Gratitude

Not a long post this week. Just a little note to say that life has come full circle. After all the struggles of the first few months, I am back to a state of sheer giddy ‘I can’t believe I really go here’ excitement.

It’s slightly embarrassing, especially when I accidentally fan-girl one of my friends, but I cannot believe how lucky I am - how lucky all of us at conservatoire are. Yes, the surroundings are not particularly inspiring, the days are often long, and criticism comes more readily than praise. But the reality is that I spend the majority of my days listening to music being performed to an incredibly high standard. And sometimes I have the privilege of making music with these phenomenal musicians myself. 

If that’s not enough, this week, we went sock-sliding. Giddiness personified.

At myself I will begin and end

I have just finished reading The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble and this statement by narcissistic actor David rang particularly true: 

“I do not look… Who went before me, nor who shall follow me. No, at myself I will begin and end.”

During training, it is all too easy to fall into a trap of constant comparison against others. Day by day, we work and learn alongside one another, and thus we progress together - in tandem. Or so you would assume.

However, it is our failure to do this that makes us so gloriously human. One of the most important lessons that I am learning at Guildhall, is that I have nobody to compare my progress against except myself. I am probably the only person on the planet to have studied with Diana, Paul, Julie, Ryland and Gary - my singing teachers - in that order, each for a specific length of time at a specific stage in my life. And probably not many people have been influenced by exactly the same performances and recordings that have left their mark on me. Indeed, how many singers at Guildhall have had my education, musical or otherwise? The answer is not very many. So, how can I expect to progress at the same rate as any other person, when each of us has such an individual history, learning style and set of influences?

This isn’t a matter of making excuses for my short-fallings - another easy mistake to make - rather it is a matter of rationalising and celebrating our individuality. Whilst it is important to learn from the great performers of the past, and equally to admire the talent of your peers - none of us has a true likeness in this profession against whom we can compare ourselves. 

I do not yet boast the self-assurance of David Evans and so for now I will take the quote and stick it on my bathroom mirror. And of course, on my blog, where I hope it may be of some help to others.

This post contains bad language...

(The F***er)

Call it what you like: nerves, stage-fright, the voice in your head, or as the actors at school call it… the f***er. As performers, we all spend a proportion of our lives harangued by the same nagging anxiety. The anxiety that we are not good enough. The anxiety that we don’t know what we are doing. The anxiety that we will make a fool of ourselves and be shunned from society. Make it as catastrophic and ridiculous as you like - someone, somewhere will have thought it before a big performance or audition.

However hard we may try to look at the bigger picture, the f***er gets us all at some point. And one of the most important things we have to learn, is how to tell the f***er to f*** off.

During my awkward early-teenage years I let my f***er rule the roost. Then one day, a singing teacher persuaded me to stage a revolution. And so, for the last five years my f***er and I have been at war. Much of this war is fought ‘cold’ - more tactics and strategy than all out warfare - but occasionally he rears his ugly head and cries his hellish battle cry…

We all have our own demons in this world. Mine is my f***er. Although he can bring out the worst in me, my f***er also acts as a constant reminder to be kind to others; for until we become mind-readers we will never know the battles being fought within one-another’s heads.

“Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”

A week in the life

It has occurred to me that a ‘master’s in singing’ may seem a rather obtuse occupation to anyone outside of the conservatoire bubble. And so while I do not possess the ego, or status to justifiably write about ‘a week in the life of Mimi Doulton’, I do hope this might be enlightening to those of you living in the ‘real’ world. So, here it is - a week in the life of… me:

Monday: This week kicks off with a 9.45 am singing lesson at school - fortunately not every week does. I’ve been at home ill all weekend so am in a practice room (translate to concrete cell) by 9.15 testing what voice is there. Everything seems OK, so at 9.45 I head to my singing lesson to go through some exercises with my teacher, Gary, and get the full doctor’s report on my vocal condition. Thankfully, it’s a green light for the week ahead. 

Lesson over it’s time for a quick meeting at work. I have two part-time jobs to help pay the bills, and fit them in where I can during the week. Next, I’m off to a two hour Italian repertoire class. I’m not singing this week, but there is always much to be gained from watching your colleagues and hearing their language, musicality and, sometimes, technique, being corrected.

Next up is my vocal coaching for the week. At Guildhall we change coach every term, and this is my second session with the lovely, but meticulous, Sandy. The role of a coach is to bring the music alive, and Sandy is brilliant at this - helping me make the best out of the words and notes on the page, despite my vocal limitations.

To end my day, I go to support my friends in a concert of Russian Song at Milton Court Concert Hall. I always find it so inspiring to enjoy the talent of my peers - and this is a seriously classy concert.

Tuesday: On Tuesday morning I have a luxurious few hours at home, which I spend translating new repertoire, researching composers and poets, and reading up on my Shakespeare for stagecraft later. Although this time to think and research is rare, it is immensely valuable for developing interpretation, and something I try desperately to schedule into the week.

In the afternoon I’m in school for the weekly stagecraft and movement sessions. We start with movement - an hour and twenty minutes of intense core strength and flexibility exercises. Whilst this kind of fitness is a must for singers, it is gruelling, agonising work that can be felt for days after the class. Stagecraft is gentler - we are currently being coached on how to develop character, using Shakespeare monologues as a starting point. I enjoy stagecraft and movement sessions as these are the moments when people are pushed completely out of their comfort zones - thus in these classes great friendships have been formed.

Tuesday evening I’m off to a film premiere at my old job - a nice evening off and an opportunity to be immersed in a different kind of art.

Wednesday: Wednesday morning I’m back in the practice room for 9 am, and on my way in to school I spot people leaving who have been practising even earlier than that! Practice rooms are a highly contested commodity in any music school, and early at morning/late at night is the prime opportunity to get a decent space to work in. 

After an hour of exercises I’m off to watch the London Symphony Orchestra rehearse Mahler and Berg for three hours. One of the many perks of being a Guildhall student is that we get LSO rehearsal passes once a month, and this rehearsal is fascinating - taken by the extremely diligent conductor Francois Xavier-Roth. It is wonderful to see soprano Camilla Tilling in the more personal setting of a rehearsal, and to gain some insight into how she works.

The afternoon starts with an English song class, which is similar to Italian, except different repertoire. A quick French coaching is followed by platform - essentially a short recital opportunity for anyone who wants to test some repertoire. Another practice session (we do a lot of that), then dinner with a school-friend - because although food has largely been exempt from this blog post, it forms a very important part of my life!

Thursday: Guess what? Practise.

After a quick cup of tea at a friend’s flat I’m in school for 2.5 hours of rehearsals with three different pianists. First, for Friday’s French song class, next for a pianist’s exam in accompanying, and finally for my own mid-term exam which is coming around the corner fast. I love one-on-one rehearsals - there is the opportunity to throw musical dialogue back and forth in a way that can’t be done with larger groups of people. If the pianist is right, it’s more fun than hard work.

At 2 I’m off to watch a German repertoire class. This is followed by a masterclass with Amanda Roocroft, who is currently doing a series of classes at the Guildhall School on opera arias. I leave the class inspired and return home to three more hours of translations and concert planning. Then a couple of hours of ‘work’ work, and its time to call it a night.

Friday: Surprise, surprise… Friday morning starts in the practice room. In fact, the entirety of Friday morning is spent in a practice room. Fortunately, the afternoon involves a little more human contact - lunch, of course, and then a French repertoire class which I am singing in. We are working on some Gounod that I am singing for my mid-term. It’s a great opportunity to put the piece ‘on stage’ for the first time, and also to pick up some new interpretative ideas.

In the evening it’s the first of the six master’s opera scenes nights at Milton Court Concert Hall. Another chance to watch my class-mates and be inspired… and entertained! 

Saturday: Saturday is a blur of sleeping, eating, studying, working… basically anything but practising. School is taken over by the Junior department on a Saturday - I like to think of it as an enforced day off! 

Sunday: When I get lucky, Sunday mornings begin in church - it may not be everyone’s idea of luck but it’s a good way to get another £50/60 in the bank and work with some brilliant musicians. This Sunday I’m at the journalist’s church on Fleet Street and a rather famous journalist is in the congregation with his new beau…

Back home for a couple of hours to catch up on the ‘day-job’ and then into town again to practise and support my friends performing at the Barbican tonight.

And that’s me done for the week. I hope. If you made it this far, congratulations. If you skipped to the end, I’ll sum it up for you: I watch, I listen, and I practise. And just sometimes, I do sit-ups.

Just a word on the page and there is the drama

4.48 Psychosis - Sarah Kane

After a week of reflection I finally find myself with the words to write about Philip Venable’s new setting of the Sarah Kane text, 4.48 Psychosis, which we were workshopping at the Guildhall School last week. Philip is currently composer-in-residence at the Royal Opera House, and as part of their partnership with the Guildhall School six of us were invited to spend a week exploring the work with the musical and production team, including Philip himself, conductor Richard Baker and director Ted Huffman.

The aim of the week was to allow the team to hear sections of the work live before final scores are printed and it goes into production. We were visited by the cast, members of the ROH marketing team, and various production designers - all of them there to capture a sense of the piece that they will be creating themselves in a few months’ time. As the ‘guinea-pig’ singers we were able to say what we thought did and didn’t work, and explore how best to create and describe certain vocal effects. 

It has been an immense privilege to be a small part of the genesis of this work, and I have found it fascinating to experience the fluidity of this creative process. There is no music other than the newest of new music, with which one can experiment in such an extreme fashion. In some instances, the notes on the page were literally being re-written as they were played. That is what the workshop process is for - to experiment, to play, to go on a musical adventure - to explore the work and to find the best way to achieve a total fulfilment of the composer’s intention; to breathe life into the notes and words on the page. And most excitingly, to do all this while the composer is sitting in the room with you. You can only wonder whether Mozart, Verdi and Puccini all enjoyed the same privilege. 

The greatest challenge for me was living with the text in the weeks leading up to, and in the week of the workshop. It certainly redefined the meaning of ‘January Blues’ and also made me aware of, and grateful for, my own sanity and support network at school, at home, and also within the 4.48 Psychosis rehearsal room.

Readers who know the play, or the general style of Sarah Kane, will be aware of its brutality and this is particularly apparent in the context of 4.48 Psychosis - which some believe to have been Kane’s suicide note. If audiences find it hard to hear the words ‘I fucked small children while they begged for mercy’, I promise them that it is infinitely more difficult to say (or sing) them. In writing this text Kane may have been aiming to provoke shock and discomfort, but I also find the text a desperate cry for attention, and more importantly, for understanding.

In an age where mental illness still needs to be better understood, I think it is important to surface works such as this. I have heard people say that the subject matter is overdone, but these words must keep being said until somebody listens. I found its realisation in music shone a different light on the text, finding humour and light relief where I might not have read it myself, but also reinventing its anguish in a completely compelling and agonising way. It will be fascinating to experience it from the other side, as an audience member at the Lyric Hammersmith in May. Readers, I urge you go. Only take a friend. And maybe a bottle of wine. Possibly a counsellor too.

http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/448-psychosis-by-philip-venables

Our children need the arts

As I’m technically on holiday now, I hope you will grant me the liberty to write about something close to my heart that is not conservatoire life.

Today I went to the Christmas concert at Gallions Primary School, where my flatmate works, and I was bowled over by what I experienced. I’m sure Charlotte could provide you with the exact numbers, but here I found 100+ children under the age of ten singing and playing string instruments. In a state school, in what is purportedly one of the most deprived areas of London. The children were happy, and clearly took pride in what they were doing. Furthermore, they all listened attentively to their friends and classmates as they took their turn to play. If you think music in schools is only for the financially privileged, this would make you think again.

But why should this be such an unusual and exciting experience? The sad truth is that music, and arts, education in this country is in a sorry state - and is being pushed lower in curriculum priorities by the day. Thus, often it is only the most privileged that get access to the arts - either at school or through junior academies, Saturday schools and youth groups.

Why doesn’t every child get access to a rounded arts education? What is it that teachers, parents, and ultimately decision-makers are missing?

The Gallions concert demonstrated so much more than a few kids who could hold a violin correctly. What I saw was a hundred or so children who had been gifted with the confidence to perform in public, who had learned to respect one another’s talent, and who had the chance to experience what it is to take pride in their work. On top of this, these children were inspired to create, communicate and express. These skills will stay with them for life. They cannot be taught, they cannot be quantified and nobody can know where this experience will take them. The arts have mental health benefits. The arts develop a whole side of the brain that is barely touched by maths and science. The arts are what make us human.

If we want our children to be the next generation of leaders, problem-solvers and innovators we must give them the chance to learn to perform and communicate, to respect and be respected, and most importantly, to create.

You can help to perpetuate the brilliant work of Gallions Primary School by clicking here: http://gallionsmusictrust.org.uk/support-us-2/ 

Challenges

“Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” - Joshua J. Marine

How apt that this came up as quote of the day as the most challenging three months of life thus far draw to a close. One term down, eight to go. Apparently it gets better from here.

It would be a lie to say adapting to life at Guildhall has been easy - in truth there has not been a single ‘easy’ day. But that does not mean it has been a negative experience; a steep and intense learning curve, yes, but one that has only highlighted the warmth, kindness and generosity of my friends and colleagues. Every day has brought both challenges and inspiration, often tears and laughter, and sometimes all-consuming frustration. But every day I have learned something new, not just about singing but about myself and other people.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is that most people want you to be good as much as you want it for yourself. It is no fun being poorly prepared for a class, it is certainly no fun watching a friend be torn to pieces in that situation and I imagine it’s not actually that fun to be the person inflicting the misery. Which brings me onto the next thing…

Music is an art of precision. Musicality may spring from inspired spontaneity, but such magic cannot usually occur without hours of study and practice. 'Winging it’ only gets everyone so far in life, and for me this is the moment where I have to take my wings off for good and do some work. With about twenty different people at Guildhall all driving me to work harder, I don’t have to dig particularly deep to find motivation - rather it is thrown in my face on a daily basis. 

And digesting all the criticism is not easy. Whilst manageable in small doses, twelve weeks of seemingly constant attack is more than a little wearing. I have no doubt that I will leave Guildhall with a thicker skin than when I arrived, but there is also a need to filter useful comments from those that are ultimately destructive. Unfortunately these comments sometimes come at an overwhelmingly faster rate than they can be processed.

This segues nicely into my final point - we are all in this together. Very few 'war-wounds’ have been inflicted by my peers, and I thank them for this. At first this surprised me. Arriving at conservatoire I expected hostility and heated competition from classmates - instead I have experienced only kindness and compassion. The truth is, that the only people who know what you are living are the people living it with you. These are the only people by your side every second of the working day, they are the only people going through the same mental battles, and consequently they are often the only people who can find the right words to inspire perseverance.

This is why the highlight of my first term at Guildhall has not been drawing inspiration from watching my wonderful peers, or finding a new physical freedom in movement classes, or even fulfilling a dream I thought impossible at a certain concert hall on a rainy November day. The highlight of my first term at Guildhall was encountering friendship and kindness in the most unexpected of places. Bring on term two.

Nerves and the nether regions

I want to start this post with an apology to the continuo cellist seated behind me in this morning’s Messiah rehearsal: sorry, for farting in your face during ‘Rejoice Greatly’. It was a glorious combination of propulsion through the runs, chicken & garlic soup… and nerves. I would like to say that this has never happened before, but I would be lying.

In case any of you are lucky enough to have not experienced this, yes, nervous poo is a thing.

If you think about it, it’s not a particularly remarkable phenomenon; stress and the digestive system have never been the happiest bedfellows. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, a bit of poo is nothing in comparison to stomach ulcers, acid reflux and other stress-related conditions. So why write about it?

Well, for several years I thought that there must be something wrong with me. Our culture encourages us to keep our bowel movements private (perhaps with good reason!) and it was not until I became sufficiently friendly with a few other singers that I discovered how common this problem is. If you’ve ever wondered why the toilets smell so awful at auditions, remember you are not the only person whose nerves take revenge on their nether regions.

It can be a particular issue for singers and wind players, as our breath support system requires a certain level of tension in that area. Put bluntly, tricky passages of singing can feel like you are having a shit, which is not great if you actually need one. Nothing in a concert is quite as terrifying as wondering whether it will just be a fart…

There is not room in one post for my collection of poo stories. Needless to say it ranges from the hilarious to the disgusting: highlights including the friend who farts constantly on stage, to the five-shit-day Wigmore Hall debut. What I have found is that no matter what you eat, your digestive system will play up - just embrace it and laugh. And maybe don’t eat a Phaal the day before an important concert.

Audience members: next time you’re at the opera spare a thought for the soprano who desperately needs to fart whilst singing a top C. And spare another for the tenor standing next to her.

Pork pies

Yesterday I went out to Northwood for a concert - Schubert Mass in G and Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. I had a wonderful time. Aside from the fact that it was a lovely concert, with lovely people here’s why:

1) They gave us food between the rehearsal and the concert. Pork pies, funnily enough. Maybe I’m just unlucky, but usually what happens is you turn up to a church that is relatively in the middle-of-nowhere, meet some relative strangers, rehearse and then get locked out the church and left to fend for yourself for 2/3 hours. Fending for yourself usually involves spending a portion of your fee on food - sometimes pork pies.

2) The church was warm. OK, there is not much people can do about cold churches in the winter, but if there is heating it doesn’t hurt anyone to put it on for a few hours does it?

3) There were clean toilets and a dressing room with a mirror. I have not yet reached levels of diva-dom where I would expect my own dressing room, and am not childish enough to be much fussed about male/female changing space - it was blessing enough to have a space to change and leave belongings in that was not then going to host the interval drinks! 

4) The rehearsal was super-efficient. No crying organists (this has happened unfortunately recently), no arguing about lighting, no debate about where to seat the soloists. Everything ran like clockwork, to schedule and stress-free.

5) I was trusted to dress myself. That sounds ridiculous, but so often people say ‘DJs for the men and something sparkly/glamorous (etc.) for the ladies’. We know what is expected, we have done this before. And please, please, please nobody ever again tell me to ‘make myself look sexy’. Especially not if the concert is in a church.

Honestly, this is not really a rant. When I do any concert I am happy just to be working. But a warm welcome, a little privacy and some common decency goes a long way.

On fear

There are lots of things I wanted to write about this week. 

I am not a political beast, but on this rainy November day as every corner of the world seems to continue to be falling to pieces, it is hard not to feel something. It is hard not to think something.

I will be the first to admit that there are some things in life that scare me. Auditions. Concerts. Very occasionally, getting out of bed scares me. That, which sounds like the smallest thing on that list to be scared of, is perhaps the greatest of all. For who knows what life will bring each morning as we wake up to face the world?

We could spend our whole lives being scared, recent events remind us of that. But that would be letting something other than ourselves win. Life is for living. Enjoy it to the last.

Why we sing

When I was 16 I suffered from performance anxiety. Incapable of any positive thought in relation to my singing, practise became an emotional ordeal, singing lessons were torture - for me and my teacher - and getting up on stage in front of people was agonising. My nerves were crippling, my self-criticism even more so.

But I was desperate to be an opera singer.

One day someone asked me, “why do you want to do this so much when it makes you so unhappy?” And then it dawned on me.

I have always loved singing. As a child I loved singing Snow White while I brushed my teeth at night. I loved singing carols in the school nativity. I loved pretending to be Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music or Sally Ann Howes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I loved making up songs and musicals with my brother and sister. I loved singing annoying tunes in the back of my parents’ car on long journeys. I loved singing to myself when I was scared, happy, sad, lonely, excited.

I loved singing, until I decided to learn to sing.

As I worked to conquer my performance anxiety I rediscovered a love for what I do. I learned to have fun on stage. I remembered what inspired an eight-year-old girl to decide that she was going to be an opera singer. That girl was not aware of the challenges ahead: the competition, the emotional demands of the profession, and least of all the small, inconsistent income. That girl loved singing. And it is because of the challenges that the girl was not aware of, that her love was the only reason to sing.

The beginning

Hello!

Assuming that that Internet has done its thing and placed this blog in the hands of a stranger or two, a quick introduction: my name is Mimi Doulton, I’m a 21-year-old singer, and I have just started on the Extended Artist Master’s at Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

This blog is to jot down some thoughts that I hope might be useful to other young musicians out there. I hope that it will also be entertaining for friends, family and other interested parties; although much of my writing will have a musical focus, I fundamentally plan to describe human experience that can be found in all walks of life. If that all sounds a little serious, I can promise some silly stories too!

Today I want to focus on something I have just survived myself – the first month at conservatoire. If you are also new to conservatoire, but are yet to meet someone who is honest enough to admit that they are as terrified as you are, then keep reading…

***

Nothing can prepare you for the first day. You sit in a room of a few hundred students and get told that you are the best performers of your generation. As the welcome speech continues you look around at the other people – they all seem so confident, so secure – they look like they think they deserve to be there. Perhaps they will be the best performers of your generation, but you are nowhere near their level. You are too scared, and too nervous to ever compare to the quiet confidence that they exude.

1) Truth – They are thinking exactly the same thing while they look at you.

As the week progresses you start to find your way into the practice corridors. Rows of doors with soulless soundproofed rooms behind them, where you will spend much of the next few years of your life staring at your tongue and feeling perplexed (if you are a singer anyway!) The noises that come from behind these doors are beautiful and brilliant, and once again you find yourself wondering how you ended up studying with all these beautiful and brilliant people. Every time you venture into a room yourself, you hardly dare make a noise for fear that somebody will laugh at how terrible it is.

2) Truth – Anyone can sound brilliant through a soundproof door. Including you.

There will be moments when you feel like you do not fit in with everybody else. Maybe you are from another country, or specialised in a different field before committing to music. Maybe you swear every other sentence and talk a little too openly about your bodily functions (hello!). In your eyes all other students amalgamate into a mass of one personality and mind-set. You worry that it is ‘them’ against you, and that you will never be one of ‘them’.

3) Truth – We are all different. That is what makes human beings so wonderful. There are over 7 billion people on this planet. Some of them will like you for you.

***

As the first days become first weeks, and those weeks become months, you will start to see the ‘equal’ in everyone. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, we are all at conservatoire to learn and develop. There would be no point in paying the fees if you were perfect.

Most importantly though, you will discover that you are studying with a wonderful group of people. These are people who you can rely on to clap every time you perform, even if nobody else does (and they will!); the people who will buy you cake on a bad day; and the people you can talk to about bodily (mal)functions unashamedly. They are your greatest asset (along with teachers, coaches, family members and partners). 

On that note, thank you to all my wonderful friends at Guildhall whose frankness has inspired me to finally sit down and write. I promise a lighter subject matter next time! Until then…

Over and Out

M x