What I Always Wanted To Be

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I’m not super into Opera. There, I said it. I love to sing arias, but I’m not the type of singer who will listen to 10 productions of La Cenerentola and know who did the best performance in which Opera House and in what stage of their career.

I love singing.

I love the collaborative process of singing with an accompanist that you get to know over the years (I have the very best in the business). I love the moment when you’re about to perform something and you have to forget about how under-prepared you suddenly think you are, and just sing the damn piece. I love singing chamber music, I love singing French Art Song. I love the collaborative experience of choral singing; when you have moments that you’re so rhythmically and dynamically in-sync with 20 other people, you’re sure no one has ever made a sound like the one you’re making in that moment. I love so much more about singing than I’ll be able to write down here. And now I have stumbled upon an opportunity for my career that has been what feels like a long time coming, because it’s exactly what I want to be.

Have you ever seen something and known instantly that it’s for you? Maybe you’ve met someone and known straight away that you were going to be best friends. Maybe you saw a dress and knew it would look better on you than anyone else. Or maybe an idea popped into your head and you knew without a doubt it was an excellent one. I’ve been lucky enough to know that feeling a few times in my life. When I was 7 years old and my oldest sister was talking about going to University, I heard the name UWA and knew I needed to go there one day. After my first year of Uni (11 years later) I found out I could turn my Science degree that I had started into a double degree with Music. I instantly knew I had to audition for Music. Fast-forward to 6 years later and here I am with a Bachelor of Music (the double-degree didn’t last), and 5 and-a-half years of professional choral singing under my belt.

I am lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m lucky I had friends who told me I should audition for choirs, I’m lucky to have performed with some amazing people as a result of these choirs, and I’m lucky I had a singing teacher who supported my desire to be both a soloist and an ensemble singer. In the world of Classical Voice, there’s a lot of stigma around the fact that one cannot possibly be a soloist and an ensemble singer, particularly when you’re learning at a tertiary level. I have no doubt that not everyone has a voice that can be both – there has never been a classification system of voices that encompasses everyone – but I fully intend to be both a soloist and a choral singer.

WHAT?!?? Surely this is impossible, you say. But alas, it is not. There are so many singers the world over who sustain successful careers in both arenas. I know for a fact that Sara Macliver is a kickass ensemble singer as well as one of Australia’s most sought-after soprano soloists for all-things-early-and-classical-and-contemporary-and-everything. This is to say nothing of the hundreds (at least) who sustain careers in opera choruses, professional choirs and as amazing soloists. For some, it is a necessity (gotta pay them bills), but some people like me want to be both.

In 2012 I was lucky enough to perform a piece called ‘Spem in Alium’ by Thomas Tallis, as well as ‘Mass for 40 Voices’ by Alessandro Striggio. These pieces were both for – you guessed it – 40 individual parts. This performance was part of the Perth International Arts Festival, and was with the St George’s Cathedral Consort, players from WASO, and British Solo-Voice-Ensemble, I Fagiolini. It was one of the most memorable performances of my life to that point, not least because I was broadcast live around the nation on ABC Classic FM singing an extremely flat high G amongst a solo phrase in which the rest of the notes were in tune… I still don’t know what happened… The most remarkable part of this experience was meeting and rehearsing with I Fagiolini. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of them until this point, and I certainly had never heard of an ensemble that called itself a ‘Solo Voice Ensemble’. What does that even mean?

As it turns out, I Fagiolini is the only ensemble that markets itself in this way in the entire world. Its’ members have highly successful careers as both soloists and choral singers in the best choirs and on the best stages in London and the world. As it also turns out, their director Robert Hollingworth teaches a Masters program at the University of York, UK, in Solo Voice Ensemble Singing. 2012 was the first I heard of this, and I thought it sounded like a fun idea if I ever got around to leaving Australia.

Fast-forward to 2015. I had recently finished my Bachelor of Music and was doing a whole bunch of teaching and singing, along with many other things. Like many other people who have just finished Uni, and specifically degrees in Music, I didn’t really know what to do next. There’s a strange period of limbo when you finish your undergraduate study, and are trying to decide whether you’ll go and do more study, or abandon all of your musical hopes and dreams and go work in a 9 to 5 office job somewhere. Boy, wouldn’t a salary be nice…

I am lucky in my life to have friends who don’t let me waste my life. Thanks to the persistence of one or two friends in particular, I sort of accidentally found myself looking up Masters degrees in the UK, and then I happened to email Robert Hollingworth and all of a sudden I had a Skype audition. Skip past the waiting periods and submitting of paperwork etc, and I now find myself with an offer to be the type of singer I now know that I always wanted to be.

I say “…I now know that I always wanted to be” because up until 6 months ago, trying to be a soloist and an ensemble singer didn’t feel like an option. It’s certainly not an option in Australia, and I happen to have been accepted into the only Masters Course in the world that I think will train me to be what I want to be. The older I get, the more I realise that the type of singer I want to be, rather than being boxed into voice and repertoire types, is one who understands every aspect of my voice in such a way that I can sing any kind of music that my instrument is suited to. I know I’ll never be a Wagnerian soprano, and I might never have kick-ass Coloratura, but that’s ok because I was born with the voice I’ve got. That’s not to say that my voice hasn’t changed at all since I was born – I now have a voice that’s worth many years of hard work and a $25,000 HECS debt – but my instrument will never be capable of exactly the same things as my colleagues. And why would I want it to be? Why would I want to sound exactly the same as everybody else?

If every singer sounded like each other, then singers like Dame Joan, Maria Callas, Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann, Joyce DiDonato, heck even Florence Foster-Jenkins wouldn’t have existed. Would you enjoy a performance of the Marriage of Figaro where the Countess and Susanna sounded exactly the same? My identity as a singer is not the same as the next person’s, and nor should it be. I think that when you are a young singer, you are presented with a limited number of options as to what kind of singer you can be. Being a singing teacher myself, I can see exactly why institutions teach in that way. There are so many people studying singing, and only a small number of jobs and opportunities for the lucky few. The opportunities you may get will tend to present themselves in a way where you have to fit the mold of a singer in the same way as people have been doing for hundreds of years before you. Competitions, Opera Houses, Young Artist Programs – they all know what they’re looking for, and institutions have to prepare you for that.

I don’t think there are enough people telling young musicians that they can blaze a trail that’s different to those who have gone before them. I know in most cases it’s not as simple as being able to break away from what’s conventional and try and build your own career. Not many of us are lucky enough to have been born into families who can support us well into our 30s as we try and make our way through unconventional means.

I feel as though I am coming towards something that fits into exactly who I am as a musician, and will stretch me to become who I want to be. It is one of those moments where you know instantly that this thing is for me. So now the only thing for it is to try and raise the money from somewhere to make this happen. The topic of Grant Applications is one that warrants its’ own blog post (get excited young singers, for that is your future), but as well as those I am fundraising through something called the Australian Cultural Fund. It’s like crowd funding, but all donations over $2 are tax-deductible.

Click link to donate to Brianna now.

I hope that in reading this post you have been inspired in some way to find a strain of music-making that is unique to what you adore. Maybe you love Mozart Operas, maybe you love to sing music written in the 20th-Century and beyond, maybe you love chamber music. Whatever it is, you should explore it. While you’re young you have all the time in the world to try things out and become really good at them. Then one day you’ll be like me, applying for grants so you can be everything you now know you always wanted to be.

Photos Courtesy of Kristyn Rowland Photography.
Written by Brianna Louwen

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