The Aspiring Singer

She is one of many with the same attitude.  I have singled her out – poor girl – because of a particularly pretentious comment that stuck in my mind, but there are many others just like her, I have seen the same sort of thing time and time again.

Believe me, I don’t hold anything against her.  I understand!  She loves music, she has a voice.  She has had the means to take singing lessons (at an atrocious hourly fee that she later depresses me with) and sufficient ability to take herself seriously as a classical singer.  She aspires to sing oratorio and opera.  She has amassed some experience.  She probably has a chance – she is young enough and looks right, tall and slim with striking long curly hair.  But she probably hasn’t quite realised yet how few the classical opportunities are, what incredible competition and unpleasantness she will come up against, and how very unlikely it is that she will ever be able to pay a mortgage from any earnings she might achieve (although she probably has wealthy parents and no intention or need to ever enter into a mortgage).  Above all, she will come to realise that apart from a small – and aging – elite minority, opera and oratorio are just not the styles of music that the modern world appreciates.  There is no mass audience.  There is no demand – or rather, there is demand, but it is unfortunately far outstripped by the supply of young, pretty, aspiring sopranos, just like her!  (Now if you’re a tenor, that’s another story, as there always seems to be a shortage of strong male voices – but there’s always a glut of ladies, and I can’t help feeling sorry for them, because the great majority will end up weeping with frustrated ambition and bitter disappointment.)

What tips you over the edge watching this sort of singer in a workshop, is the ‘taking it seriously’ bit.  She just takes herself and her talent, so, so seriously!

Singers are always talking about their vocal problems (“I’m not sure I’ve got my staccato technique quite right yet”), how their voices are changing (“I used to be a mezzo but now I’m being encouraged to look at soprano arias”), looking for reassurance (“you don’t think that role is a bit too high for me?”), discussing their most recent engagement (“they asked me back to do an additional performance”), namedropping shamelessly (“so-and-so was directing, you know how strict he is!”), and of course making sure they come across as sufficiently knowledgeable and engaged with their repertoire (“of course his later work is so different and much more challenging in terms of expression”).

Of course, as a singer, your instrument is part of yourself – you literally are your instrument – so it’s only to be expected that there will be an element of self-absorption and analysis.  But really, it can go too far!  When you’ve watched singers for years and years, you get so fed up of the fact they all take themselves so seriously, and are so up their own… well, up the other end of their instrument!

So she stands and sings a difficult Handel aria quite competently.  She gets lots of applause but doesn’t accept it well.  She has a sort of false modesty that is annoying.  On working through the piece again with the tutor, she constantly breaks off and winces and criticises herself.  “Oh, no, I didn’t get that right,” “God, that was awful!”, “Can I just try that again, I don’t know what’s going wrong today?”.

Another singer I watched recently was so tense and fidgety and nervous that she was actually unable to sing her piece through from beginning to end.  Every time she made a start, she would end up shaking her head and stopping, though to the listener there was nothing wrong at all with the sound she was making.  Eventually the tutor lost patience and said, “Please, just stand there and sing it to me”, warning her that she would never have a chance if she couldn’t come up with a performance of some description for an audition or competition.  Maybe he should have gone further – slapped her across the face and said, “Pull yourself together and stop playing games!”

But I’m sure I’m being too harsh.  So many successful performers – actors and comedians, for example – say they are actually quite shy and self-conscious, it must be that artistic temperament and desire for self-expression isn’t always coupled with self-confidence and exhibitionism.

The Handel aria is performed again, and admittedly, it has improved.  There is no doubt that people at all standards benefit from coaching – a second attempt will almost always be so much better than the first.  It is followed, however, by a long explanation of the work the aspiring singer is currently doing with her new singing teacher, and how it has been changing and improving her voice, not to mention other parts of her life.  (This is surprising because she is so immensely caught up and involved in the intricacies of her own voice that it is a wonder there is any other aspect to her life at all!)

“Yes, I do see what you mean,” she repeats a few times, as the workshop audience wait impatiently for her slot to be over.

“I agree, the Da Capo section needs more work.”

The needle on the pretentiousness scale creeps higher.

“I’m really not getting enough colour into the slow section.”

Probably not – but do we care?

“And I think my semiquavers need to be more accurate.”

She knows very well they’re as accurate as they’re ever going to get.

“Really though, I can usually get that B flat much better.”

Well maybe you can, dear, but is the world that bothered?

At last she picks up her music and makes to leave the stage, but not before making the one comment that so struck me as being over the top in terms of taking yourself just a little too seriously.

“You’ve been so helpful,” she tells the tutor, “I realise what I’ve got to do now, today has made it really clear.”

What can it be?!

She has to learn how to breathe properly?  She has to go back to being a mezzo?  She has to move to Italy?

She has to wear shorter skirts and become a pop star?

She stands there, so intense, unsmiling.

“I’ve only been having singing lessons once a fortnight, but obviously that’s not often enough!  I have to change to having them once a week!”

Or you could get a life, I think to myself.

But she’ll probably have the last laugh.  She’ll become a successful opera singer and have a brilliant career.

I hope so, otherwise her realisation, when it comes, of all the time and money she has wasted may be too difficult to bear!

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