Musicians’ Gifts: Lessons Learnt in 2012 – Alexandra Cowell

The biggest lesson I learnt in 2012 is the very same lesson that I seem to learn year after year, and which I never tire of learning. I think that the most frustrating, annoying, exciting, and wonderful part of being a musician is that we are constantly discovering how much we still have left to learn. This journey of exploration never fails to amaze and thrill me, and always more than makes up for the periods of discouragement, disappointment and discontent that are mandatory for musicians and other performers. In my 20 years of musical study, first as a flutist, and now as a singer, I have worked towards those moments when I feel I have come so far that I can actually see where I’m headed and what I have to conquer along the way.

I look forward to these moments of realisation and re-ignition the way I remember looking forward to Christmas as a child. Perhaps it’s the carols, the cold, or the fact that Cardiff Castle (which I walk past everyday on my way to classes) is lit up like a massive, sparkly blue Christmas tree, but in the last month or so, despite my devout Atheism, I’ve really come to see the musicians’ journey as a huge Christmas tree, topped with a statue of Mozart, Puccini, Bizet, whomever you like, guiding us toward this super-human goal of musical and performance perfection. There are ornaments on the tree, each one representing a performance, competition, or other career-path marker. Some of these ornaments are simple and elegant, some flashy and gaudy, and some might even have chips or cracks in them, or be broken entirely, but we still hang them on our tree because each performance matters, and we can learn from the experience of each one.

Under the tree are beautifully-wrapped gifts which never seem to run out. Some of these gifts are easy to unwrap, but some are wrapped so tightly, that it takes us ages to get into them, and we become frustrated and annoyed that all our clawing and pulling, or patient unfolding, seemingly gets us nowhere. However, if we keep at it, eventually we will uncover a beautiful thing; a new part of the endless puzzle that is technical mastery of an instrument or voice; a new professional distinction (you definitely want to hang that ornament on the tree!); maybe an approving comment from a respected and tough teacher or coach. And each time we reveal this beautiful new gift, we get an even more exciting one: we look around, and there are more gifts under the tree! Some of them we can guess at; we know what we have to do and where our studies and efforts will take us. Some of the gifts we cannot guess at all. But we see them, all spread out under this lovely tree. And there are tons of them! It’s daunting at times, thinking that we have to go through them all, (and then, oh goodness, tidy them up and find places to keep them all!) but it’s also thrilling.

We know that, as long as we keep working, keep focussed, we will always have something new to learn and another gift to add to our collection of what makes us successful musicians and performers.

2012 has been my busiest, most wonderful year yet, and marks a major turning point in my life. I began the year receiving an acceptance to the Masters in Opera Performance programme at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I spent the next two months flying all over the US singing auditions for other opera programmes. I spent the entire month of March interviewing every single person I knew (and some I didn’t!) about which programme I should choose, and, decision finally made, I spent April through July preparing to move back to my native UK. August was spent visiting family and finding housing in Cardiff, and then in September, I began my studies.

In the last four months, I have worked in ways I have never worked before. I’ve had lots of ups and a few downs. I discovered that my Italian is nowhere near as proficient as I thought, and that I really need to work on singing recitative. I bombed a performance that I was fully prepared to ace, and, for the first time, I had to deal with the disappointment that comes from having messed up with absolutely no rhyme or reason for it. I’m usually really good at being able to assess my own performance fairly, extract what I can from it, and use it as a learning experience, without ever letting it affect me emotionally. In fact, I pride myself on it. But this time, I just couldn’t do that, because I honestly had no idea what happened or why; I just felt that I didn’t perform as well as I could have. I was shattered, and no matter how much my teachers and coaches told me I was being overly harsh with myself, I simply could not accept that I could just under-perform without knowing why. Honestly, I’m still working on accepting this, but I think, as the days go by, I’m getting a better handle on it. My new singing teacher, who I’m thrilled to be studying with, pointed out that the performance was the biggest performance I’ve done since
making the switch from instrumentalist to vocalist, and that I am simply inexperienced as an opera performer, and that my ability to perform the way I expect myself to will come with more experience, practise and time. Looking at it that way, I realised that, along with all the technical improvements I have made and will continue to make, I am also making progress as a performer as a whole, and, even more exciting, I have lots more progress to make.

So, I’m trying, despite my deep-seated perfectionist streak, to trust my teachers’ and coaches’ prophesies that I will continue to grow as a musician, and that set-backs really do happen for a reason. I see it as a true gift to be reminded of how much I have left to learn, because it also means I can improve by that amount too, and, as I said at the beginning of this post, that is the most exciting and exhilarating part of being a musician.

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