Tap Break

“That sounded particularly enthusiastic.”

I’ve just hung up on a telephone conversation, and our Musical Director is commenting on my half of the dialogue, which he’s just overheard. I ask him to elaborate.

“You said, ‘Great, fantastic, good, good, great, yes that’s fine, lovely, fantastic, great, perfect, looking forward to it, thanks for letting me know.'”

Ignoring the inference that this level of sunny positivity is some sort of marked contrast to my usual rehearsal disposition, I consider whether my expressed enthusiasm had been sincere. I realise, to my surprise, that it had – the surprise being that the phone call had been from our Stage Manager informing me that I have a 90-minute tap-dancing lesson scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.

We’re currently halfway through the final workshops for John Metcalf’s new operatic adaptation of Under Milk Wood. As with the original play, dozens of characters are distributed amongst a small cast, and one of my roles is that of the dead sailor Dancing Williams. John’s take on the nickname is that the “Dancing” in question is of the tap variety, hence my project.

I was in a long-term relationship with a professional tap dancer for a few years, so I’ve seen a lot of tap dancing, but regrettably we never got around to actually teaching me any. And I’m not a great one for trying new things, so I’m a bit taken aback by my seemingly genuine delight at the prospect of an hour and a half of shuffles, shim-shams, Maxie Fords and Suzie Qs tomorrow. My enjoyment of it, as far as I can tell, is that I’ll be engaged in the rehearsal process, which I love, but without that pressure, internally- and externally-imposed, of my self-esteem and professional worth being tied up in the results. In other words, however useless I am tomorrow, it won’t mean I’m a bad singer, just a bad tap dancer – which I’m perfectly comfortable with.

Singing was my hobby up to the age of 24, and not a day goes by when I don’t remind myself of how fortunate I am to be doing something I love for a living. I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years considering what the definitive distinction is between an amateur (or semi-professional) artist and a professional. You can’t convincingly argue that it’s talent, ability or quality of end result, since many amateur performers surpass many professionals in those respects. Even if you define it as commitment and sacrifice, there are still instances where an exceptionally serious amateur may have given, and given up, as much if not more than some professionals.

The best I can come up with is that when you turn professional you put your whole identity, being and sense of self-worth into the hands of a mistress who treats your fragile heart with frequent caprice and sometimes downright cruelty. This is a profession where, by necessity, we are judged on a daily basis; sometimes, if we’re fortunate, with sympathy and compassion, but also often with cold and abrupt harshness. If some singers develop elaborate defence mechanisms and hard outer shells, that’s only to be expected as a survival strategy.

What’s crucial though is that we manage to retain what it is that those defence mechanisms are designed or evolve to protect – the sensitive inner soul of an artist, the bravery to throw ourselves at a new task and to risk embarrassment, failure and rejection in the pursuit of something true and beautiful.

That’s why I’m cradling my new pair of tap shoes, and am about to step through my Suzie Qs ready for tomorrow.

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About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
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