28 February 2011
22 February 2011
In the first chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov makes a passing allusion to the limits of child prodigies. He describes them as “pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters” (Nabokov 25)*.
While I might not phrase it quite the same way, I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. Why is there such a cult around people who display signs of talent at an early age? Well, some of the answer is obvious, and even reasonable: we are fascinated by abnormality. We are fascinated by genius, and the child who sits at a piano making up musical hits certainly seems genial when his peers are busy eating crayons. But what happens at age twenty? Is our modern-day Mozart still, well, a Mozart? What if he isn’t?
And the fact that he shows more promise, earlier, may very well mean that our Wunderkind will continue to be better than others in his age bracket even when they are no longer begrudgingly expected to stick small objects up their noses for entertainment purposes. He could very well be a genius, possessing such innately superior abilities that they naturally present themselves early on. But he may simply be on a different learning curve, one that will ultimately level out.
via Cartoon Stock.
Two major problems stem from our fascination with prodigy. The first is the Good Modern Open-Minded Encouraging Parent’s obsession with finding talent at the youngest age possible. Do not enroll your hyperactive two-year-old in a ballet class; do not panic if your child is not voted MVP when a soccer ball is the size of his torso. The second is that, specifically in the arts, the quest for Doing Everything Earlier (much like its cousins Doing Everything Faster and Making Everything Bigger) often results, at best, in a proficient but robotically technical understanding. (At worst it results in shoddy technical foundations that can have quite literally crippling side-effects in later years.) Therein comes the frustrating truth of “second-rate musicians with sad eyes.” Creating art means actually living. How many experiences can an eight-year-old bring to a performance? How many can he bring twenty years later when all he has ever known are practice rooms and concert halls?
Some child prodigies are incontestably superior; some are questionable. Most are, if not mystifying, interesting, or at least pretty adorable. But they are not the be all and end all of accomplishment. They are, innately, outliers, and it is not every parent, teacher and mentor’s job to craft a Child Marvel out of every normal, even precocious, boy or girl. It is high time we stopped glorifying half-baked stabs at achievements just because they were orchestrated by someone who hasn’t yet hit puberty.
But, lest I sound too... crotchety, a bit of good clean fun, courtesy of a very young Beverly Sills, who proves you can make the transition from kiddie wonder to adult artist:
*Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage, 1989.
19 February 2011
15 February 2011
I was waiting at an audition last Saturday when an unfamiliarly enlightened thought struck me: I was not viewing the other singers around me as competition to be feared and loathed. I could hear snatches of warm-ups and last minute rehearsals from the practice rooms, and from these it was clear that the vocal caliber was quite high. But this didn’t throw me into a panic; I didn’t have the compulsion to compare my own shortcomings to these anonymous sounds. Instead, they reassured me of my worth: since we had already gone through a prescreening round, all the singers around me had been in some way selected to audition. Including me. “If the others are impressive,” I thought, “I must be as well, in some capacity.” I felt like an insider, and I felt flattered.
This isn’t usually the situation at an audition, when tension runs high. Moreover, most audition situations are not callbacks or invitation-based exams: in a general “cattle call,” it is exponentially more difficult to feel loved and wanted. (Except perhaps for the consummate egomaniac, but that’s not really the way to go either.) I realize I won’t have the luxury of feeling so cared for at every interview and audition, but it doesn’t mean I cannot synthesize a comfortable atmosphere through my perception of the situation and, more importantly, of myself in it.
But drawing comparison, and the natural longing for a competitive edge, cannot become a debilitating loss of sense of self. Self-esteem means in part self-knowledge. It means knowing that you are your own working organism, rather than an entirely relative shadow of those around you.
As I’m seeing, it gets easier with age – or rather, with maturity. It also gets easier with experience and a basic list of accomplishments that serve as a stabilizing base. Without these applicable “successes” – concerts, awards, even simple praise – it’s hard to shape a visible form out of the general mass of potential talent and practice hours. In much the same way as children have to develop a sense of their personalities, singers, and other career-people, have to create themselves over time. A balance must be struck between the developing internalized and externally-fueled senses of self.
13 February 2011
09 February 2011
06 February 2011
The scene: The airport, Air Canada terminal, ten o’clock. I am about to enter the security queue when a terrible realization flashes before me: I’ve left my plastic ziplock bag of liquids and creams on the table by the door at home. (You know, so that I would be sure not to forget it…) At this point, you might ask, “Why is this such a tragedy, Sophie? Surely you can buy makeup and travel-size toothpaste in Montreal?” On this point, you are not mistaken: While a minor inconvenience, the need to purchase emergency audition makeup is certainly not earth shattering. But! I need contact lenses – contacts I am not currently wearing, and contacts I will need to be wearing for my audition. My heart sinks.
A representation of my troubled mien; my large glasses.
Of course, there is no written rule that says I cannot wear glasses while singing, but I would certainly prefer the third of my face that is obstructed from view by my bulky frames to be visible to my audience. Let us call it an unwritten rule, then. Nor am I integrally blind without contacts – I surely won’t be able to recognize any faces, but I probably won’t run into the wall, either. (Probably…) So why can’t I simply go in blurry-eyed?
Focus: when I cannot focus literally, I have a considerably harder time focusing in any other capacity. This was made excruciatingly clear to me last year during a studio class (wherein a teacher’s students attend and sing in an intra-studio masterclass). I went up to sing a relatively fresh piece, was asked to remove my glasses for expressive purposes, and felt immediately out of my element. Not only was the visual world blurry around me, the music sounded more unfamiliar. I struggled with the simple task of counting the beats; I couldn’t remember the words in advance. I was swimming through an aria I had already sung from memory earlier that day.
Focus is a keystone to performing – on stage, as well as in any other field (how many books, coaches, and courses are dedicated to finding focus in sports, or business, etc…?) – and it is something that everyone is concerned with finding, refining, or keeping. It is not the same thing as thinking. Often, in fact, we (we singers, and we humans) are told to stop thinking and start doing. Because this is what performance is: the result of months or years of thinking, analyzing and practice come to a head in an instant of action. Concentration funnels all this training. The paradox is that the more focused we are, the more we are able to let ourselves go. It allows actors on stage to be simultaneously desensitized enough to the outside not to be taken aback by disruptions and aware of their surroundings enough to improvise when things go awry. But without focus (and previous, hard work!) you are simply left trying to think and process very fast. In certain cases it works, or at least well enough. But a performance is not about letting others in on the odds and ends of your work process; it is about sublimating these into something greater.
For the sake of our subject matter, let us get back on track. How does my woeful story of missing contacts pan out, you ask? Do I muster up the courage to go in blind? No: I arrive in Montreal, and with a bit of digging and a bit of luck, I come across an office that will fill my prescription without a new eye exam. So my odyssey comes perhaps to an overly neat end, but one that I certainly prefer!