It has been well over a year since my last blog post. Why the delay? Any marketing expert will tell a small business owner to post regularly. I’m a voice teacher and a performer so I should be full of pithy, witty insights on music and I should be posting notifications of all of my gigs. What happened this year? I have plenty of material but I have been waiting for something meaningful to write about. It is also difficult to write when you are mentally and physically exhausted from the day’s routine. One cannot write and teach and look after kids at the same time. Writing requires focused concentration, at least in blocks of time. Those are in short supply unless I sacrifice sleep, which I’m seldom prepared to do since I like my bed very much. And so now that I have finally succeeded in getting down to writing this blog, I have found my topic: success, failure and mediocrity. Happy reading.
In Michelle Kaeser’s excellent essay, “Don’t Fear Failure: Why quitting gymnastics taught me the true meaning of success”, she describes a scene in the movie Amadeus where Salieri, who lives his final days in an insane asylum, driven mad with jealousy at Mozart’s talent, anoints himself the patron saint of mediocrity and says to his fellow inmates, “Mediocrities everywhere – now and to come – I absolve you all.” We all want to be successful in everything we do – no one wants to be mediocre. I think that we need to be realistic though and accept that there are a number of factors involved in why some of us succeed and some of us don’t. Success can also be a matter of perspective as success and mediocrity are not necessarily in the eyes of the beholder. It comes down to one having a finite number of personal resources and those vary for each individual. The desire and the drive to succeed are not enough.
I’ve noticed that most people are so terribly afraid to sing in public. Recently, my sister in law became a Canadian citizen. At the close of the ceremony, everyone rose for the singing of “O Canada”. I am very proud and these days, extremely grateful to be a Canadian and so I sang our national anthem reasonably loud, simply and with pride. People started looking at me furtively. I couldn’t hear the folks around me very well either. My brother, who was in the row ahead, looked behind immediately afterwards and cheekily said, “Show off.” He had a point, I guess. But this fear of singing a relatively easy, well-known song even when the circumstances publicly demand that you do so illustrate an example of a collective fear of failure. On occasions like these, I would like to stand up on a chair and proclaim, “It’s okay if you don’t have an extraordinary singing voice. Most of us don’t. Sing the anthem, for the love of Queen and Country!” Aside from the singing of the anthem though, I remained silent.
Some of those folks who do come to me for voice lessons are disappointed when they don’t sound like their favourite pop artists right away. What they don’t see are the hours of practice, the countless takes in the studio, the amount of money behind Katy Perry never mind the genetics which play a key role in determining one’s vocal quality. A great many resources are involved in making the Katy Perrys of this world.
I have had other lessons go like this: I often praise students for singing an exercise or a phrase well only to be met with an eye roll or a look that says, “Yeah right. You’re only just saying that. I’m not very good at this and I know it.” In the moment, what I want to say but don’t is, “You may never be a great singer but you’re doing the best with the materials that you’ve got. Enjoy every little victory.”
Whatever your artistic medium, most practitioners strive to be the absolute best they can be. While this is and should be the goal, it can be toxic to a person if they cannot get some perspective. While art can come close to attaining perfection, it’s made by human beings who are imperfect themselves as they attempt to understand what it is to be human. I’m not promoting sloppy vocal technique or under-preparation; however, one should acknowledge the possibility that their best may not earn them the success they desire. This is okay; this needs to be okay.
There is the argument that you only need to want something badly enough and you will succeed at it. The desire to succeed is certainly important but it isn’t the only resource that one needs to have. I’m not advocating that my students don’t strive to achieve their goals any more than I am giving up on trying to be the best vocal coach, performer and human being that I can be. I do think though that we need to accept that each of us has limited resources. Those resources could be financial, emotional, physical and mental. The last one is especially true. It takes a great deal of mental resources to live day to day, to balance the pressures of living. The most successful among us have an extraordinary combination of resources – whatever those continuously changing and shifting resources happen to be. Most of us are not extraordinary.
Like most women, I struggle to find the right work/life balance. Honestly, I would have preferred to have a more successful career as a vocal coach, a singer and as a songwriter. My career thus far has been satisfactory and I truly enjoy my work but I don’t make a great deal of money nor am I as accomplished a musician as I would like to be. Then there is keeping a home in order with the kids fed, happy and healthy, especially when one of them is severely disabled. The house is not orderly and tidy, the kids are not in more than one activity at a time and if I actually dared to post anything on a parenting blog, I would probably be running afoul. Still, I continue to endeavour to do my best with the resources that I have. That’s all I can do; it is all any of us can do and it’s enough. We can’t have everything despite my generation’s misguided belief that we could have everything – the career, the family and overall happiness. They can’t exist all at once.
Michelle Kaeser ends her essay with the following paragraph: “… maybe what we ought to do instead is acknowledge that real success, the kind of success we spend years striving for – true excellence – is, for most of us, simply beyond reach. Maybe all we really need to do is cop to this lack of excellence, own our failure, claim it as one of our defining characteristics, and then kneel humbly before the patron saint of mediocrity and allow ourselves to be forgiven for it.” I would like to take this lovely idea one step further. I would like to kneel before the patron saint of mediocrity and present my limited resources as an offering.