I began my music performance degree at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music when I was eighteen years old. During the three and a half years it took for me to complete my undergraduate studies in classical voice, it occasionally felt like I had made a turn onto a freeway where all the cars around me were speeding up, forcing me to do the same. There was a collective feeling of urgency in needing to establish a career as a solo singer, despite the fact that most of my cohort (myself included) had voices which were far from complete, in terms of vocal range, stamina, and power. We were passionate vocal students taking our first tentative steps into the world of professional performance, but instead of feeling excited for the all possibilities in my future, I felt slightly stricken and almost certain I was going about things the ‘wrong’ way.
The ‘standard’ path to becoming a professional opera singer can probably be described as such: study at a Conservatorium, complete an undergraduate degree and an Honours year, do as many eisteddfods, language coachings and acting coachings as possible, put yourself forward for as many scholarships and young artists programs and awards as possible, do as many shows as possible, go overseas, audition. Rinse and repeat. I became aware of this usual narrative during my first or second year of my degree, from observing Conservatorium alumni, attending concerts and of course, just talking to people.
The idea that every singer should try to force their life to follow the same pathway to becoming a professional performer has some obvious flaws. The main one is that every voice is different and will mature at its own pace. A role which is a satisfying but achievable challenge for one soprano at the age of 25, can be a strained and unhealthy experience for a different soprano at the age of 25. We are also all aware that random life events can completely change our well-laid plans, and that occasionally people unexpectedly fall into performance careers when they were on their way to becoming scientists or lawyers.
During my undergraduate degree, I started to feel the strain of constantly pushing myself to be the best singer I could possibly be. I knew I was incredibly passionate about singing and wanted to be on stage professionally, but I knew that I was passionate about other career prospects too.
I soon realised something- if I was burning out already in the safe harbour of uni, a place where nothing is really at stake (in the sense that no one is being paid and you are viewed as a developing student, not a professional), I could not handle the stress of a professional career unless I really changed my attitude. I didn’t want to burn out, because after all, there is no point reaching the Metropolitan Opera if you immediately have a nervous breakdown and never sing again. Performers are constantly riding a rollercoaster, one which peaks with thrilling moments of adrenaline and dramatically plummets during the quieter periods in their careers. A professional performance career will always involve heightened emotions and the possibility of mental strain and illness. You need to have strategies in place, ready and waiting, so you are not taken by surprise each time you feel anxious or depressed in the aftermath of an exhilarating show.
This realisation led me to take an extended break from singing, and spend my Honours year at university studying musicology. This was an incredible learning experience, as I wrote over 30,000 combined words of assessment over two semesters. I would love to return to singing in the future, but after three and a half years of it being such an intense focus in my life, it was a relief to devote my time to other skills.
The biggest tactic I have learnt from being in the situation of having many careers call my name, is deliberately not pushing a label on where I am at in my life. Whether I end up singing professionally, singing for fun, combining singing with other careers or not… Whatever happens, I am not forcing myself into a particular path. I am working on things which excite me, letting it happen and embracing the fact that I might end up experiencing quite a different career path than the one I first imagined for myself. I have learnt to sit with the discomfort of not knowing exactly how my career is going to look, or exactly how I am going to combine my skills.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I wrote the bulk of this article twelve months ago, before I had any inkling that I would create and edit an online music magazine after university. I have found it incredibly cathartic to embrace a ‘go with the flow’ attitude, and understand that things might happen at a completely different pace from what I originally imagined. If you are experiencing major doubts about your creative path, my biggest suggestion is to take things day by day. As scary as it might seem, try to grab the scary but exciting opportunities which come your way.