Success: 3 Lessons I Learned as a Freelance Opera Singer
- Tina Lovejoy
I know how to be ridiculous.
I worked on five arias every day for six months to get ready for an audition with an opera company I didn’t want to sing for, only to stand backstage and tell myself, “Just get through this audition and you never have to do it again.”
I would ridicule myself into achieving something (namely, getting a gig with such-and-such opera company) so I could prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete screw-up. That old lie got tons of mileage in my life. Literally. I flew to Oregon, California, Idaho, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, and drove to Utah, New Mexico, Kansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana to try to achieve a measure of success I didn’t even care about.
Here are three lessons I learned from that time. Hopefully they can teach you (or someone you know and love) how to become successful.
LESSON 1: Just Because a Door is Open Doesn’t Mean You Have to Waltz Through It
During my first few auditions, I really wanted the contract. I wanted the work. Guess what? I got it. General Directors hired me and I delivered.
But after a few years of gigs, the thrill was gone. I hated to be gone from my family for months at a time. I started to have two minds about being a freelance singer. One side of me said, “This is what you’ve always wanted to do. You already put your dream on hold once before. You’ve built up momentum. Now’s the time to take advantage of that.” The other side of me said, “What’s the point in all of this? You travel only to try to get contracts you don’t even want.”
I was a conflicted mess. And it must’ve shown. I went from being hired in practically every audition I went to, to barely being able to get a gig every six months.
I was secretly satisfied. It meant I could stay home with my family, teach voice students, coach and write. It meant I had the time and energy to dream up new ideas.
But my ego was pissed. It would have nothing to do with peace and balance. If I didn’t achieve in outlandish ways, it had fewer bragging rights.
To appease my ego, and the lie that said I was nothing without larger-than-life achievements, I half-heartedly auditioned for four more years. I worked on music I loved but went to auditions I hated. It was exhausting.
“It’s really hard for most people to make money at their passion. For instance, if your passion is genetically modified food, then maybe you can make a living at it. If your passion is Star Trek, it might be a little harder. Unless you are writing the next movie.” ~James Altucher
Here’s what confused me: I did make money at my passion. Not a lot. But enough so I thought, “This must be what I’m supposed to do.”
But there’s nothing that says because something works for a season you have to keep doing it until you die.
It was clear that it was no longer working for me. But I refused to re-evaluate. It was too threatening. It also seemed stupid. So many singers wanted the opportunities I was getting. Wasn’t I a fool to turn them down?
LESSON 2: Tenacious Terriers Can Be Calm
We have a Welsh Terrier named Tchai. He’s devoted to a certain mangled red chew toy. Most toys Tchai comes in contact with are dismantled in less than three minutes. But for whatever reason, he protects this one. When he naps, it’s either under his chin or his leg. He keeps constant tabs on the whereabouts of this lump of chewy goodness.
I sometimes think Tchai should design a coaching course for freelancers. If we tended to our dreams as faithfully as that dog tends to his chew toy, we’d surely be reaping the rewards.
“The trick to creativity . . . is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.” ~Denise Shekerjian
A few questions to regularly ask yourself about tending to your ‘own peculiar talent’:
- What are three things that tend to slip through the cracks in my weekly schedule?
- Am I willing to schedule them ahead of everything else this week
- Is creating fresh momentum enough of an incentive for me to be tenacious about these this week?
Tenacity is most important in the tasks we least like to do. It’s often what determines whether or not we accomplish what we set out to do.
But Tchai has one glaring issue when it comes to caring for his toy. He growls. He’s territorial. He’s paranoid that someone will take it from him.
I watched an episode of The Dog Whisperer last week. (What’s up with all these dog analogies?) A woman needed help with her aggressive dog. She had no idea how to deal with it. Enter Cesar Millan. As anyone who watches the show knows, he gets even the most anxious dog to pay attention and calm down.
What’s his secret?
“It’s like being the cool kid in school. Everyone cares about him, but he doesn’t give anyone else the time of day. This just makes people want to be around him more.” ~Cesar Millan
He doesn’t plead with dogs to pay attention to him. He quietly owns his authority and dogs notice. It’s the same for us:
Only when we are willing to calmly own our own authority do we become authoritative.
At every audition and singing competition I ever went to, I’d watch people closely. There was a clear pattern. In every situation whether on the west coast, the east coast, the mid-west, or Europe, it was the same.
There are 3 types of freelance artists:
- Wide-Eyed Wonderers
- Loud-Mouthed Know-It-Alls
- Calm Assured Ones
Wide-Eyed Wonderers are in over their heads. They’re usually new to the scene and are overwhelmed by it all. They take in everything and haven’t sorted it all out yet. They eventually turn into either Loud-Mouthed Know-It-Alls or Calm Assured Ones.
Loud-Mouthed Know-It-Alls consider themselves experts. They tell you in the first five minutes where they’ve worked and who they’ve worked with. They drop names like crazy. After five minutes with them I search for the nearest corner so I can curl up, plug my ears and quietly hum “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” in order to get away from the slime of it all. Loud-Mouthed-Know-It-Alls have energy to spare. But it doesn’t mean they’re good at what they do. It just means they’re really, really pushy.
You know what I noticed over my years of freelance watching? The Loud-Mouthed Know-It-Alls didn’t get hired. Even if they had a decent singing voice and stage presence, they didn’t get the job. You know who did?
The Calm Assured Ones. They say what they need to say through their work. They don’t need to name drop. Their work speaks for them.
I know this personally as well. We often find ourselves trying on different personas until we finally decide to be who we truly are. I’ve played all three roles: Wide-Eyed Wonderer, Loud-Mouthed Know-It-All and Calm Assured One. I can say without fail:
I was only hired when I was The Calm Assured One.
The person who is able to do the job the best has the least need to over-promise or oversell themselves. They don’t need to. They know they can do the work. They know they’re willing to learn and grow. They know they have enough information to go on and are willing to gain more along the way.
They’re about the work itself, not what the work says about them.
Tenacity doesn’t mean you growl at people while you guard your favorite toy. It means you quietly put in the work every day. That builds calm confidence because you’ve developed your authority through consistent excellence. And no one can take that from you.
Lesson 3: You’ll Recognize Your Own Success When You’ve Defined It
I spent six years of my life chasing after something I didn’t want. I refused to live by my own definition of success because it seemed too simple. When I accomplished something of value, I didn’t feel like a success because I was living in opposition to what I really wanted.
How do you define success?
- success: from the Latin succedo – to climb or ascend (WordSense.eu)
- success: the achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted (TheFreeDictionary.com)
- success: the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame (Merriam-Webster.com)
- success: (your own definition)
Don’t allow your life to be hijacked by someone else’s definition of success. When you live with false ideals it creates constant stress and friction in your soul.
Maybe you’re living your definition of success. Maybe you’re running in the opposite direction.
One way to tell – if you continually get close to a goal and then it falls apart, you can be sure that self-sabotage is involved.
We often self-sabotage when we’re not whole-hearted about what we’re doing.
I took some time to write things down. “I love to sing.” “I hate to be away from my family.” “I don’t like how long I have to be away from them to fulfill one contract.” “I’m not enjoying this as much anymore.” “I like working with people one on one.” “I think I could be happy doing something else.”
To admit that I could be happy doing something else felt like betrayal of myself. It felt weak. It felt like a taste of death. In a way it was.
It was the death of a false definition of success that I’d lived with for years.
When I was trying to follow two different internal voices, it was chaos. When I finally chose one definition of success my energy was freed up to move in a singular direction.
BONUS – Lesson #4: Sometimes Your New True Dream is Buried Beneath Your Old False Dream
My new true dream grew out of my greatest blocks as a performer. The parts of me that seemed weak and that I wanted to hide have become my greatest tools as a teacher and coach. But I wouldn’t be working out of them if I would’ve refused to redefine success.
Some days I still act ridiculous.
Usually it’s when I let the old lie have a soapbox moment. But many days, I live a ridiculously successful life. I’m with my husband and daughters every day. I teach performers how to achieve their own versions of success. I write about what I’ve lived and what I’m learning. Those are all far from ridiculous.