Do You Love Music Enough to Conquer the Ups & Downs?

When we first started our talent agency Cadenza Artists (about a year and a half after starting iCadenza), one of our early challenges was building up a roster of artists. Thanks to a referral of a mentor, we were introduced to mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin and were immediately blown away. Her artistry and musicianship were astounding to us. But even beyond that we were amazed by Laurie’s story, her fearlessness, her genuine kindness, and her commitment to creating in so many varied facets of career. We are honored to share this post from Laurie about staying on course in a music career, despite the many challenges.

“If there is absolutely anything else you could do with your life — if you don’t love music enough — then I suggest you get out now. Find a career in something else,” said our Masterclass teacher.

I was 23 and a second-year grad student at Yale University’s opera program. Our Masterclass teacher was a gentleman who was high up at the Metropolitan Opera. There we sat, 16 impressionable minds, consuming these pearls of wisdom greedily, as though they were the last gulps of water we would ever drink.

His words were gospel, and yet, I didn’t fully understand them.

How much did I really have to love music in order for me to know if I were heading down the right path? How can one quantify love?

Deciding to Stick With It

I knew that music was my portal into a world of communication that placed me on a level playing field with others, that gave me a common bond with people. It was a language that the people I loved best could understand that perhaps nobody else in my life truly could.

I also knew that singing was something I was good at, possibly something I excelled at. Yet there was this intimidating proclamation that diving headfirst into this career, immersing myself in music with my whole being, could be a grave mistake.

Fast forward 14 years, and I’m still here, navigating my way through this crazy, obstacle-filled career path, making it my own, enjoying opportunities that come my way, and creating others for myself.

Have I been frustrated? Have I been so fed up that I’ve been close to throwing in the towel? Absolutely not.

The reason for this is that there’s nothing like a good, hard rejection to light a fire under my butt to keep trying even harder so I can prove the naysayers wrong.

It’s perhaps the ones who forced me to swallow the most painful criticisms that have been my best teachers. They were the ones who forced me to be better and to hone in on my weaknesses so that I could turn them into strengths.

An Unconventional Path

Singers like me who had just come out of a program like that at Yale often join opera companies to participate in their young artist programs, start covering roles in productions, and eventually matriculate into bigger and better roles.

Then they are hired by other companies, and their careers take off from there. That wasn’t my prescribed path. As a blind singer with no usable vision, I had to think a little more creatively about how I was going to make this career work. 

As a blind singer, I had to think creatively about how to make this career work. @laurierubin Click To Tweet

Shortly after graduating from Yale, I participated in a summer program in which I had the opportunity to take Masterclasses and coachings with John Harbison, a well-known composer, and Graham Johnson, a well-known pianist and scholar of song. Both seemed to see potential in me, and our work together extended beyond the summer program.

John Harbison invited me to participate in a program at Carnegie Hall in which four select singers were matched up with four composers, and each composer wrote a piece with his or her respective singer’s voice in mind. The workshop, which culminated in a public performance, was led by John Harbison and soprano Dawn Upshaw who is well known for her artistry in new music.

One Opportunity Leads to Another

Not only did I learn more about singing and my own artistry in that short workshop, but it opened the largest door to my unique career. After performing the eccentric, political piece of music written for me (it was almost like performance art for an audience of composers, critics, and other bigwigs in the classical music industry), I started getting calls and emails to perform that piece and to start premiering works by other up-and-coming composers.

The piece created in that workshop took me to Los Angeles, Italy, and then back to New York to perform at Lincoln Center. Composers in the audience that day, who later had me sing their works, opened up even more opportunities for me to perform and be heard. One of them even led to my debut with New York City Opera.

Graham Johnson continued to give me coaching in London after meeting me at the summer program in Los Angeles. This led to my first recording produced in London, followed by my Wigmore Hall recital debut.

It Wasn’t Always Easy

As I think back to the most trying moments in my life, I remember the summer after my junior year in college. I participated in a summer program for classical voice, and just a week into the program, I called my mom crying.

Like a child at sleep-away camp who is homesick, I sobbed, “I want to go home.”

Summer programs were not new to me. I had participated in them and loved them since high school, even though they took me away from home for periods of six weeks. Heck, I even had three years of college under my belt as I sat there quivering with the phone to my ear.

I was so miserable at this particular program because, for the first time, music had turned against me. It had grown dissonant, separating me from my colleagues who were so competitive and backbiting, so abused by the people at the top who ran the program, and so willing to be beaten down by those in the industry who don’t think twice about cutting people down.

I have no idea what made me soldier on through the rest of that summer, but my reward was an ironic stroke of good fortune. Years after that soul-crushing experience when I was living in New York, I woke up to an email from a fellow student of mine from that summer program who had gone on to start his own opera company which was garnering success and a lot of acclaim.

He had asked me to perform the female lead in Monteverdi’s “Return of Ulysses!” Monteverdi is one of my favorite composers, and I couldn’t believe that this man I hardly knew, even when we were in that summer program together, had sought me out to play the lead in his production.

Two years later, he asked me to perform the one-woman chamber opera, “La Voix Humane by Poulenc.” So many directors balked at having a blind person on stage, and he was willing to take this leap of faith to allow me to be the only person on stage.

An Incredibly Rewarding Career

The best thing I’ve learned about my path with many detours is that I’ve had to take charge and create my own opportunities. My wife and I started a chamber music series in a hip, international neighborhood in the East Village of NYC, creating unique concert themes, playing with the people we had become friends with in grad school.

This not only gave me opportunities and broadened my repertoire, but it reminded me why I love music so much. As a Brahms cello sonata was being rehearsed in our cozy living room, I was laughing in the kitchen with friends as we awaited our turn to rehearse, the smell of coffee wafting through the apartment. That’s what music is all about, laughter, creating new experiences, drinking coffee and listening to the people you love play.

This growing entrepreneurial spirit brought me to Hawaii where my wife and I followed a dream to create musical experiences for students who didn’t have them in their backyard the way we do on the mainland.

No two days in a week are the same. Sometimes, I am writing grants or doing the publicity for an upcoming show. Sometimes, I’m in the classroom teaching voice, others, I’m in Romania singing a concert. I love that life hands you new surprises every day, and that my love for music wasn’t on music’s terms, but rather on my terms and in my control.

Handling Rejection Today

As I was writing this post, an email came in with the news that a large opera company I was hoping to audition for turned me down. At age 37, after all these years of hard work, paying my dues, and a ladder of experiences that was supposed to help me climb higher and higher into bigger and better opportunities, this opera company decided that my resume still didn’t represent someone important or distinguished enough to even consider listening to.

In that moment, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to discover that I wasn’t devastated by this news at all. I have no regrets. I’ve written and had a memoir published, I’ve gone on a book and concert tour which took me all around the country, I’ve concertized internationally, I teach incredibly motivated and talented students who inspire me every day, and I’m continuing on a path that offers wonderful surprises.

Nobody can quantify your experiences or package you up. The question shouldn’t be, “Do you love music enough?” You should be asking yourself, “Do you love yourself enough?”

What you’ll discover about music, is that it has a lot in common with life itself. Both are constant roller coasters with fabulous thrills and shocking drops.

However, once you start on life’s path or music’s winding road, there is really no way you can just quit. As someone who continues to move on and to see what’s ahead, I would tell you to find the things that make you happiest, don’t do anything that would cause you any regrets, and most importantly, learn ways of being at peace with who you are. That will surely make you the best artist who has something unique to say to the world around you.

laurierubinMezzo-soprano, author and educator Laurie Rubin has received high praise from The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, who wrote that she possesses “compelling artistry,” “communicative power,” and that her voice displays “earthy, rich, and poignant qualities.” Los Angeles Times special critic Josef Woodard has lauded Rubin’s “charismatic, multi-textured performance,” stating that Laurie Rubin, ” seems to have an especially acute intuition about the power and subtleties of sound and she was a compelling force at the center of the music.” Learn more about Laurie at laurie-rubin.com.

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