balance

It’s not even September and already I’m a little overwhelmed. I had a lovely, restorative vacation in Finland, but as soon as I got back home in early August, things cranked into high gear. I find myself, once again, actively seeking balance. 

First up after my holiday, I taught for a week at a festival in Budapest, during which time I bonded intensely with colleagues, introduced some lifelong choral singers to more sound than they knew they were capable of making, talked and taught nearly every moment until I had very little voice left, and then literally sang myself hoarse in an impassioned performance of the Brahms Requiem. In the middle of that week, I learned that I was invited to a series of intensive masterclasses on Strauss in Aldeburgh, so I somehow found a little extra time and vocal energy to begin rehearsing a program of songs and opera excerpts. Upon returning home, it took a full five days for my voice to get back to full strength, but in the meantime I had to be working these Strauss songs, so I spent many hours mouthing words, trying silently to memorize adjective endings, and occasionally daring to trace out the melody an octave down. I processed a huge amount of paper as I printed, bound, collated, ordered, retrieved from file boxes, taped and hole-punched all the scores I have to prepare for various fall programs. I spent a troubling morning translating Handel’s La Lucrezia, a solo cantata sung by Rome’s Lucretia just after being raped by Tarquinius up to the moment when she stabs herself in shame… a horribly intense 17 minutes of music and drama, one that I will perform in mid-September. Well before then, I have to get myself into and through her trauma and pain so that it doesn’t overwhelm me in the actual performance. In these weeks, I also caught up with friends, fielded scheduling emails and new job offers, sent out my own inquiries about other jobs, finally and with mixed feelings began to migrate my calendar from paper to digital (WE’LL SEE! not convinced yet), and read a book I’ve been anxiously awaiting (The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin–amazing). I took the train to Germany to see a very special performance, slept in a hostel, got up very early the next morning to get back on the train, went straight to the Hague for a slapdash recording of two fiendishly difficult Verdi arias, then headed to my yoga studio (named, appropriately enough, Balanzs) for my first shift as a “karma yogi”—otherwise known as someone who cleans the mats and the showers occasionally in exchange for free classes. Just when I thought things were settling down and I’d have some days to catch up on sleep, I got called—twice in 48 hours—to jump in for sick singers, first in a high-profile Carmina Burana in the Concertgebouw and then in a recital in a rural English church. Those gigs required numerous flights, train journeys, more hunts through my file boxes of music, last-minute rehearsals, confrontations of repertoire from my past that had been almost impossibly difficult last time I did it but is easier now, unexpectedly wonderful collaborations and new friendships, and days of fatigue afterwards when I couldn’t pick myself up off the couch.

Karma. Lucrezia. Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras. Hab’ mir’s gelobt. Sempre libera. Dulcissime.

Hard work is energizing, and it’s also depleting, which I noticed in Budapest when I had an unexpected moment of vulnerability. On my one evening off, I went with a colleague to one of the famous thermally heated pools in the city. After a soak in that steaming water, thick with mineral deposits that plumped up every strand of my hair, the stresses of the festival began to ease out of my muscles. After our dip, we walked together across a bridge over the Danube, found a touristy restaurant on a beautiful square, and talked over goulash and spaetzle about our lives. Somehow, while feeling soft and bathed and fed and happy, I found myself in tears as I related the story of the first person I fiercely loved. That was more than half my life ago, but apparently the memory is still very tender. It’s one I consciously keep alive somewhere deep inside me, although of course I don’t feel the same way about that particular person any more: because that intensity of feeling, that uniquely self-effacing soul-giving, with no irony and no detachment and no protection from hurt, is critically important for performers. I’ve remembered that feeling in performance, I’ve used the memory to bring tears on stage when I had to cry on command, and I’ve tried to hold on to details of that time—the responsiveness of every nerve, the shocking wakefulness, the sense that the whole thing could crash down around me at any moment (which it eventually did), the fear and the joy, the fixation on certain features, the stomach-churning violence of my sobs in a remote corner of a library on the afternoon when it all unraveled—to bring specificity and reality to my own characterizations, especially of young people in love. More generally, I try to bring that level of vulnerability to my musical work, although I can’t always–it’s destabilizing and takes courage, time, and preparation.

This job is a hard one, and everyone who sticks it out in music for a while starts to talk about how they lack balance. Being a professional musician is consistently vulnerable, it’s extremely hard work, the hours can be terrible, it will never be compensated appropriately. The rewards can be correspondingly high, which is why I’m still doing it. But the highs and the lows are so very extreme—and they don’t get much less extreme even as I get more successful and established. I’m lucky to have a partner who fully supports my work and my ambition and who knows that both euphoria and depression are part of the natural cycle of work. He’s seen me in low, low states where I wasn’t even sure I could keep putting myself at risk and failing; he took the one picture of me singing in Carnegie Hall that’s featured here on this website (shh, don’t tell Carnegie—very forbidden, although everyone does it). Even this season, I had both shocking highs (I have never had such success in competition as I had this year in Clermont-Ferrand, and it led to my biggest contracts ever) and shocking lows, including one of the most expensive and disappointing auditions in recent memory, which also resulted in having to find a quiet corner in a public place to sob silently. Most of the time, I don’t let a single audition rattle me so much–building up toughness and emotional resilience is just as important in this job as keeping your heart open, and I can usually laugh off the failures, take something useful from them, and carry right on. But this one, for some reason, hit me squarely between the eyes.

This in addition to all the normal highs and lows of performing and auditioning and working music and enduring frustration and memory slips and getting home from work well past midnight. This year, for the first time, I performed fully naked and performed a piece I wrote (both, it turns out, were scarier in the abstract than in the reality). I got closer to my quartet Damask than I ever have with almost any singing colleagues—we achieved beauty that I didn’t know was possible, and we hurt each other’s feelings, and we got startlingly honest about the deepest insecurities we all still hold about singing and life, and we spent many hours speechless with laughter over goat videos. I had lots of conversations with one of my most treasured pianist friends about the sometimes insurmountable difficulties of this job, and in the next hour we’d be sending each other clips of performances that left us breathless with satisfaction and renewed desire.

Yes, this job is an emotional roller coaster.

I’m looking ahead to one of my most exciting and busy seasons ever. I do feel truly lucky to count myself one of the few that makes a living with music. I know that, to achieve these blazing emotional highs that translate into a great experience for an audience, I have to let myself be this vulnerable, I have to relive that first heartbreak again and again, I have to do the tedious work memorizing German adjective endings so that they’re second nature in performance, I have to make a complete mental and vocal switch between different styles of music very quickly. I’m ready for all of it and I know I can do it. But I also think that I need to prioritize self-care a little more consciously this season than I have done before. Sleep (nighttime and daytime), physical activity, getting lost in absorbing novels, letting myself stare at the wall for occasional unproductive hours, taking the time to cook and feed myself well, spending quiet time with those I love—these are also vital, build up depleted energy, and induce their own flow states.

So much ink has been spilled over our collective search for balance. Two hundred years ago, people strove for virtue, patience, piety, or industriousness; now we strive for balance. Are we, as a society, experiencing greater levels of addiction and existential hopelessness than in the past? Or is it just that we no longer collectively see our problems as sins requiring repentance and redemption, but as departures from some idealized normal requiring intervention and treatment? I’m realizing that neither approach is actually helpful to me in analyzing the sore spots in my life and work. I don’t need to feel guilty about my struggles, and neither do I need to see them as pathologies that need correction. In yoga, “balance”—even the simple act of trying to stay standing—isn’t something static and peaceful and finished, it’s an ongoing effort. Supporting myself while standing on one leg means concentrating the gaze on a fixed point while the whole body engages, the legs become warm, the muscles start to shake after a while, and I wobble in and out of center; sometimes I touch a foot back down and take a breath and resume the pose; sometimes I ungracefully tip sideways. Sometimes I remember that more engagement of the abdomen or the glutes will take pressure off another muscle group, and thus find a bit more comfort in a held position; sometimes I sweat like mad while barely able to stay upright; most of the time I’m not thinking about where the effort lies, I’m just feeling it (which can be both good and bad). And yet to the outside eye, I probably look most of the time like I’m reasonably stable on my one leg—my balance is all right. And it gets better as I work at it.

So this season, I’ll try to embrace, rather than push away, the muscle spasms, the sweat, the occasional clumsiness—as well as the moments when I feel centered. Balance isn’t a lack of motion and effort, and it isn’t the absence of sin or abnormality or struggle. It’s an action, a process, a task that can’t be crossed off a list, and you have to let yourself wobble in order to build muscle. Off we go!