Getting your hands dirty (Snappa, June 2022)

I’m back in person at Opera Nuova this year for the first time in three years. So much feels different, and yet so much is the same as always. There are singers who are keen and wide open for learning, and others who are struggling to avail themselves of what’s on offer. There are those who lack confidence, and those who brim with it (sometimes to a fault!). There are those who are scared, lost and blocked, and others who just want to dive right in. And the absence of working in an ensemble and exchanging creative energy and ideas with others in the same space, in Real Time, over the last two years of pandemic has certainly taken a toll. However…

What I am reminded of again and again as I work with these young people is that there is no substitute for practice. And when I say practice, I don’t mean what we often (in the music world, particularly classical music) associate with that word–the drudgery of slogging through things again and again, without mindful attention, in a room by ourselves. What I mean is the dedication to and practice of a craft that is never-ending, always evolving. The “getting your hands dirty”, the being willing to muck about again and again, the getting it wrong, noticing what’s happening, taking another stab at it. Doing it all again. And again. And again.

One thing has popped out to me in the last couple of days of teaching: I notice more readily (is it new? I think not) how often young artists believe that once they have received the information once, they’ve “got” it, and they will have it now forever. Nothing could be further from the truth. To feel like you have grasped something in the confines of the lesson (or class) setting only means that you have tasted success once, fleetingly. In order for such new learning to stick, it must be unpacked and practiced again and again, so that it can become embodied. There’s absolutely no way around it.

I see singers day after day, wanting to come in with something new each time, not wanting to re-investigate what they have recently learned in order to refine it, sculpt it, feel it, KNOW it. There seems to be a misconception around what true process and practice is. It’s cultural, I think: we look for the quick fix, the magic pill, the secret sauce. And are continually thwarted in this quest, because none of those things really exist. Why do we desire them in the first place? Why are we so lacking in curiosity, in adventure? We want to possess things and then move on to the next shiny object. The reality is so much less dazzling, and yet so much more rewarding. Getting our hands dirty, sitting in the divine discomfort of not knowing, but simply doing, being, creating: this is the process, the PRACTICE. Rinse, repeat.