How to be happy - a Valentine for you!

Valentine's day can be soooooooo annoying for those people who are single, and I certainly remember from my years of singledom how it could seem cloying and depressing if you thought too much about it. So I say, let's hijack the holiday and make it about being nice and loving to everyone, not just a significant other. And in that vein, I want to send all of you a Valentine because if you're still reading my blog even now, when I only post something once every 42 years, you deserve a little love from me. 

I started reading a book this week called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Basically, she's a writer with a perfectly lovely life who realized that like many people, she could be much happier with the life she has. So she made a list of the ways in which she could improve her general feelings of well being, and began implementing them month by month, and documenting the experiment in a memoir. And since she is a freelance writer, a lot of the things that were tripping up her happiness were things I could relate to as a freelance musician, and I'm finding the book very uplifting. I like reading about her journey torwards improving how she feels day to day, one item at a time. 

I think a lot of us can easily feel upset and frustrated by life, even when our lives are pretty great when you judge them just based on the facts. We're doing something we really like, we have interesting people to meet along he way, we often have supportive friends and family (it's difficult to even get into this career if you haven't had at least somebody supportive in your path), and we always get to learn new things and grow as artists, and therefore as human beings. But we get so mired down in the difficult parts of what we do; the loneliness, the rejection, the lack of job security - that we tend to focus on that and let the great parts just pass us by un-noticed. And for that reason, I've made a list of how to "be happier" as an opera singer. I think it could apply to a lot of people, because I've learned a lot these past years of participating in this very unusual life, and think I have come up with a few solutions to at least look at. Not that I always do every one of these things mind you - we need to be reminded about this stuff constantly to make it stick. The list is as much for me as it is for you. So here goes:

How to be a Happier Opera Singer


1. Remember it's about the journey, not the destination.

This one is hard, because we need to be ambitious to make this career happen, and with ambition comes the need to think about where and what we should be doing to forward our careers. Plus,  because it is such a small world, it's easy to compare what other people are doing and think we don't measure up. But if our ultimate goal in life is actually to be happy (as opposed to being successful), then we have to remind ourselves that a specific job is not the thing that is going to make us happy. Often we strive for something, and when we obtain it we realize it comes mired with all kinds of stress, frustration, and pressure. So actually, the fancy job singing at Blahblah company isn't a THING that is meant to make you happy. The feeling of acheivement you get when you are hired might make you happy - but have you ever noticed that you can get that same feeling or endorphin when you accomplish something that seems to your mind far less "successful" like finally noticing that you know a whole role from memory, or helping a friend solve a problem? Not to mention the fact that often, a goal you think you really wanted - you NEEDED to be happy, but which you didn't acheive, will lead to something else even more exciting - either a chance to grow or even another opportunity that would have been missed had you been given the first one. The thing that seems to make human beings happy is the ability to grow and learn things, and whether or not you are super succesful or just making your way, this particular career path gives us ample opportunities to experience that feeling of growth and new knowledge.

2. Be kind to everyone you meet. Not fakey fakey nice, but genuine and kind.

This one is VERY hard for some people (I won't mention any names, but Jenny Rivera finds this really hard). We are soooooooooo stressed and worried and subject to our own moods, and we often get used to having our needs met because let's face it, singers often get very special treatment. Of course, that is certainly not always the case, and we've all spent our hours paying our dues singing 7 AM school shows, and riding on stinky buses and whatnot. But being nice is not only good for your career, it really does make you happier. I'm not talking about fake nice, pretending to smile and act all googly eyed, and then turning around and saying how much you hate someone. I mean, finding ways to be kind and to like all the people that you come into contact with. In my experience, a great deal of second engagements result from the people involved in the company liking you, not just as a singer, but often, more importantly, as a person. And have you ever noticed that when you are in a good mood, and you walk down the street and make eye contact and smile warmly at strangers, you feel really good? The thing that's difficult is that there are a multitude of very large personalitied people in this business, and sometimes you feel like they are working for the specific purpose of making your life difficult. I'm NOT saying to be a pushover to these people, but from my experience observing people who are very successful at dealing with difficult personalities, they are rarely mean. They are usually calm and kind, and they usually manage to get what they need. This is really a challenge for me; first of all I kind of look mean if I'm spaced out and my face just goes into a scowl. Second, I can get very defensive and hyper when I feel like there is an obstacle to what I'm trying to do. Third, I'm overly sensitive and impulsive. But despite all of that, I really like being nice to people, because it makes them feel good, and that makes me feel good. And when I'm feeling bad about myself, finding people to be nice to, no matter how much I have to push myself to do it in that moment, always helps me feel better. That doesn't mean you will become friends with everyone, just treat them with kindness and fairness as best you can.

3. If you feel helpless, DO SOMETHING! 

One of the worst feelings we all have in this business is helplessness. And it comes often in this line of work because you can sing like a god, and still not get hired, you can have the best year of your career and still have no jobs the following year, or you can give of yourself a million percent and there are still people who won't like it. Sometimes I get really down in the dumps because I don't feel successful enough, validated enough, busy enough, famous enough - you get the idea. And I can't call up Jimmy John, the GD of Blahblah A House and say "Okay, it's time you hired me already. I mean - everybody is asking me when you are going to. My friends think I'm totally good enough, so seriously, just stop dilly dallying and give everyone what they want." There is nothing you can do to get someone to hire you - you can't even just try to sing better, because that may not work anyway. But that doesn't mean there is nothing you can do to feel proactive and productive about yourself as an artist. You can sit down and make a list of all the roles you could possibly sing. You could work on your website (ahem, Rivera - I think she's talking to you, who hasn't updated her calendar in 3 years), you could get a group of other singers together and brainstorm about ways to be better artists, or ways to publicize yourself, you could write emails to people you really like in the business but haven't corresponded with in awhile, you could read a self help book about proactivity, you could organize a group of singers for a peer masterclass, you could learn a new song cycle, you could try to read a book in italian, you could make a list of every single opera company and symphony in america, you could just take a walk and listen to a fast Handel aria on your headphones (that always jazzes me up, but that may just be me), or you could make a list of goals, or of music you want to learn, or of people you want to work with, or of companies you think you should sing for. Or you could just old fashioned practice singing. I promise you that after you do a few of these things, you will be out of your funk, at least for the time being. 

4. Don't read bad reviews.

Just don't read them. Get someone you trust to just send you the good ones. I don't see any reason on earth to read things that one particular person writes about you that they don't like. Someone else could easily like the same thing that the first person hated. Record yourself singing or have someone who's opinion you trust come to the performance, but don't bother to read bad reviews. I see absolutely no purpose, and I don't think they are constructive because often the person has no idea what they are talking about. Now, if you do this, you can't really "believe" the good reviews - you can't use them as some kind of "get out of jail free" card to pretend like you are perfect all the time. But most singers I know are so furiously hard on themselves, they know exactly what they did wrong the instant the sound leaves their lips. They don't need a journalist to tell them. 

5. When you feel competitive with, or jealous of someone else, be supportive of them instead.

I know this one sounds a little cuckoo, and like it will backfire, but I firmly believe that it works to make you a happier person. Being able to admire people only makes you a more effective artist, and trying to undermine them either in your head or when you talk to other people doesn't make you look very confident and isn't very attractive. Plus it kind of eats away at your soul. Let's say you are singing a role, and your gorgeous young cover sings a rehearsal, and you hear her and you think "SHIT! She's really good! And young! And gorgeous! And now looking at her website I see that she has Blahblah job that I really wanted! ARRRRGGGHHHH!!" You are human - your first instinct will be to hate her guts. But like they tell you to do when you are trying to meditate, if you have a thought, label it, and let it go. And when you next see her, tell her how gorgeously she sang, and tell other people nice things too. This doesn't work if you're being fake. Don't go around telling people you think somebody is fabulous when you don't - that's very transparent in my opinion. Just accept that jealousy is natural, it's human, label it, and move on. Your journey is not hers and you wish her well on hers while you take yours. If you think that is too hoo ha for you, just try it next time it happens, and tell me it didn't make you happier than sitting there wishing you had a voodoo doll to stick with pins. As competitive as this world seems, nobody "takes away" anybody else's opportunity. That's just not how it works, even though our minds tell us it is. 

6. Deal with fear.

Here's my problem; I get terrible stagefright for certain performances. Not all of them, just certain things make me excrutiatingly nervous. How do I usually deal with it? Pretend like it's not there until it comes up and makes me utterly miserable. And because I don't get it before every performance, I'm particularly good at ignoring it until I feel like throwing up, and by then it's too late. And fear really can take the joy out of performing - BIG TIME. I have had more conversations with myself about other career possibilities when I've been nervous before a performance than at any other time in my life. Fear, and this includes both stage fright and fear of failing which causes you not to take risks either in performance or in life, is something that needs to be addressed. I can't offer you the ultimate solution to this because it's different for everyone - therapy, hypnosis, accupuncture, meditation, exercise, breathing, body work, and personal coaching are just some things that have been succesful for people I know. But deal with it - it's a really mean little thing that can make you hate something that should be joyous. 

7. Don't compare yourself to anyone else.

This kind of ties everything together. The journey, the competitiveness, the fear, the bad behavoir. Our natural tendency as humans is to measure ourselves by those around us. Some are worse about this than others, but singers are natural candidates for this because we are constantly auditioning against others, being compared to other singers, being asked to sound like other singers, being made to feel inferior to other singers when we're not working as much as them, etc ad infinitum. And it really doesn't help that our field is small enough that we can compare ourselves very specifically to very specific people, and decide immediately that we don't measure up. The humongous problem with this is that we really are all unique individuals, and you can't turn into a pineapple if you're a banana. So you are setting yourself up for failure and unhappiness if you begin to play the compare game. I am sitting here writing this blog post, not singing an aria at the Grammy's - but I can't make myself into a Joyce DiDonato pineapple no matter how hard I try. I am a banana, and some people really like bananas AND pineapples, and some people only like one or the other, and there's not way to combine the two because then you get a Tangelo and those things are just creepy. Better to stick with what you've got and make as many banana cream pies and banana breads as you possibly can. And while you're at it, admire yourself some pineapple and learn from her recipes as much as you can, because she sure can sing Non piu mesta like nobody's business! 

I wish you a very HAPPY Valentines day!!