Something I am repeatedly confronted with is how old insecurities and fears never really disappear, and how the same lessons often need to be relearned. This can be viewed as a bad thing: you never just wake up one morning and feel 'successful,' despite any number of milestones achieved, but it could also be seen as a good thing: perhaps everyone you perceive to be 'ahead' of you in the game is struggling with the same problems, so why worry?
I was reminded of this while perusing Carol Kirkpatrick's website, http://www.ariaready.net. (She also puts out a free newsletter.) Although aimed mainly at students and apprentice level singers, much of her advice is still relevant to the working professional, especially us jobbing freelancers. Her March newsletter particularly caught my attention: answering that awkward question (especially when asked by someone outside of the business) of "what do you do?" A seemingly simple question that can tie a singer up in knots. Obviously, if we were world famous, Renee-/Placido-/Bryn- level singers, no one would NEED to ask us. They would already know what we did. But having to explain the vagaries of the music industry, and exactly our own place in the pecking order, whilst watching someone's eyes glaze over, can be disheartening in the extreme. It can be very tempting to say something general, like 'I work in the arts' or stick with 'I teach music.' I have even been advised to tell outright lies: 'Oh yes, me and Placido, we sing together all the time!' (I'm SURE no one EVER does that.) I was delighted to see her newsletter on this subject pop into my inbox for two reasons: 1) I thought I was the only singer who experienced this particular neurosis, and 2) she promised a helpful formula to compose a truthful but empowering answer. Hoorah! (Go to the web link listed below to read the article in full.) Now, I know we all MEAN to do these very useful quizzes and exercises, but, well, there's all this other stuff to do, and practicing, and, ahem... Don't worry. I've done your homework for you (well, part of it anyway):
(Carol's questions are in italics)
Why does this very particular question make you panic and feel so uncomfortable?
Fear of being seen as a 'fraud'-of being asked to 'prove' I am a singer...fear that discussing what I do with someone not familiar with the industry will put up a social barrier between us: many people seem to think Opera Singers are some kind of alien species. Fear of sounding 'pompous.'
Write down the exact conversation going on in your head. (Be able to un-jumble it and get at least one solid thought down.)
If I just say opera singer they will ask something awkward like 'are you famous' or 'do you know so-and-so (insert the name of your least favourite crossover/popera singer here)' or something equally naff or ask 'where have you sung' or 'where are you singing now' and their eyes will glaze over while I explain about touring with regional companies and covering in big houses and basically destroy their illusions about what being a performing artist is. Then they will look at me as if I am a liar and have just wasted their time and that I am a delusional fantasist and never want to speak to me again. And that's just the people who like me. (This is an edited version: the exact 'conversation' can be much worse.)
And finally, she instructs us to write our own 'personal statement' to have at the ready for answering that pesky question. Here is mine:
'I'm an opera singer...I have sung at Covent Garden, and worked at the Met in New York. I'm free lance, so it's quite unpredictable what I'll be doing from season to season, but always exciting! I also teach, and sometimes do local performances. If you're interested, here's my card: you can see upcoming performances on my website.'
Now, you go on Carol's website and do the exercise for yourself. I'll see you when you're done.
It really was a surprise how little that inner dialogue has changed since I was a student / apprentice / aspiring opera singer. Even though I now earn my living as a singer and no longer need to hold down a support job; even though I can cite working in opera houses that the average man or woman on the street may actually have heard of; the old fears still remain...if only I'd done this exercise back in the day! So if anyone reading this is exactly in Carol's intended demographic, I hope you will realise that you are not alone, and that the person asking this question is not trying to catch you out or make you feel a fraud or a failure. At worst, they are just making polite conversation. At best, they are really interested, don't know much about what we do, at any level, and really (really!) don't realise they are being ever-so-slightly offensive when they bring up the name of that so-and-so 'popera' singer. See this as an opportunity to educate someone (gently, please) and possibly persuade them to come to a live performance. It's also a great moment to practice your own confidence-boosting mantra ('I am an opera singer, a real one, yes I am!') Most of the time, the person asking the 'dreaded question' is now very excited that they have met an actual opera singer, and they feel a bit special. Their eyes are only glazing over in confusion because they can't imagine why you appear to be apologising for being something so fantastically exotic. And sometimes, they are even envious. No, really. Now, go do your homework!
Other articles on the web in a similar vein: