Begging your pardon.

Even the most mediocre of us will do at least one great thing while on earth. It might be something that gains widespread recognition, or it might be as small as having a conversation with a random at a wedding that really has an impact on their life.

My great moment came a little over a month ago.

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Me too.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week, you are likely to have heard something about the allegations of sexual assualt made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. And unless you’re one of those people who can miraculously go days or longer without logging on to social media, you’ve most likely seen tweets or statuses consisting of the following two words:

Me too.

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The Fluffy Croquette

So for the last 14 months I’ve been trying to think of what insights and advice I could give to singers experiencing the immediate aftermath of conservatorium. Having finished my Master of Early Music in June 2016, surely I should have something to say, some advice or recommendation to give, some wisdom to impart?

Nope. No I don’t. Not yet at least.

So instead I’m going to write about my cat.

While on the unsuccessful foray across the southern border, an extremely ill-informed decision was made to adopt a cat. Despite A being so much of a dog person that he likes them better than most people, we believed that with his full time work schedule and my unpredictable travelling, taking on a cat would be a better fit for the household, due to their presumed greater independence.

Only problem is, we didn’t get a cat. We got a psycho kitten, who turned out to require 7 galaxies more work than your average dog. Her name was Croqueta, she terrorised us on a daily basis, and I adored her.

 

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Clusterfuck.

Sometimes I am convinced that rather than being a human of standard skeletal construction, I am in fact a mutant. A mutant with a weapon built in to my anatomy, and angled in such a way that no matter what posture I adopt, no matter how I attempt to align myself, I am biologically designed to shoot myself in the foot.

Obviously, this is a metaphor. I’m relatively certain that had I been born with such an actual disfigurement, my parents would have had a surgeon sort it out.

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Baptism of Tears.

A little over two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to sing in the final concert of the St. Matthew Passion with the Nederlands Kamerkoor and Holland Baroque, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.

Coming from rural Australia, the music of Bach had never been a significant part of my cultural landscape before moving to the Netherlands, a country which unfailingly each year has almost daily performances of the Bach Passions in every church and concert hall in the weeks that surround Easter.

Given that I would be performing with musicians who have quite literally performed the St. Matthew Passion hundreds of times, whereas I would be performing it for the very first time, I expected to have a distinctly different experience rehearsing and performing this work than my colleagues. I went into the project feeling ignorant and ill-informed, expecting those around me to be filled with a profound gratification that surely must come from having such a degree of insight and understanding of any piece of music.

It seemed, however, that both ignorance and over-exposure can breed a certain unintentional indifference. Before this project, I had no personal musical or emotional connection to the Matthew Passion. From some of the conversations I had with colleagues, it would appear that performing this piece with such regularity and often with a consistency of approach had led to a certain numbness, the intense personal connection they once had felt so strongly had been stripped away through familiarity. The unrelenting pace of Passion Season inadvertently created musical somnambulists.

How lucky then to have Reinbert de Leeuw to shake us out of our apathy! He came to this work completely convinced and convincing in his own unique, individual understanding of the text and the music. For every single chorus, chorale, aria, or recitative, Reinbert had a clear and considered vision. He was able to take all of us, whether we were singing this music for the first time or hundred and first time, on a path of discovery, stopping at moments along the way to point out a perspective, colour, or detail that would have otherwise slipped by unnoticed.

The sensitivity to the text in the chorales was a particular revelation. The expression was not subjugated to a ruthless tempo, but was instead dynamic, flexible, and responsive to the meaning of the text. Many times during rehearsals, I heard people saying they had never realised how moving a particular moment could be, or they had forgotten the true power of the text. Some singers were moved to tears during rehearsals.

Personally, I was struck by the quintessential humanity Reinbert was able to connect us with. I am not religious, yet the magnitude of the crucifixion story touched me like never before. The degree of suffering, and the injustice of the most innocent being punished for the sins of humanity took on a universal relevance, a story not only for believers, but for all of us who live, and love, and hurt. The clarity of Reinbert’s message made it on occasion profoundly uncomfortable to sing the words. It was not pleasant to mock Jesus on the cross, to rejoice in the spilling of his blood, with the full and deliberate awareness that the consistent cruelty of mankind renders us undeserving of the sacrifice.

But this should not be an easy work to sing.

As a student of historically informed performance, singing the St. Matthew Passion with one of the world’s most versatile choirs and a leading Baroque orchestra, I was initially focussed on how I should sing this music stylistically, thinking that through my correct use of appoggiatura, vocal tone, vibrato, and articulation I would show my engagement with the music. It took working with a conductor from a completely different world to reveal to me the superficiality of those questions. The initial difficulty I had adapting to an unexpected tempo, character or dynamic revealed to me how Early Music has come to be defined by a collection of conventions and expectations, the same Early Music movement that started off as a rejection of unquestioning acceptance of tradition.

Reinbert de Leeuw’s interpretation of the St. Matthew Passion convinced me that instead of asking how we will play a particular piece, perhaps we should be asking why. The style is the way in which we communicate the message, but it is not the message itself. A particular tempo or ornament means nothing in isolation, these musical elements are how we express the thought, feeling, or story that inspires the creation of music in the first place. Even within the realm of Early Music, there is no such thing as a right performance, we should not be concerned whether we are correct, but rather whether we are convincing. And whether the audience or performers personally agreed with each of Reinbert’s musical decisions, there is no denying that each choice proved the contemplation and raw honesty behind his approach, making this one of the most compelling performances I have ever experienced.

Subtext.

All those who know me are well aware of the fact that I am not particularly good at expressing my feelings. Or rather, I am not very good at expressing my feelings to those who are the subject of them. I’m terrified of rejection and being vulnerable, so when I really value someone, like, or love them, I don’t say anything. I shy away from confrontation, so never tell people when they have done something I think is wrong, annoying or unfair. Instead, I bottle all this up until it inevitably explodes out at some point, usually in a singing lesson, shocking my teachers into thinking I’m some kind of psycho who has breakdowns over being asked to alter the length of an appoggiatura.

I’m not touchy about my appoggiaturas, but if anyone criticises my trill, they had better be prepared to watch me go all kinds of crazy.

I’ve become so skilled at suppressing my feelings, I often I manage to hide them from myself. At least while I’m awake.

Going to sleep is one of the most entertaining parts of my day, because every night without fail I have ridiculously vivid, absurdly detailed dreams. Usually it’s just my brain processing the day that just happened in its own nutcase way. But every now and then my brain identifies some kind of deep-rooted emotional issue or situation going on that it feels I’m not addressing properly, and tries to bring it to my attention.

But of course, seeing as I can’t have a conversation with my brain without being completely off my rocker or in a surprisingly moving animated Disney film, my subconscious has to try and communicate through symbols. In many instances, it is not very original. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I dream that I am swimming in the ocean, but the waves are getting bigger and bigger, and the sand is being constantly eroded, creating a cliff that makes it impossible to get out of the water. Everyone else is having a lovely time at the beach, and I’m the only one that notices there’s a frigging tsunami headed our way.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been stressed out over the rapidly approaching deadline of my Master thesis, but trying to convince myself (and my supervisor) that everything is just fine and dandy, and that have ample time to do everything I should have been doing for the last eighteen months.

My brain isn’t buying any of that crap. In place of the standard “in over your head” dream, it has substituted one where I’m about to reach the summit of a huge mountain, but I spark an avalanche that over the course of many video game like levels, destroys not only me, but all of my friends and any other randoms unfortunate enough to be on my dream mountain.

Yes, my subconscious quite literally has the subtlety of an avalanche to the face.

Which makes me a bit dubious about my other consistently recurring dream. Whenever I am feeling doubtful about my musical path, or feeling trapped by a particular creative situation, I dream that I have to safely guide my family’s old cat through swamps and lakes filled with crocodiles that want to eat her. I’m pretty sure the cat represents my artistic identity. Which is a bit insulting, because it means my subconscious thinks my creative soul looks like this:

Floss

No wonder I sing so well.

It’s not you, it’s me… I just need some space.

I often complain about the Dutch lack of kinaesthetic awareness. I think that in two and a half years in the Netherlands, I’ve been bumped into by more strangers than during all the other years of my life combined. I accept that sometimes this happens because the top of my head sits so far below the standard Dutch eye level. But mostly I think it’s a matter of personal space.

Australia has a population of 23 million. The Netherlands has a population of about 17 million. However, Australia is about 205 times larger than the Netherlands, which means I require about 160 times more personal space than the average Dutch person.

Australia vs. Europe

You would think that with a large population in such a tiny area the Dutch would be more, not less considerate of getting in other people’s way. But having spent the Christmas break (plus a bit more) in Australia and being instantly overwhelmed by the crush of people upon my return to Den Haag, it has been illustrated time and again that this is not the case.

I’ve identified four public spaces that are favourite congregation points for Dutchies:

1. At the end of an escalator. Because it’s inefficient to move to the side to figure out which direction to take, in case you end up on the wrong side. Much better to deliberate exactly in front of the escalator.

2. In the middle of a flight of stairs. A perfect place to catch up on some gossip, make Saturday night plans, or ponder the meaning of life.

3. In the crossroads of busy pedestrian corridors. With relentless tides of foot traffic coming from every direction, the best approach is to plant yourself like a rock in the middle of all oncoming traffic in order to consult Google Maps.

4. Immediately inside or outside a doorway. It would appear the Dutch value the ambiance of a shop as much as the products they sell, as they prefer to step just inside a shop in order to decide whether they actually want to peruse the merchandise. And if they do perchance make a purchase, they will hover immediately outside for a few minutes, just to be conveniently close in case they end up with buyer’s remorse.

I often end up startled and alarmed whilst out and about in the Netherlands as people encroach upon my personal space . To those Dutchies that I jump away from with a look of horror and disgust, it’s nothing personal. I just need my space.

Space that happens to be the exact same height, depth and breadth as you.