Tag Archives: singing

A small town near my home.

German Schools

Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world. ―John Burroughs, Studies in Nature and Literature

I am feeling very grateful today that I grew up in the US, that there is the great college system and that my parents were able to finance my dream to study music. It was an amazing privilege that I didn’t recognize at the time but the contrast of how things work here in Germany is bringing into focus.

In Germany, most schooling is “free” including University. For college, you have to pay a nominal fee, somewhere around 500 Euro a year or semester but as a result the universities can be and are very choosy about who they take and who they don’t take. There is no such thing as elite university but there is a “numerus clausus”, which means you have to have a certain grade point average to study the most popular subjects. That is supposed to restrict the number of people who study subjects like law, medicine and psychology (which in some schools is a grade average actually higher than for medicine or law).

In the performing arts, there is an intense audition process where people get bounced out like at a Broadway Cattle Call. In music, you not only have to show your abilities in your instrument in an audition but also usually in piano and music theory. Regardless of how good your audition is, if your scores in the other tests are not high enough you are not considered. There are also very limited places available in each department because each teacher only has a few open spaces each year, especially since in Germany you can study as long as it takes. I met singers in my first summer in Germany who were in the mid-thirties and officially still considered university “students”, which means they were holding places in a teacher’s roster at a school although they were working professionally as singers. The best way – if not the only way – to get a place to study is to be studying with a teacher privately outside of the university so that they can fight for you with the audition committee.

As a result, only a chosen few are allowed to study music in Germany. That doesn’t mean that they are the best. A friend of mine was on a placement committee at her university and a singer made it into the school only because his teacher sat on the committee and insisted that he be taken although my friend thought he should take up plumbing. I taught a young singer with lots of promise and a great desire to be a singer, excellent piano skills and had been taking music theory classes for 3 years. We made a connection for her with the head of the voice department at the school where she wanted to study. She took a lesson with him. He promised he would fight for her. She didn’t get in. When she tried to contact him to find out what it was that she was missing – if for no other reason than to help her improve – he never responded to her inquiries. She was so devastated that she ended up choosing a totally different subject to study.

Another student of mine who was also promising left me to work privately with different teacher because that teacher as much as promised that she could get the student into the university where the teacher worked. That was important because this student didn’t have piano skills and had never had any music theory classes. I lost track of her and only recently found out that she didn’t get in to that school. According to social media, she doesn’t have a job, isn’t working on something else. Another sad case.

In the US, it is all about money – even more now than when I went to school -but at least there was a chance for someone coming from a middle class family and of course we took out loans. I don’t know if I would have been taken by an elite school like Julliard or Cincinnati but I never auditioned there because the tuition was way beyond my parent means. I had piano lesson but I wasn’t particularly good and the only music theory I had was in a self taught class in high school. But I skinned through the entrance exam and apparently showed enough promise at the audition to be accepted (funny enough I never considered any other possibility) and I was able to start the incredible journey that I have had. What a privilege. What would my life have been like if I had grown-up here? Amazing thought.

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Me as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung - one of my favorite Roles

Since I was 18

Sometimes I think it would be easier to avoid old age, to die young, but then you’d never complete your life, would you? You’d never wholly know you.
Marilyn Monroe

Since I was 18, I have been working to be a singer, working to be a better singer, working to learn repertoire, working to get ready for auditions, working to learn the roles I was hired to sing, working to learn the roles I would like to sing, trying to figure out how to get up to the next level of house and engagement, thinking of strategies, thinking of plans, thinking of timetables, thinking of how to get where I thought I wanted to go career-wise, thinking about how and what I would need and want to do when the call came. The dream to be on stage was a passion, an obsession. It was all I have ever wanted to do.

Now after 40 years, all that has stopped, suddenly, with a bang. No, not with a bang. Softly, quietly, unheard by the world. The judgment has come down. Somehow I have crossed over the line that says, “you are too old.” It’s my choice to accept that judgment or not, but there it is. The thing is, I also apparently have nerve damage in my face and neck that effects my ability to sing. All of this combined have come as a shock.

The thing is, in my head, I still feel like there has to be more time, that I am still learning, that there still has to be time to get this right, time to make up for all the mistakes, time to really show people what I can do. And now suddenly there is no time. I have hit the wall without seeing it coming or at least without wanting to see it come. Believing that my will and my desire were enough to break through any barrier that might come up, except perhaps the barriers in my own head that made me do all those stupid things over the years that held me back or stopped me in my tracks and kept me from being all that I knew was inside me.

It is a special pain, that pain that you feel when you look back on your life and you know that you could have done more, could have done better but that you didn’t for some ridiculous reason. A reason that at the time seemed unbelievably important, like there was no other choice. But you always have a choice and I have made mine in the past. Now I have to make another one. Let go. Or not.

I’m not sure I am ready for this but maybe you never are. It might have been different if I felt like I had made this decision for myself. Or maybe not. I never really thought about what I would do, what my life would be “after”. I was always working to keep working. My mother once asked me – at a time when I was especially struggling to find work – “What will you do if this doesn’t work out?” and I answered – ever the arrogant know-it-all that I am – “Work at McDonalds or something. What would it matter?” I don’t think that flipping burgers is what I will do. Hard to know at this point. At the moment I am just dealing with what is there.

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Fork in the Road

Forks in the Road

Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back – Robert Frost

I got started with this because I had been thinking of the forks in the road, the choices of my life and how they have formed “the path I’m on”. Deciding not to stay at a party after meeting someone with whom I felt like I had an immediate and deep connection. Deciding to keep a promise to a student which probably contributed to my not singing an important performance at my best. Choosing to speak my mind instead of keeping my mouth shut. I can’t say that I always chose “the road less traveled by” but the choices I made have made up my life.

Of all the things that seemed to offer themselves to me as possible professions when I was in high school, I chose singing without any idea of what I was getting myself into. I chose my undergrad school because a friend from high school was going there, it wasn’t that expensive and they took me. I never tried any of the big schools or conservatories. That all seemed out of the question for what reason I am not really sure. Somehow it turned out to be exactly the right to be for me I think. I chose the grad school I applied to – and I only applied to the one – because they didn’t require an oral exam to graduate – something I was sure I wouldn’t be able to do or at least that I was too lazy to consider. I “chose” to go to Washington, D.C. after grad school because my father was against me going to New York City. Six months after he died, I moved up there.

Not long after I moved to New York, it was suggested to me that I try getting a singing job in Germany. I resisted. After about 4-5 years, the suggestion came again. Again I resisted. It felt like failure, like Germany was second best. Then I got a job in Germany from an audition in New York. At that time, I was singing regionally in the States but not that often. While I was in Germany for the first contract, I did auditions and got a second contract for the next year. While I was there singing my first Senta in the Flying Dutchman, I did an audition and got another job singing Senta. Suddenly, being, living and singing in Germany didn’t feel like failure, it felt great! Living in New York City no longer felt like something I wanted to keep doing. Lucky for me my mother was in a financial position to help me and I moved to Germany. I was there illegally at least in part but I decided to settle in Gießen where I had sung twice already. The woman who was renting the apartment recognized me from the theater and made an exception with the formalities.

Was that a “choice”? What would have been different if I had gone to Germany the very first time it was suggested, or even the second? Would my singing career been the same or different? Would I have met my husband, who is German, or would I still be searching for the right person in my life? If I hadn’t met him, would I have done what a lot of other Americans I know have done, thrown in the towel and gone back?

At times in my life, I have felt impelled, pushed, driven but not like I was making a choice even though in reality I suppose I was. I just watched a video where a scientist explained that there is no “free will”, there is no “choice”. We are responding to signals that come from somewhere inside the brain. What they don’t explain is where do the signals come from? What generates them? Is that God? Is that the “Universe” telling us what to do? Somehow the “Universe” wanted me move to Germany and here I am almost 20 years later, married, owning a house, happy. I don’t regret any of it but what how would it have been different? What would have happened if…

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