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Confessions of a Young Singer


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Saint Paul Sunday Associate Producer Leslie Crane offers a humorous counterpoint to the young singer's life in this essay, written from the perspective of her roles as a singer and voice teacher.

When I was 14 years old, I decided to be an opera singer. I remember the day and time. It was a Tuesday, after my third voice lesson. I'd been working on my solo for contest (Franz Joseph Haydn's song "My Mother Bids Me Bind My Hair") and the lesson had gone well. I'd discovered I could sing, really sing, when I put my mind to it, and I figured the way to do the best possible singing was to study opera and classical song and get really good at it. It seemed easy enough.

Nowadays, 20 years later, I'm teaching singing to 14-year-olds, and when one tells me she wants to be a professional singer I tell her it's time to have a talk. The decision to be a singer is easy; the doing is very hard. Very, very hard.

Getting paid work when you are trained as a classical singer is tough; it's even tougher to explain to your "normal" family and friends exactly what you are doing with your life and why.

My first paid singing gig after college was with a singing telegram company. My first assignment: to visit a young woman at work, sing her an aria, and present her with a dinner invitation from an admirer. I showed up at the proper time, I sang "Musetta's Waltz," the invitation was offered, and my audience of one responded with such a look of horror and revulsion I knew this was my last singing telegram. I quit that job the next day.

Later I learned that this woman had recently become engaged to another man, so the dinner invitation was badly timed—but I knew that I would never risk that kind of reaction to my singing again. My skin was not thick enough. (My first warning!)

This was quite a heavy dose of reality after the safe and nurturing environment of college. There I did recitals, opera roles, apprenticeships, contests, choir concerts, big solos and tours, I was appreciated and respected and thought talented—all wonderful—but it didn't last after graduation. I needed to try to earn back this feeling of musical worth.

A better way to earn money and recognition through classical singing, for me, was to enter organized competitions. I had a terrific voice teacher who did wonders for my singing and for my career, such as it was. I did many contests the year after I graduated from college, and I was able to pull in some tidy winnings. Almost enough to pay the accompanist with whom I worked to prepare for the competitions! But the experience of singing and competing was worth every penny I won and lost. We all want and need, as it says in the Messiah, "to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing," and for a vulnerable singer, contest judges and audience members can give these to us.

My path led me directly to graduate school for more experience. I got my master's and most of my doctorate, and along the way I did more recitals, opera roles, concerts and competitions. I was a TA in the voice department. I did pretty well for myself. "Ah-HA," I thought. "I needed to find out how much I truly love singing, and how hard I am willing to work for it. Now I am ready for a career." And it is true—you must really and truly love singing, you must be unable to live without doing it every day, and you must work very hard at it daily for hours at a time. One other thing you must have: a wonderful, thrilling voice.

I sang my heart out for years. This is just what you do, and it's hard to explain to your parents who had hoped you'd go into advertising. I took every role or concert that was offered, and I did voice-overs and demo recordings. I played Little Red Riding Hood for school children in the morning, and Adina in Donizetti's Elixir of Love at night. I sang for retirees in an assisted living apartment complex and then flew to Milwaukee for an engagement in Handel's Messiah. I was the Voice of the Essence of Underwear (really!) and recorded an opera so awful and strange that even the composer did not know I was making up most of the notes in my part. I did the Met auditions. I went to New York for competitions. I auditioned for opera companies. I kept thinking my time would come. And throughout all of this, of course, there was teaching.

I had a full studio of young students. And then the learning for me finally began. For most of these kids, I had to start literally from scratch. How to make sound on a pitch, how to take in breath, how to make sense out of those little golf clubs lined up on the page of music, how to pronounce a word in Italian .... So many of my students came to me with their musical credos identified:

"I want to sing like Mariah Carey ..."

"I go to an Arts High School, and I'm in the writing program, but most of my friends are in music, and I want to be with them. I figured I'd take a few lessons and switch."

"My choir teacher told me I have a terrible voice."

"I am paralyzed by stage fright, and I thought this would help."

"I quit piano and my mom says I have to take some sort of music lessons."

"I love to sing; I want to sing professionally and I love classical music."

How do I help these poor people!? Through deeply examining what had felt so natural to me, an extension of myself, for so many years, I finally had to face what specifically I was doing at every moment I was singing. That's a tough question to answer. And I started to make my students answer it for themselves. Ah-HA, again! Singing is the most sublime of all human expressions, and it is the sound of love. It is poetry and history and psychology (for some) and dance and physical fitness and heaven and earth. This is the real world. Human beings, expressing themselves in a beautiful way—period. For money or not.

I finally realized that this was it for me, as a professional classical singer. The Met wasn't suddenly going to call and offer me a role in The Magic Flute the following month. It was going to be like this—forever—singing about underwear and traveling and struggling and scrabbling and not receiving power and riches and glory.

What a relief! Yes, a relief! I am the luckiest person in the world. I love music. I am surrounded by music, music of my choosing. I wouldn't trade my singing, teaching, and graduate school experiences for anything. I met my husband (another fallen-away singer) in grad school. I've met some incredible and famous musicians through my work. I'll let them bring alive the wonderful music, while I appreciate it.

I so admire the people who were able to do what I could not. I am happy for them, and I am grateful they are around to carry the torch. It is OK if I'm not among them. The singing world is doing very well, thank you very much, without my rendition of "The Prima Donna Song" cluttering up the stage. I'll stay home on evenings and weekends with my family and forego the humiliating auditions and bizarre opera roles. I will sing for the senior citizens, when I can, and for my family and good friends. That is what suits my voice best. This real-life stuff, this is my music. This is what there is to sing about.

—Leslie Crane, soprano, is Associate Producer of American Public Media's national music programs, including Saint Paul Sunday.