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Success: 3 Lessons I Learned as a Freelance Opera Singer

musicI 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.”

That’s ridiculous.

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’:

  1. What are three things that tend to slip through the cracks in my weekly schedule?
  2. Am I willing to schedule them ahead of everything else this week
  3. 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:

  1. Wide-Eyed Wonderers
  2. Loud-Mouthed Know-It-Alls
  3. 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?

  1. success: from the Latin succedo – to climb or ascend (WordSense.eu)
  2. success: the achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted (TheFreeDictionary.com)
  3. success: the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame (Merriam-Webster.com)
  4. 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.

About Tina Lovejoy

Tina Lovejoy eats, sleeps and breathes creative roadblocks. She writes about them at RoadBanter.com. (And every so often between freelance writing at the kitchen table and singing opera in her living room, she growls back at her Welsh Terrier, Tchaikovsky).

33 thoughts on “Success: 3 Lessons I Learned as a Freelance Opera Singer

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Tina. The power of being locked into what it seems you are “supposed to do” takes a great deal of courage to overcome. There are several ingredients that are present in your journey and in mine. The first is a significant investment in preparing for a very specific career. In my case it was five years pursuing a PhD in accounting followed by years struggling as a professor.

    Then others expect you to continue, especially your family who supported you through that preparation. Finally, if there isn’t something similar that you can easily transition out of what you don’t want to do any more, the trap is complete.

    Thanks again for a great article.

    • Well said, Dan. You’re so right – the more time, energy and money you’ve invested, the harder it is to take a step back and reevaluate.

      Thank you for sharing a bit about your own experience with this.

  2. Great post and very shrewd observations about “wide-eyed wonderers” and “calm assured ones.” Although I sometimes feel like a wide-eyed wonder, I try to act like the calm assured one. I too am repelled by the loud-mouthed know-it alls and do everything I can to not be in their vicinity.

  3. What a fantastic post. I completely connect with the idea that we are so busy going after the thing that we have supposedly worked so hard to achieve, we forget to actually ask ourselves if we really want that thing anymore.

    I certainly recognise the self-sabotage that crept into my own actions in the past.

    I am still working towards figuring out exactly what my path to enjoyment and fufilment is.

    I look forward to discovering what my own definition of success is.

    Thank you for this motivational and though provoking piece Tiana 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing, Victoria.

      The fact that you notice where you’ve self-sabotaged in the past means you’re that much further along.

      I wish you bundles of true success!

  4. Tina, that post just spoke to me this morning. How many of us see ourselves in the offline goals or the borrowing of others’ dreams instead of going for our own. And your points are right on the money. Excuse me, the mark. Money isn’t everything.
    As a writer, I’ve had to learn to dig deep and find my own dream, my personal satisfying methods, and my unique way to write the stories important to me. Did you see all the me words in that sentence? They represent my transition from successful teacher, wife, mother, volunteer, to successful pursuer of my own dreams. You can see why your story resonates with me. Thank you for putting it so well! http://www.elainecougler.com, author of The Loyalist’s Wife (June, 2013)

  5. Great post Tina! I thought it to be very eye opening to the fact that sometimes we’re so stuck on one idea of what success is that it takes control of our lives.

    I’m still trying to figure that out myself, since there’s so many things I love doing, it’s been hard to focus on the one thing that I truly enjoy. But, I think I’m slowly getting there.

    That is very true that sometimes our real dreams aren’t exactly what we planned or thought they’d be after all. Sometimes they’re waiting to be discovered hiding somewhere within that old dream. Thanks for sharing such an inspirational post!

  6. I picked a great day to try and stay on top of my email. I can relate about putting our dream on hold for a new interest. My problem is that I lie to myself saying the old one isn’t far away which is true. Except I’m window shopping.

    • Interesting take on this, Raheem.

      Even “window shopping” can help clarify things, if you let it. The things we keep coming back to (or keep running from) are often unresolved areas for us.

  7. Tina, an amazing post that confirms my morning reflections. I’ve too long self-sabotaged myself into the Wonderers category. Thanks to this post I can step into Calm Assured and continue to grow. I pray I avoid ever becoming a Loud Mouth.

  8. Hi, Tina. A world of wisdom in your post. Allow me, however, to play the devil’s advocate with you. It seems to me you can’t know anything without first going through the education process. I think our success is based much on learning what we do not want. If only we could conclude this in advance. At any rate, your point is well-taken and I do hope someone can project it onto the scheme of her life. Thank you. Continued joy!

  9. Really enjoyed your post Tina! A few moments I thought I could apply this to dating lol!
    Your lesson 3 really sang out to me. We succeed every day, unfortunately we allow our failures to scream at us and we don’t acknowledge our accomplishments.
    Thank you!

    • Thanks, Christine!

      Love how you relate this to dating – indeed! 🙂

      “We succeed every day, unfortunately we allow our failures to scream at us . . .” – so true!

  10. Though I can’t sing my way out of a paper bag, I completely relate to your experience of pursuing a goal based on an outmoded definition of success. Like you, I’ve been ridiculously pursuing my old definition–the one my ego and pocketbook prefer. This is a transition year for me, though. By this time next year, I hope I can say I’ve moved on and am successful in a whole new way. Thanks for sharing your story and insights.

  11. I concur what Ray said. We need to experience some things to know it’s not for us.
    I’m going through my own transformation, so I deeply relate to your story Tina. For example I know I don’t want to work 9 to 5 till the rest of my life. Not because it is tough and I am not free (both true), but because I can’t progress and serve in my job as much as I want.
    Defining your own success is a vague pursuit. The ready definitions given from the outside are so tempting (become a millionaire, get 100k subscribers, win the contest).
    There are always doubts on your own path: is it really for me? am I not crazy or arrogant to dream so hugely?
    Tenacity… I use the word perseverance in the same meainig. Nothing can be achieved without it.
    You must perserve long enough to start getting the confirmatory feedback.
    I published my first work 6 months ago and only at this month my sales surges, I received first nonpartisan, positive review and some cheering up feedback from my readers.

  12. Congratulations on your first published work, Michal!

    What an exciting season for you! Sounds like the tenacity and perseverance you mentioned are already coming in handy.

    Here’s to your continued success as you resist “definitions given from the outside”.

  13. Pingback: roadbanter — Weekend Watch: Guest Post at Firepole Marketing
  14. Great post, Tina! Just what I needed to ‘hear’ this morning as I sit at my desk at a job I’ve had for 20 years but never really wanted. I decided while driving to work this morning that I was turning in my resignation at the end of the year. This helped me confirm my decision.
    Regards,
    Candy

  15. Tina, such a wonderful piece you got here. Your story is inspirational and there’s a great lesson behind it too. I too, was in a similar position, dreaming of something and when I got it, the passion just declined. I didn’t know if I was just challenged or I wanted the thrill. And that’s so true too, not having a job gave me relief because I can spend time with the family. But the thing I have to agree with you most is finding that dream behind the false dream. It took me a while to realize what I really wanted and now that I have, I couldn’t be happier.

    I hope more people can read this post, be inspired and have their eyes opened as well.

    • It’s wonderful to hear your story, Azalea.

      You bring up an excellent point – it’s so tempting to pursue a dream just for the ‘challenge’ or ‘thrill’ of it. There’s a lot to be learned even in that, but when we refuse to be honest with ourselves about our motive, things can become a mess.

      How beautiful to hear that you’ve found true happiness. Continued blessings to you!

  16. For all the stress it creates in my life, it’s hard to think about giving up performing. And for as much joy as teaching brings me, there are those transcendental moments on the performance stage that can’t be matched by anything else.

    But then there is ego, which drives one as if by its own mind. Those flawed audition attempts, those years buried in the second violin section do take a toll on your self image, and the ego is the first to point your shortcomings.

    It really would be good if the world were only about the music, and “success” could be found only in the artistry. But that’s not the real world. Sorting through all of that, staying “calm and assured” is a worthy ideal in itself.

    Beautifully written post from the heart; thank you for sharing it!

    • My pleasure, Bill!

      Thanks for sharing about your own experiences. One thing I know for certain, sorting through all of this can make one’s artistry that much better.

      Keep on!

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