Happiness of an incompetent golfer

Here’s a link to a great post by Jan Capiński, who writes with courage and honesty about his current experiences as a young singer:

Jan Capiński: Singing made me unhappy

Most of us who are somewhere on the same road as Jan will recognise his experience and his feelings. I’d identify a couple of issues in particular with which I remember wrestling at a similar stage. Still do, in fact.

The problems of a hobby becoming a career. The distinction is that, as a hobby, the task serves you, and is enjoyable for its own sake; as a career, the quality of your work becomes the overwhelming factor. For example, I know I enjoy playing golf, as opposed to enjoying being good at playing golf, for the simple reason that I am utterly, laughably incompetent at playing golf. Since it’s a very occasional hobby for me, not one iota of my self-esteem is wrapped up in my golfing ability, and when I stride out purposefully in my sun visor and plus-fours, my expectation levels are near-zero. There must have been a time when I felt this way about singing. But once you’ve taken the decision to invest your life and your livelihood in a pursuit, things get far more complicated; to the extent that I could not honestly tell you whether I now enjoy singing for its own sake. I can tell you with absolute certainty that I don’t enjoy singing badly.

Jan also talks about the effects on a young singer of several years of receiving intensive coaching, training, teaching, criticism and advice. Eventually this becomes overwhelming, and you feel like you’re being asked to bend over in seven different directions at once, when all you want to do is stand up straight. I think it’s particularly hard for intelligent, analytical, polite singers…. in fact, if you’re wondering why many singers seem to be the opposite of these things, I would suggest that a pinch of the antithesis of each is necessary for retention of sanity, because (and here’s the bad news, Jan) this is one of the few aspects in which doing the job is not that dissimilar to the training.

If someone asked me to describe my job during the rehearsal process, I would say that I do a bit of singing and then 27 different people come up and give me notes on various aspects of what I just did; bear in mind that singing is an emotionally vulnerable experience, so this usually happens when I’m in the worst possible state of mind to receive any sort of input. (This is why the best coaches, directors etc will start with something positive – even if it’s just of the ‘darling that was marvellous’ variety – because if the first thing a singer hears in this state is negative, then they will automatically clamp up and be resistant to advice, and it takes a hell of a lot of energy and willpower to overcome that.)

What were the important realisations for me in the process of finding a way to deal with this?

Firstly, that I don’t have to follow all the advice I’m given. The wise young singer will certainly consider all the advice he is offered (he’s paying through the nose for it after all), but the simple logic of it is that, when two pieces of advice are contradictory, you eventually have to make a choice between them. Furthermore, part of the process of becoming a more experienced singer is developing the ability to identify good and bad advice – perhaps I should say useful and non-useful advice – more quickly. So, you’re free to accept or reject any advice you’re given – bearing in mind that some advice-givers will take rejection personally. You’re going to have to learn to live with that – ultimately you’re here to be fabulous, not make friends.

Secondly, that you can also choose when to receive that advice. Again, the best note-givers will ask you “Can I give you a few notes?” – to which you are perfectly entitled to reply “To be honest now isn’t a great time, could you give me five minutes?” (Or hours or days, although that’s less likely to work. And remember that you can’t postpone it indefinitely, unless you’re particularly cunning.)

Thirdly – and I think Jan has already reached this conclusion for himself – don’t be afraid to get off the conveyor belt for a bit. We’ve reached the stage with training singers in this country where you could easily follow a consecutive progression of undergrad (4 years) – postgrad (2 years) – opera course (2 years) – opera studio (1 year) – young artists’ programme (2 years). In fact, some young singers are now doing more than one young artists’ programme. Even with only one, that’s 11 years of continuous training, with all the jumping-through-hoops and box-ticking that involves. Seriously, this is no way to train an artist; at some point in the process, there has to be room to breathe, to experiment, to stand on your own two feet and find out who you are, and what you have to say. I did this myself, taking a break between conservatoire and opera studio. It made it trickier to get back on the conveyor belt when the time was right, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made: not only in terms of giving me the breathing space to get my head and heart in the right place, but it also meant that, when I did pick up my training again, I could do so with an enthusiasm and confidence which I’d found impossible to muster before.

I also know plenty of exceptionally talented singers who got off the conveyor belt and chose not to get back on, realising that there’s more to life than learning your next role or nervously reading last week’s reviews. That’s not a failure. No-one can tell you how long this journey is meant to last, nor whether or not you’re meant to change direction. Every so often I allow myself to consider what else I might do with the rest of my life – not because I’ve got any expectation of changing careers, but because unless you do that, you’re never fully committed to your current career. All of us could do with renewing our vows from time to time.

Jan’s doing all the right things – taking his time, listening to his gut feelings, and working out what it is that he, uniquely, has to offer the world – and what it has to offer him. In the long run, those are necessary factors to an artist’s success; more importantly, they are also crucial to his happiness and sanity.

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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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