The Compleat Singer
Let’s talk about the “complete singer”. During the first year of my Masters degree, we had the good fortune of attending a masterclass given by soprano Nicole Cabell. While there was a wealth of information disclosed to us from a technical and interpretive viewpoint, their discussion is outside of the scope of this article. Rather, I wanted to focus on a very important gem of wisdom that she imparted while addressing the singers who had gathered for the audition masterclass.
I am going to have to paraphrase her words, as unfortunately the recording of that masterclass that I made was lost in one of the many hard-drive crashes I have had over the years (from which I learned the lesson of keeping redundant backups in external drives), but Miss Cabell’s message was very straightforward: find something outside of singing that gives you both pleasure and meaning in your life.
This piece of advice and the reasoning that followed is something that isn’t heard often enough. Singers have a wealth of technical articles to turn to for questions about technique or research, and many a treatise has been written on style and interpretation, but hardly anyone touches upon the issue of psychological health for the singer.
Classical singers and those who specialize in opera especially have to be obsessive by necessity. It’s the quality that allows us to memorize a full opera while juggling a traditional nine-to-five job, that drives us to listen to recordings of our voice lessons while driving from point A to point B. It develops grit and resilience, we become devoted to our art.
And it is in that devotion that you can find a very thin edge- the danger of becoming nothing -but- a singer.
We have all heard stories about, or even met, singers who exist for no other purpose than to sing professionally. Every moment of their lives is geared towards that function, and even moments of leisure are directed towards advancing one aspect or another of their singer identity. They show a lack of interest in anything outside of singing, to the point of willfully ignoring other fields of classical music that do not intersect singing. They present themselves as singers to the rest of the world, even outside of the professional context.
There is also a very high probability that they show signs of great stress, sometimes even volatility or issues with stability- the so-called ‘Diva tantrums.’
Identity is a funny thing with us humans. It is said by some philosophers that a human being is a creature of self-made soul, and this is quite true: we become that upon which we focus. The danger that Ms. Cabell hinted at with her advice is the very real danger of an exclusionary nature.
Human beings by our psychology alone are meant to be multi-faceted individuals, and we thrive best when we cultivate a healthy balance between our interests. When we invest our entire identity in one single aspect of ourselves not only are we selling ourselves short to the world, but we are in many respects fracturing our own development. Never mind the additional fact that professional singing is, by itself, a high-stress field full of competition and a great deal of social anxiety- an identity based around this endeavor to the exclusion of everything else is a recipe for a life spent walking on eggshells around the world and the self.
And we also must consider another issue- that the voice is a perishable instrument with an unknown expiration date. A combination of good genes, good technique, and a good lifestyle may allow you to prolong the use of your voice professionally into old age- or you may find your instrument ruined or changed through illness or injury. Even the most stalwart technician runs the risk of incurring an injury, due to the fallible nature of human bodies. What, then, becomes of a life that heretofore had lived for nothing but to sing? The resulting scenario is not an uncommon one, where individuals who devoted all of their lives to their career find themselves floating aimlessly when they can no longer practice it. Depression and the feeling of being unmoored, uncertain about what to do next are but some of the reported symptoms.
So, not only does a person who lives as a singer to the exclusion of everything else experience a very stressful professional life, they also have a fairly miserable life after singing.
What’s a singer to do?
I have always held the belief that identity is defined not purely by what we choose to exclude from us, but also by what we choose to include. It is advisable that singers cultivate varying interests and fields of knowledge not solely for the sake of diversion, but also to have something into which one can seek refuge when our passions turn inward and begin to consume us instead of fueling us.
I am aware that some may find this position somewhat sacrilegious- as if I were advocating the abandonment of dedication and discipline, but nothing could be more distant from the truth. Rather, I am advocating that singers add multiple dimensions to their selves instead. Look for hobbies and past-times, but also look for disciplines and subjects that intersect with your passions. Explore them and be aware that you -can- be more than ‘just a singer.’ Take classes, join clubs, learn new skills outside of music, read books outside of your comfort zone. A general enrichment of your self will benefit you immensely, as it will expose you new people, new ideas and create more avenues for growth.
Yes, these experiences will help enhance your emotional range and your knowledge when exploring and portraying the different aspects of the human experience in your singing career… but most importantly, they will ground you and help you become a person of ever-expanding knowledge, a valuable acquaintance, and someone for whom life holds many different and fascinating pursuits.
P.S. The title of this article is inspired by an older English book titled “The Compleat Angler.” Older books are one of my personal passions outside of singing is an example of what I talk about in this article. Have fun with your own!