When I graduated high school, a family friend gave me a framed Agnes de Mille quote. “To perform is to be outside yourself,” it reads. “Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, this is glory on earth.” She gave this to me having watched me tap into that power, as a bright kid onstage. I imagine she hoped I’d hold tightly to the vision of those words as I moved into formal studies as a singer.
I was a tenor for years prior to becoming a countertenor. Near the end of that time, I gave a performance of Messiah that nearly made me stop singing. I cracked several times, and each one spiraled my anxiety further. Part of the way through an aria, the conductor looked at me, ran a hand gingerly across his throat and rocked his head from side to side, fluttering his eyes closed and grinning. Just relax, he advised without words.
The craft of singing is a murky, deeply individualized combination of doing and not-doing, a cocktail of will and abandon. There is a popular myth, favored mostly by non-singers, that anyone good at singing simply possesses a gift. The reality, of course, is that even with giftedness, developing a technique takes an enormous amount of physical work for the majority of singers.
Predictably, the conductor’s antics made things worse. He knows, I thought. I’m disappointing him, and everyone. Let alone the fact that simply relaxing is not a sufficient solution when a young tenor is flopping, what this conductor communicated turned me against myself and, specifically, my body. I knew how I wanted to sound. I was as knowledgeable and prepared as I could have been, which felt like it butted up against the reality of what I could do.
I remember this story because it neatly defines how I had come to think of singing through college. I regarded it as a series of battles against the expectations of others. Inside each battle, I felt my body was my primary obstacle.
I made it the enemy. I could always place blame on some part of my physical self, believing that if I could just breathe right it would work; if I could just release my tongue; if I could relax the back of my stupid neck; if I could keep my ribs from collapsing, damn it; if I could lighten through the passaggio like so and so could. If I just looked more "masculine." If, if, if... I believed I knew all of the solutions, but lacked a body capable of realizing them.
An extension of the myth of natural giftedness that some coaches and teachers love to parrot to young singers with technical problems is the notion that one's singing will simply improve with age. On more than one occasion, mentors suggested to me that if I just kept doing what I was doing, kept biding my time and “eating repertoire,” the vocal challenges I was experiencing would fade. There is truth in this idea, but its usefulness is limited when it isn’t paired with actionable, physical guidance. But I also believe it puts many singers at a disadvantage if — like me — they believe their bodies to be failing them.
The kernel of truth inside of this suggestion, however, is that the body develops over time and learns in a way the mind cannot govern.
To be sure, my body has been through a lot. In addition to these ideas I've held against it, it has also learned behavior as a reaction to being hurt by others. It resists through silence, or through making itself small. Downcast eyes during the aria. Shrunken shoulders, shallow breath, wavering balance between the feet.
My body has learned these things and adapted as a reaction to fear. But as much as the body can be the site of trauma, it can be a site of healing.
The most significant difference in my approach to singing now from when I was in the university system is that I have begun to partner with my body. I have begun to observe it and care for it, listening to its patterns and showing it grace; letting it take over and trusting what it is capable of once I’ve done what is needed to prepare it. I am learning to search for balance inside of contradictions, peace inside of discomfort. I pay attention when it struggles rather than berating it, or believing time will simply sew its seams together. I know I have work to do, but I also know if I cannot relate peacefully to my body, my diligence can only inflict further harm.
One of the things I most cherish about opera is the energy of bodies in space. I cherish how one person can stand on a stage with nothing but themselves and give the impression that all of the light and color around them, all of the sounds of the orchestra are coming from their body. Outside themselves. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.
The only way to be outside the self is to be in the body first. What prevented me from retracing my steps to the transformative state Agnes de Mille wrote about — of ecstatic release and divine empowerment — was hungering constantly for the validation of others while believing my body would never deserve it. But I am not at odds with myself, and the only body I have is this one. And it is a miracle. It can do miraculous things if I show it patience and care, and learn to get out of its way.