It was a warm, humid Thursday in Vienna and I was having a stressful day. I rushed onto a subway train (the U-3 line) and absent-mindedly picked up a glossy magazine. As I slid into the nearest plastic seat, a magazine insert fell into my lap. There was a picture of two little ears carrying suitcases and jumping off a railroad track. The German text below the picture read, “Schicken Sie Ihre Ohren auf Entdeckungsreise.” Send your ears on a journey of discovery. And for the first time all day, I started to smile.
The tiny ears were advertising the Haus der Musik museum in Vienna, but for me, the message had different meaning. The reason I was feeling stressed that day was because I needed to decide whether or not to move to Italy for a post-grad certificate in opera studies. (I know that sounds like an easy decision, but it was complicated.) After completing two performance degrees in voice, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to embark on yet another academic journey. Did I want to stay in school? Part of me just wanted to get onstage that very instant and SING!
But every budding opera singer has a unique path to follow, and my path included several years of intensive ear-education! By studying in Salzburg, I had already absorbed a distinctly Austrian Klangvorstellung (concept of sound). Moving to Italy helped me listen to music with a more Mediterranean worldview, and that was a good challenge for my German-American ears. It influenced my music forever.
Being a musician has changed the way that I travel. Ever since that moment on the U-3, every little trip has become a journey of discovery. My ears are always getting new stamps in their passport. They were happy to soak up Slavic sounds in Moscow and Hindustani vibrations in Kathmandu. And now as I prepare to spend April in Southern Africa, my ears are already tingling with excitement!
By specializing in classical music, opera singers learn to crave a certain kind of resonance, and there is nothing wrong with that. Cultivating vocal beauty is how we keep the art form alive. And it’s vital for a musician to have her own sound.
But sometimes, we get so attached to what we have already heard that we lose our natural curiosity to experience new sounds. Even seasoned music professionals can fall into the trap of selective deafness. When they evaluate other musicians, they might only listen for a certain tone quality or a particular musical approach. But no one is ever too old (or too well-credentialed) to enjoy hearing something new!
I still have that magazine insert with the tiny ears. I carry it around in my wallet whenever I travel. It reminds me to keep my ears open.