I’m reading “Foreign Parts,” Sir Thomas Allen’s memoir, which I ordered after an inspiring week working with him and watching him teach masterclasses at Songfest. Sir Tom, as we were all calling him by the end of the week, is a charismatic teacher and a sublimely lovely, fiercely funny singing actor himself, of course. But getting to know him and hear him give advice, what I found most inspiring was his clear, lifelong commitment to a deep work process. Now over 70, he had recently performed a run of Winterreise recitals–a piece he had gotten to know and perform as a young man. But for this series, he spent an hour every day, for a full year beforehand, reading and chewing over the texts. On a piece he had performed before. Every day, for a year. While teaching, he could, without being at all cruel, make you thoroughly understand that memorizing the notes and rhythms and giving a reasonably assured performance was nowhere close to enough preparation–and he made you want to find out how far you could really go. I got to coach a little bit of Countess with him, and he gave me a big compliment when he said he could tell that I was the sort of person who “does the work.” That’s certainly what I always aspire to be, and I do care very much about my level of preparation; I feel best when I have truly taken this kind of time on a piece. I’m still smiling when I think of this comment from him, and since then I’ve been trying, in my approach to preparation, to live up to it, and to remember that that’s always the goal.
But as I read his memoir, I’m struck with the difference between his life as a performer and mine so far. The memoir focuses on the year 1991, when he was 47. He starts the year in Salzburg, rehearsing for a Nozze di Figaro. He rents a house and a car for six weeks, taking gorgeous day trips through the countryside on days off. The week before the premiere stretches out excruciatingly as nerves build among the cast. At the premiere, he notices the glamorous attire and jewels of the audience. After that first performance, he can relax into the music and enjoy himself more, reveling in this terrifically drawn character in a near-perfect opera. Between shows, he squeezes in a visit back to London, where he catches up with friends, repacks his suitcase, sees a wonderful film. When the run is over, everyone packs off to their next gig; he flies straight away to Texas for a Don Giovanni, and the process starts again.
That’s six weeks to focus on one piece. Of course he has time within those weeks to think about music for future gigs, have meetings, make longer-term plans. But I can’t remember the last time I was so focused on one piece, or one program, for so many days at a time. So far, my life as a performer has been characterized by constant movement, busy-ness, trying to enforce a daily routine of practice, administration, home life (or travel), non-vocal musical preparation (like reading through song texts), plus whatever rehearsals and meetings I might have. Even when I’ve had an extended rehearsal or performance process, I’ve had other projects on my mind simultaneously (usually projects that I’m curating or planning as well as performing), so I’ve always needed to carve out time on rehearsal days to practice something else, juggle performance order, chase down presenters, or learn some words. In a given week, I’m likely to be working on music of fifteen different composers, rather than one or two.
This is by design, to a point–so far in my professional life I’ve resisted specialization, and my musical diet remains delightfully varied. I love getting to stay in touch with many different musical worlds, as I truly don’t know how I would choose between different styles and composers if I were forced to. BUT. This has also meant that I don’t often have the time and concentration that I’d like on every project, because there’s always something else on my to-do list. It also means that I don’t yet have a manager–I’m never in one place long enough for an agent (with a specialty in opera, or in chamber music, or in oratorio) to see my work over a series of projects in a single city or genre. I’ve been my own manager so far, which is yet another big job to add to the list of jobs I need to keep going all the time, which again reduces my time to settle, gorgeously, into the kind of work Sir Tom describes.
(Side note, from when I’m further along in the book: Sir Tom multitasks, too. He worked incredibly hard and densely on lots of repertoire simultaneously for years. No one gets a free pass! Leisurely work periods are the exception, I guess, even when you’re at his level.)
I’m proud of the fact that I’m working, that I’ve been solely supporting two people for several years on a singer’s earnings, and that I’ve been able to get as far as I have based on my own “manager”-like work for myself. I’m proud of where I’ve sung and the level I’ve sometimes reached, and I’m proud that, despite what sometimes feels like my scattered concentration, I can always show up for work (or for coachings with someone like Sir Tom) feeling ready and appearing plugged-in and prepared. But I’ve begun to feel in the last couple years that I can’t maintain this pace forever–and maybe I don’t want to. Maybe I would rather be renting a house in Austria and singing one piece for six weeks. Maybe I would rather be actually hired a year ahead of time for a big oratorio premiere, rather than jumping in for someone who’s ill and learning it in one frantic afternoon–and then maybe I would take less other work in the same period, make sure I was fresh and completely comfortable and prepared, and have a peaceful rehearsal process, even if that would mean a bit less variety.
My current pace of work takes its toll. Last year I was busier than I’ve ever been, I think, and I was also sick more often, and cranky more often, and occasionally short with my partner and my colleagues. I could hardly contribute to normal house maintenance, and I had two or three (well-hidden) periods when I really felt like I was not going to manage to learn everything in time or work at an acceptable level. (I always did manage.) For a while, I’ve been looking forward to February 2017, when I knew I had a lower concentration of work that I could prepare more for; and yet, it’s now February and I’m still excoriating myself for being too tired at the end of a long rehearsal day to woodshed tough Mozart arias for an upcoming competition.
Moving forward, I think I do need to adopt Sir Tom’s mindset a little more. Maybe this means shifting my workload a little more toward opera, which simply requires a longer and deeper preparation period–I’m trying to do this a bit now. I want to take on a piece that’s so important that I need to work on it every day for a year–and I want to do that work. I want to spend more days off hiking and birdwatching (I do this more often when I travel, but not often when I’m at home). I want, when I’m in my 70s, to be able to help some smart, talented, and overscheduled young singer slow down and renew her love in the most important part of the work
Thanks for the inspiration (and the compliment), Sir Tom.
*about the photo: that’s a New Yorker hidden in my Nixon in China score, open to an article about people who talk to themselves that I was reading during rehearsal (ducks). I talk to myself constantly, and I’ve been caught at it a few times. Apparently it’s a very common way of bringing order to one’s thoughts! I feel validated and a little less weird.