Time to take stock
It is over a year since I moved to Germany but my work has been predominantly in the UK. I studied in London, and continued to live and work thereafter so I knew I had built a network, but had not truly accepted how hard it would be to start from scratch in a new country. After my first stage gig in Germany I turned down work in the UK that wouldn’t pay enough to be in a different country (rent/flights etc). I also felt I wasn’t dedicating enough time to kicking things off in Germany.
This created a work ‘drought’ which also coincided with the first time since I was 13 that I hadn’t had a ‘normal’ job. My German seemed far from good enough to teach, and I had no contacts over in Germany yet. Living off previous earnings was an issue but I finally had time to really focus, unadulterated, on improving my technique and learning music. How wonderful!
It turns out not so wonderful at first because I translated that time into pressure. The ‘I’m doing the best I can with the time I have’ had become quite the mantra and the newfound routine which should have set me into a creative whirl became a monstrously heavy ball of expectation.
My confidence was already taking a daily beating due to learning German while living here. I cannot stress how lucky I was with the people I met, R’s family, and neighbours, but not being able to communicate as an adult is very unpleasant most of the time. Hilarious anecdotes abound but usually become funnier in hindsight once the mortification has eased off!
I didn’t know anyone, if not through R, let alone other freelancers or even singers over here. I contacted every agent in Germany – over 255 (not all legit, it turns out!) And did a round of auditions, at great cost, for a massive list of ‘no’s’ or ‘come back with different repertoire’.
Had I been singing well in those auditions? Almost certainly not. The formality, not to mention the sheer number of other singers at each of the auditions was enough to rock my nerve. Add to that my wish to show my well rehearsed German but confronted with a multitude of accents and colloquial phrases, I failed to be conversational.
I became set on the idea that x or z needed to click in to place before I should be heard again. I scrapped the initial plan of attending every concert, contacting every church, and orchestra, until I had ‘mastered’ a few elements of technique and German.
That, in itself, is daft – not just as an operatic singer, but as a person. I will always be reaching for new skills (or so I hope). By eradicating the worth of what I was currently offering, I had essentially set myself up for a horrible few months.
Within only a couple of months, I had come to firmly believe that I needed to wait on this technical improvement before reaching out again. We all go through phases of improvement – sometimes steady, sometimes at a rate of knots and sometimes in-discernibly. I saw no signs of improvement and was still as set on waiting to be heard as I had been 4 months previous.
So how did I break the cycle? I was lucky enough to see in Audition Oracle that a course for ‘Die Zauberflöte’ was occurring – role preparation and performances of a German show where the role of 2nd lady is perfect for my voice and involves dialogue – something I’d definitely lack confidence in, auf Deutsch, in Deutschland!
For context, I had already played the mother and the witch in Hänsel und Gretel the winter before in a small but well regarded house in Bavaria. With just 4 days of rehearsals, and musical cuts replaced with dialogue. The show was a success and my German was even praised by the critics. My spoken German had improved greatly in the 6 months since that but I still had it stuck in my head that I needed to reach an invisible standard before I would be any good.
The course at Schloss Henfenfeld proved to be the perfect anecdote. It was the first time I had paid to sing, but that in itself took some pressure off of what was expected of me, and allowed me to throw myself into student mode. It was an international group of young singers and us non-Germans were at varying levels with our grasp of the German language but the director and coach were both bilingual (Eng/Ger) so there were no language issues.
Not only did we stage ‘Die Zauberflöte’ but there was also a concert for us to each showcase one or two audition arias. Singing to an audience rather than 2/3 people behind a desk and engaging with other singers for 2 weeks was the medicine I had so desperately needed. I had predicted that I’d be nervous ahead of the concert but instead I was thrilled to be singing some of my favourite music and showcasing my version of it, outside of the house.
I immediately realised how much of the fun I had lost. I was saddened to think of all the opportunities I had missed out on because I had been so afraid to introduce myself, dreading the conversation where I’d be asked why I moved here and where I’m singing. I had received some great advice from my teacher to be patient and just keep turning up. It was spot on, and I had ignored it.
If you find yourself not enjoying every opportunity to sing – EVEN in auditions, then ask yourself why. The situations can sometime be horrible, but the act of singing needn’t be! Making peace with where we are at, what we can already do, and believing that no one else will make it sound the same (literally) may be just enough to keep the dark thoughts away.
In the weeks following that course, I sought out auditions, contacted some churches and started teaching beginner piano to R’s niece an nephew. Children are phenomenal company because they have no issue correcting linguistic errors and, unlike adults, don’t assume that you would be offended by the correction. They are so open to learning that they are completely at home with correcting errors – made by themselves or others! They also respond very well to Charades..
It was another 3 months before I had a paid stage contract but I already had a small flame flickering once again and whispering ‘you’re not totally crap’. I built up a few more piano students, and was asked to offer voice training to the local church choir. All this assisted in building up my confidence again, also in my German, but mostly reinforced my belief that I was able to offer something musically. I sang at a few masses, and in a few concerts and slowly regained some confidence.
How do we juggle that inner student with the confidence to say “I have something to say with his music that’s worth listening to? I believe an awareness that we are no longer satisfied with an element of our sound production or portrayal should be cause to celebrate: it means that we are now able to demand that little bit more and that’s probably because we have mastered something else and our brain can now leave that to autopilot and look at another element!
So much preparation goes into learning new music but if we go too long without performing, the demons can start to rise up as the balance is off**. We are constantly shifting between being a student and being a performer. As soon as we can ally these together, we become far more engaging and playful. The options are then boundless
Create opportunities to perform, and set yourself short term goals that are realistic. Above all, accept that we are works in progress!!
**Timeout from performing due to health/rehabilitation can be necessary and is a very different thing.