Dropping the red rag (Kimberly Barber, June 2020)

When I began writing this blog last August, my intent was to explore the relationship between the act and art of singing and the excavation of selfhood. I had always understood these to be intimately connected. I also recognized that it was a vital part of my own personal artistic journey to investigate more thoroughly how my singing helped me to understand the world and my inner self. Yet frequently even on these pages, I found myself skirting the deeper issues. Too personal!–I thought. Too painful! No one else’s business! And now I realize that this defeated the original purpose of this endeavour, which was not to somehow broadcast things about myself as a publicly curated exercise, but rather an open examination for my own growth that might additionally offer insight and courage to anyone else who reads it. So here goes…

This past week, as I had mentioned in previous posts, I attended one of Neil Semer’s annual voice intensive courses. I’ve been working with Neil for 7 years now, and these courses (whether in Europe or here at home in Canada) have always proven to be a crucible in my growth as a singer (and human), largely because the work is so public and there are witnesses to whatever happens there…I cannot just safely return to my artistic cave, choosing whether or not to ever listen to the recordings of my lessons and be confronted with the learnings therein. As in years past, I approached this intensive with some trepidation. It always ends up being a place of deep probing, of investigation, of brutal honesty and exposure. I cannot hide. The voice does not lie–it brings up what needs to be brought to the surface.

In the time of COVID, I’ve spent weeks of not practicing at all because I just didn’t want to. And my return to practice was out of curiosity and interest, but I still felt a little new at it. Recently so many issues of accomplishment, self-worth and the quest for external validation surfaced. I knew that these would be central in this week’s work. And I was right.

In my very first open lesson (all taught in “master class” style–that is, anyone in the course can listen in if they wish), Neil drew to my attention that I brought a certain “Bullfight energy” into the room when I sang. That is, that I entered the “arena” as it were, girded for battle. This wasn’t necessarily new information, but for the first time, I truly saw this. I had been sensing it, but I didn’t realize how central it was to the way I approached my craft. Neil challenged me to abandon this fight. I began to notice the evidence: throughout the 3 days of work with my colleagues, I found myself checking in each person’s lesson who had their cameras on (invested in the work of the person!–my assumption) and who didn’t. I noticed if more people had their cameras on for other lessons and not for mine (self worth check). Wow. Like that’s what matters.

OK. So…at Wednesday’s lesson, I made an important decision. Though I was stung by the “Bullfight” observation, I realized the truth of it. I decided to abandon the fight. I sang the first phrase of “You’ll never walk alone”–“when you walk through the storm”, and after just a few notes which felt completely honest, direct and free, I began to cry. Neil had said earlier in the week that I ought not to be surprised if I missed the drama of battle, and I understood that intellectually. But in that moment, I felt intense, overwhelming grief. I wanted so much to engage in that fight, and yet I recognized how unnecessary and futile it was. But I was so invested in it! I realized: I had created this fake Bullfight myself. I made the ring: I built the walls, I put in the sand, I had spent many years fashioning my costume, learning the moves. I had EARNED this Bullfight. But it was bullshit. And I mourned its loss, but also mourned all the energy I had put into it. And my ego wanted that PROVING GROUND sooooooo much. The recognition in this moment was seismic and profound.

So, dear readers (all 10 of you!!), I am sharing here for posterity that you may bear witness for the shift that I experienced this week. I know that it is not going to be smooth sailing from here on in, because I have had this apotheosis, this epiphany. From here starts the long journey of being willing to give up the Fight That Never Was. I was engaged in a battle of my own making. A battle that harmed and stymied and denied me as a person and an artist. Because make no mistake: what happens in singing is also happening in life. My endless efforts to seek the validation of others by “proving” my worth and screaming to the hilltops for recognition are not confined to my work as a singer, they are part of who I am. And for the record, I am henceforth attempting to keep dropping that beautiful red rag and simply not engaging in the fight. Because there is no fight. And there never was.