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Finding Harmony in Struggle

By: Emily Gradowski, Voice, Piano & Mini Music Makers Instructor

As a classical vocalist and teacher, my musical journey has been filled with highs and lows, each contributing to my artistic outlook. Every artist goes through this cycle of successes and let downs– art is not always easy and the difficult moments are where we can choose to grow.

Let’s delve into the moments that I once labeled as failures. These valuable and sometimes uncomfortable lessons have shaped my perspective on music and life.

Embracing Failure

One shining moment of failure was when I was playing Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera. It was my first leading role, and we were going to perform in the United States and Germany. I memorized the role before rehearsals even started. However, the closer we came to the performance, the more I doubted whether I actually knew the music. I would run through the lyrics in my mind, panicking before the final dress rehearsals. It all came to a head during the first night of previews. The lights dimmed, the opening chords of “Pirate Jenny” sounded and then… nothing! No words, no sound, just me walking around the stage mumbling through something. Thankfully, I was able to sing the chorus, and the second verse was a triumph. Yet, there was no way the audience missed my initial flub– the embarrassment and shame was so profound. For years, I told people that I got the hiccups onstage and that’s why the first verse was nonexistent. But no… it was just me and my mind, I had gotten in my own way.

Looking back, it’s amazing I could sing the second half at all because I was so tense. My Alexander Technique teacher recently shared this pearl of wisdom, “your body always tells you the quality of your thoughts,” and mine was screaming “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE IF YOU FORGET THE WORDS!!!”  Of course my instrument did not work, because my body was literally protecting itself from death. It takes the fun out of performing. I needed to change my thought process. Instead of focusing on possibly making a mistake, “what if I focus on being calm before performances? “, “what if I trust my technique?”,  “what if I focus on how much joy being on stage brings me?”. Mistakes are opportunities to try something new. I realized wrong notes are simply “colors” and I actively practice making mistakes so that there are contingency plans in case something goes array during performances. I now view that moment as a stepping stone to success.

Confronting Stereotypes

As singers, we have to learn how to differentiate between constructive criticism and unhelpful feedback. Teachers and colleagues have told me “you are not a go-getter,” “you think too much,”and “you are too kind,”. The stereotype surrounding singers seems to be that we are mean, driven, and dumb. Let’s unpack this.

You are not a go-getter. Following the crowd has never been my strong suit and I hated the idea that success required that  I had to do certain things. I have succeeded in the opportunities that I have chose to go after. My life may not include world tours and the Metropolitan Opera House, but it does include working with some amazing musicians here in Baltimore. 

You think too much. I love using my imagination, deconstructing text, and visualizing how my voice works. Thinking is where the imagination creates art. Practicing and teaching become detective games. Negative overthinking is not helpful but imagining the creative prospects can only yield interesting results. Be open to all of the possibilities and trust your instincts. 

You are too kind.  Kindness should never be a negative trait. Being collaborative, adaptable to different personalities, and kind to yourself during the learning process makes the journey so much easier and more enjoyable.

People are allowed their opinions, but it does not make their statements true or binding. I find joy in working with musicians that I respect, creating fun and challenging environments for myself and my students, and reframing the perception of others. Each person is in charge of their own musical journey– no other opinion matters.

A Symphony of Self-Care

In moments of self-doubt, it became crucial to show up for myself. One of my teachers told me that I was competing against the great classical sopranos that came before me. Well… that wasn’t great advice. Mind you, these were women who had different instruments, more experience, and very different training. Whenever I didn’t meet their expectations, I would berate myself, spending hours at the piano, agonizing over phrases, repeating them over and over until my voice was raw– definitely not beneficial or helpful. All that happened is that I was vocally tired AND frustrated. I needed to find a healthier process. 

One of the best things I have discovered is the Alexander Technique, which emphasizes a focus on the self with questions like, “where does tension manifest in my body“, “how does it affect the quality of my breath“, and “why do my thoughts affect my ability to sing“. Remember that wisdom pearl? “Your body always tells you the quality of your thoughts”. If I’m nervous, angry, joyful, or in any other emotional state, my body is going to distinctly respond to each emotion. Negative emotions naturally cause the body to protect itself and singing becomes harder. Positive emotions make the body more relaxed and adaptable to creative impulses.

By constantly comparing my skills to the greatest classical singers, my only choice was to fail. Not only is my instrument completely different from theirs, but I have different strengths and goals. Changing the quality of my thoughts benefited my instrument. By acknowledging my vulnerabilities and actively addressing them, I cultivated a healthier mindset that enhanced my musical journey. Whether through mindfulness practices, seeking support from fellow musicians, or taking breaks to recharge, self-care is a necessity.

Lessons Learned

These moments of defeat, challenging pursuits, and self love have shaped my artistic journey. They have taught me resilience, the importance of self-care, and the transformative power of vulnerability and experimentation. Each hardship serves as an overture to growth, and through the ebbs and flows of challenges, we find the true beauty of our craft.

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