the thing is, things got better. I found myself a brilliant and nurturing teacher who made me believe that I could do whatever I push myself to, that I had potential and worth. I sang in the recitals and performed in the university operas. I learned how to engage audiences, and I improved beyond what I ever believed I was capable of.
Typically, out of graduation, opera singers either look into doing masters degrees or young artist programs, to hone their skills and get their voices out there. I knew that technically, I had a little ways to go before I could accomplish either. I started auditioning for other singing roles, like cruise ships and community theatre. I didn't get any callbacks, but I was learning how to audition, how to deal with rejection, and how to be confident with my performing.
Out of the blue, an old colleague emailed me. She was looking to start up an opera company in our community and she needed singers! Next thing I knew, I was madly learning the music of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. (Yes! That really is his name! And no, he was never a prince.)
The rest of the cast was at least five years older than I was, and each of them had at least their Masters' in Vocal Performance (one had almost finished her Doctorate!). That first rehearsal was absolutely terrifying, but you know what? No one made any comments on my skill level or my age. True professionals will respect you for your effort, attitude, and willingness to put yourself out there, not belittle you for that which you cannot control.
After our last show, I was told that no one could have made a better witch than I did, that I was entertaining to watch and easy to work with. That my cackle was the best part of the show and that this show blew everyone's expectations away.
Only now, after six years, do I feel comfortable calling myself an opera singer. I have come so far and worked my butt off to achieve this. I am still not Met-worthy. I have gaps in my technique and my voice hasn't settled yet. I am also incredibly proud of what I've accomplished. I don't know what the future holds for me, but I do know this:
Do not give up at something you love, simply because someone says you can't. They do not know you or your potential. The struggle makes it all worth it, when you finally can stand up on stage and give your solo bow. Hang in there and have courage in yourself, for you can do things far greater than even you imagined.