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The Art in Yourself

This summer I was reading a biography of Jed Harris, one of the most successful Broadway producers of this century. I came upon a paragraph that really hit me. It has to do with how we view success. Mr. Harris felt that he had totally miscast a major Broadway show, “The Royal Family,” which was a parody on the antics of the Barrymore family. He was so upset by what he felt was imperfect casting that he even refused to stay in the country for the opening. It became one of the most acclaimed plays of the season, and went on to become legendary in theatrical annals. He said it was at this point that he realized that “perfectionism is the last resort of the amateur.” I thought a lot about this statement. I have noticed how in this quest of being perfect we have squeezed all of the life out of our ability to perform. We have turned the desire to be perfect into a way of not fulfilling our talent, and in that respect we remain unsuccessful, the eternal amateur. We have confused being carefully perfect with being meticulous. One implies fear and the other a dedication to being clear in our purpose. Ultimately our task is to serve the composer and the poet with clarity and a sense of selflessness, and touch our listeners with a moment of truth and beauty. That ability to freely express the music is in itself the core of success. Nowhere does it say to do this “perfectly.” It does say to do what you do with meaning.

A major lifetime benefit that the development of your talent can give you is the self-assurance of a job well done. That in itself is success. But learning how to use your instrument with assurance in order to express yourself and touch your audience without that demon of self-criticism—now THAT is a major success. I have been witness to some of our greatest singers flubbing lines, laughing at themselves and just getting on with it. The only thing that I noticed was that it endeared them to an imperfect audience. That is not to say that one shouldn’t prepare oneself to the fullest extent. But it is important to allow and forgive human error within the context of the entire piece.

How fortunate to have the talent to be able to sing, yet it so easy to let this good fortune become a burden. Get out of the habit of comparing yourself with others. Learn and serve your art. Keep in your heart that the real reason for singing is to be faithful to music, and to reach and touch an audience with the composer’s intention. It's magical when that happens. That uplifting of an audience doesn't have to take place in one of the major opera houses of the world. It can happen in your church job, or for a group of the elderly or infirm, or in convincing a youngster that there is something wonderful to hear in classical music.

Stanislavsky, the innovative teacher of acting who brought reality and humanism to acting said, “you must love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” Follow your star with courage and conviction with this in your heart and you will find success on your own terms. Enjoy the process along the way. If you aim for the stars, you might end up a big star or maybe be just a little to the left of the big star, or even in the Milky Way, but it is important to know how all of those stars illumine our lives.

—This was published in the “April Classical Singer,” which used to be “NY Opera Newsletter.” It’s a magazine to keep singers apprised of what auditions are current and prints articles that are supposed to address various areas of “the biz.” The editor asked me to write something to tell young singers that there are lots of ways to be in music—some young fellow had just committed suicide because he hadn't “made” it.