by Louisa Muller
When everything closed down (back in the days we now affectionately refer to as “first lockdown”), as we waited each day for the inevitable cancellation emails and announcements, as friends and colleagues started sharing their practice sessions on social media and innovating ways to make music and collaborate from afar, my main reaction was…paralysis.
My husband, a full-time pianist at the Wiener Staatsoper, was unexpectedly home all the time. Kindergartens and schools in Vienna closed, so our 2-year-old daughter Maisie was home as well. There was no choice but to dive fully into family life. Mornings were reserved for picnics and bike rides. In the afternoons we traded off parenting duties to give each other some space to work in the only room in our apartment that can be completely shut off from the rest: the closet.
On my afternoons in the closet, I tried desperately to focus on the material I needed to study for projects that hadn’t been canceled yet, but I couldn’t make myself do it. 2020 was going to be MY YEAR, a year of momentum, a year so full of work that my biggest concerns were how to prepare all the music in time and how to organize childcare for many months away from home. Now every time I opened a score I was hit by an enormous wave of sadness and anxiety that threatened to pull me under completely.
"We are taught, or maybe we just desperately want to believe, that we are on a path that leads to some kind of arrival point—that if we work hard enough, if we hit each milestone along the way, if we tick each box, that we are all but guaranteed the career and life of our dreams."
We are taught, or maybe we just desperately want to believe, that we are on a path that leads to some kind of arrival point—that if we work hard enough, if we hit each milestone along the way, if we tick each box, that we are all but guaranteed the career and life of our dreams. This crisis has given us the disorienting opportunity to find out what’s there when the milestones disappear. What if momentum is a myth? If there’s no arrival, what exactly are we working toward?
In some ways it was a relief to know that our whole community was facing a similar existential crisis. I hadn’t realized how much space my comparing mind was taking up, keeping tabs on others’ announcements and successes. It was freeing to let go of that completely—nobody was working. But before too long, there was a new success quotient to measure: resilience. I watched in amazement at everyone who was furiously creating content and dreaming up new projects. I was in Survival Mode, and I wanted to passive aggressively unfollow each person who posted about what a gift the extra time was and how wonderful it was to finally have the space to pursue their passion projects. I wanted to non-passively throttle the ones who countered every vulnerable admission of pain or grief with cheery exhortations to “stay positive” and “look on the bright side.” I wasn’t ready.
Our lives changed so abruptly and so thoroughly that it took time to parse out what I was missing most, other than EVERYTHING. Reaching out to friends and family more regularly was a comfort. Sharing on Instagram more intentionally and engaging more fully with my community there also helped immensely. Then the kindergartens opened back up in May (and have managed to stay open through subsequent lockdowns, THANKS BE), and I could breathe and dream and widen my field of vision to include more than just my little family.
Back in March I hadn’t been able to wrap my head around the idea of virtual coachings, but by June I had already gotten used to Zoom, and it didn’t seem like such a crazy idea anymore. I realized that some of the issues around working virtually (latency, distortion of sound, etc.) didn’t present a problem for the work I like to do with singers on text, dramatic choices, and physicality. I also knew from talking to singers that so many were missing and craving this kind of deep work and connection.
So I hung out my shingle (that is, I posted on social media) and started building my coaching studio. From my little closet I’ve now coached more than 30 singers from various corners of the globe and touched more repertoire in 7 months than I ever would in a normal year, from audition arias to lieder to full roles in operas I’ve never directed.
It’s difficult to quantify what a life- and sanity-saver coaching has been for me during this time. In the Before Times, I generally coached during short residencies or shorter master classes. What a joy to take the time to develop close, consistent working relationships with individual singers—I feel more connected than ever to our opera family, despite it being almost a year since I’ve set foot in an opera rehearsal room. Coaching has provided me with much-needed variety in my day-to-day, the ability to contribute financially to my family, and perhaps most importantly, constant reminders not to abandon our opera ship. I am amazed by the strength and resilience of our community in the face of so much loss. The future is bright, even though we don’t know yet what it will look like, and if ever my faith starts to waver, I am inspired anew each week by singers adapting to new technologies and new realities with so much grace and good humor.
So here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. What shall we do with this waiting time?
Let’s start by turning inward and getting to know who we are as artists. Forget for a moment about how to land a job or how to please an audition panel. What do YOU like? When there’s nothing specific to prepare for and nobody is telling you what to work on, what repertoire do you gravitate toward? How do you like to spend your time? Do you know what your strengths are, what makes you special? What are the skills you still need to strengthen? What can you do right now to hone your craft?
"Access to your role models is possible in a way it never was before—reach out to them for advice, or feedback, or just solidarity."
And let’s also turn outward and find ways to both support and rely on our community. What can you give, and what do you need? Are there artists whose work or career you particularly
admire? Those artists have more time now than they ever will again, and access to your role models is possible in a way it never was before—reach out to them for advice, or feedback, or just solidarity. If you are a person (like me) who needs extrinsic motivation and accountability, make sure you’re getting it. Sign up for a competition, schedule a few sessions with a coach, get a group of friends together (virtually!) and sing for each other regularly. Deadline pressure can be a great motivator.
And if you’re still paralyzed, if you’re in Survival Mode, if you’re not ready to move yet, stay there for as long as you need to. There is so much to be gained in the waiting. This time is not wasted. We have not lost momentum. We have not missed our chance. Listen closely, and
when the time is right, you will hear your cue.