Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You could have been killed--or, worse, expelled!

Sometimes I wish I had a Time Turner.

For anyone who may have been living under a rock for the last ten or eleven years, a Time Turner is a device that looks like a tiny hourglass, and true to its name, it turns back time. Hermione Granger gets special permission to have one in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban so that she can take every possible class, even the ones that overlap. Study of Ancient Runes, Charms, Potions, Transfiguration, Arithmancy (did we ever even find out what that was?), and even Muggle Studies, which Ron points out is redundant since she's Muggle-born. Throughout the book, everybody wonders why she's so snappish and tired all the time, and then finally, when Dumbledore suggests using the Time Turner to save Sirius and Buckbeak the Hippogriff, the truth comes out. Hermione has, in effect, been adding hours to the day so that she can get more done and keep her reputation as the best student at Hogwarts.

When I was in college, I certainly felt like I could use a Time Turner when two classes I wanted to take conflicted--if only I could have turned back time right after that pesky Microeconomics class and gone to Topics in 19th Century Music instead! Or when I had done something stupid, like take Ibuprofen for cramps, then had a coaching and a full music run of The Merry Widow. In retrospect, that's a day I would have liked to do over.

But now that I've graduated, a Time Turner would be even more helpful. With one nearly-full-time job and another part-time job, my time to practice, exercise, clean, do laundry, and have a social life is strictly limited. How does anybody maintain their focus on becoming an opera singer--not to mention apply to grad school and put together a senior recital--with so little time and energy to put into it? What I'd love to do is go to work, then turn my little hourglass seven times and start the day over. First I'd go back to bed. Then I'd go to the gym, or out for a run. And then I'd head to a practice room and sing. I'd probably need a nap after that, but I'd have made money, exercised, and practiced my craft. It would be amazing to be that productive.

Instead, I come home from work, try to practice, find that my cords are still swollen from lunch with a friend and a long practice session on Sunday, go shopping (the Gap, buy-one-get-one-free on shirts), eat dinner, then go to my second job for three hours in the evening (where I am sitting as I type this). By the time I get home, around 9 or 9:30 PM, I won't have accomplished anything I meant to accomplish today. Where is my drive? Where is the spark that keeps me motivated?

Here's what I've concluded--and actually, it's what Hermione concludes too. It's okay not to do everything every day. For me, especially with my sensitive vocal cords three months post-surgery, it's actually imperative that I give myself permission not to sing if it's not feeling great, or if I'm just not feeling the joy that I should be feeling. I need to remind myself, in today's case, that I worked on memorizing some Czech pieces on the bus this morning and some French pieces while waiting for the bus outside Starbucks this afternoon. I was productive in the only way I had the time and energy to be productive. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is take a break. At the end of the book, when Harry, Hermione and Ron are inevitably sitting on the grass and enjoying their post-exams leisure, Hermione tells her friends that she's dropped Muggle Studies and Divination in order to take a normal courseload the next year, and to focus on things she loves, like Arithmancy and Ancient Runes (courses that Rowling seems to have made up for Hermione to take, since there's no textual evidence that anybody else took them).

Last year, Denyce Graves came to my university to give a master class. During the question and answer session, somebody asked her what the biggest challenge of her career had been, and she told a great story that I've often thought about since. While Ms. Graves was finishing her masters degree, she encountered health problems that seriously impaired her singing voice. She eventually recovered her physical health, but her confidence was shattered, and she spent two years working in a hospital in an administrative position. She said that periodically, somebody from the Houston Grand Opera young artist program would call her and invite her to audition, but she had decided against becoming an opera singer. Finally one of her co-workers convinced her to go to the audition. She had barely sung at all in two years, but she said it was the best audition she ever had, and she was accepted into the program. The rest, as they say, is history, and if there's better evidence that breaks are good, I've yet to hear about it.

But most importantly, we need to give ourselves permission not to be perfect. We need to accept that we're going to have off days where not only will we not want to sing, but it will probably be better for our vocal health if we take a breather. Some auditions will be great, some will be not so great, but everything is valuable. If I remember correctly Prisoner of Azkaban is the book where Hermione doesn't get a perfect score on the Defense Againt the Dark Arts exam; in fact, for the first and only time, Harry beats her in an exam. And that's okay. Losing a couple of points didn't make her any less brilliant--she's only human.

I've always thought that after that insane third year, Hermione relaxes a little, at least academically. In Year Four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she has a romance with Viktor Krum and goes on a crusade against the exploitation of house elves. We see that she has interests that aren't academic, and we like her a lot better for it because it makes her more like a normal person, more like us. As singers, we need occasionally to find fulfillment in something that isn't singing, or we'll go crazy. One of my closest friends finds it in Hitchcock and cowboy movies, and in cooking for her friends; for me, it's zumba, volleyball and epistolary novels about 18th-century English wizards that read like J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen had a biologically-impossible baby (I'm referring to Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer--delightful!). And this advice isn't only good for singers, but for anybody pursuing a career in anything at all.

So if you take anything away from yet another long and rambling entry that cleverly combines pop culture with life lessons, let it be this: give your mind and body a break from singing--or Ancient Runes, if that's what you're into--and relax.

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