Every time I walk into an audition, it’s my job to make people think I am fabulous. If, in those five minutes, I can show the panel an arresting stage presence, a clear well-tuned voice, and that I’d be a pleasant colleague, I’m more likely to be hired. So once or twice a week I turn myself inside out, carefully deciding how I will manipulate my image in order to get people to like me.
But who I am I kidding? I don’t just do this at auditions: none of us do. How do we determine where marketing ends and identity begins? Although singers may be more susceptible, we all spend most of our lives trying to win the admiration of others. We subconsciously prioritize our jumble of traits. Will we be most loved for our candor or discretion? Bravery or caution? Humor or sobriety? We decide, and we put it all together, and we wait for the reaction of others that will reward or chasten us, and teach us how to do it better next time.
When I was in college, the equation seemed pretty simple. People would hear me sing, find out I had talent, and admire me – and then my life would be easier and happier. Even then part of me knew this was foolishness, but I was young and confused and hadn’t yet learned the more subtle forms of foolishness that I would use to form my adult relationships.
A lot has been written about how personal a singer’s instrument is, and to be frank few of the things I have read have satisfied me, because they usually stop with some trite observation like “a horn player can put down her horn but a singer can’t ever put her voice down.” I know there is more to it than that, but unfortunately I can’t do any better than trite observations myself. I do know this: among my dearest friends who are also gifted singers, there is not one whom I love because of his or her giftedness. We don’t care for each other because of our talent, or even because of our goodness.
This reflection was prompted by something as simple as spending too much time with other people, trying to manage my image and win more admiration. And after what by all accounts should have been a good week – lots of accomplishments, some great singing, and every singer’s (and extrovert’s) favorite reward: plenty of praise – I got to Friday afternoon and only felt shallow. I had done well. Big deal.
I am lucky to have people in my life who care for me not because of my voice or image, but just because of who I am. There’s no way to quantify what it is that makes us who we are. Knowing that there are people who know and love that indefinable core may be my greatest solace. Once all the talents and charms are stripped away, there is a spark of who we are, created and loved by God. My greatest peace is when I am at my simplest, closest to that unadorned core. Dressing up who we are is the price we pay for living in the world. My challenge is no different from anyone else’s: leaving space for my simplest self to breathe and grow among the thorns of pretension and pride.