Singing Journey

In January 2017 I was sitting at my desk in my elementary music classroom. I had just finished teaching a particularly challenging group of 1st graders, I was totally used up and exhausted and my day was only half way over. I thought about how my voice was already shot and I hadn’t even practiced that day, actually I haven’t even practiced at all the entire week! Another week gone by that I haven’t done the thing I love, at all. Suddenly a realization hit me like a lightning bolt. “I am done. I have to quit teaching and focus entirely on singing. If I don’t do this I will never be happy.” I immediately stood up, walked into the front office and scheduled a meeting with my principals for the next day. I cried as I sat in the office telling my supervisors that I was planning on quitting teaching elementary music so I could pursue my singing career; the news was sad and unexpected because I had become a beloved member of the community, I was good at teaching elementary music and we were all concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find a replacement that would do justice to the program I had worked so hard to build. Besides the grief of leaving this beloved community, I was in shock that I actually had the guts to make this declaration to them, and to the universe at large. I am going to quit my job and pursue a career singing opera, at 28 years old (ageism is a real thing in the opera world), with almost no classical technique, and no time or money. It sounded insane, and who the hell did I think I was anyway, outrageously staking claim to this dream life? How am I going to make money? What about health insurance? How am I going to get married, have a baby and do all of this at the same time with no stable income? I knew that it didn’t make sense, I felt afraid and nervous because I was taking a huge risk but I also knew that there was no other option if I wanted to live every moment of this precious human life to its fullest. 

 

I had always loved to sing, and when I was a kid I thought I was great at it. I would sing for my friends, my friends parents, my teachers (anyone who would listen, really!) sing around the house, on my bike, outside. I had a music teacher in elementary school named Mr. Polinski and he would always encourage me to sing. He gave me special solo performances at choir concerts and school assemblies. I would go into his room during lunch and recess and he would coach me through songs preparing me for my upcoming performances. We would do “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Star Spangled Banner” and he would tell me how special my voice was. I still remember his face so clearly while he coached me, his mouth and eyes open wide, his white beard and eyebrows coming alive with enthusiasm, encouraging me to let the sound come generously pouring out. These were some of the most magical and important vocal coachings of my life, I would later realize. 

 

In middle school, I had less than inspiring singing experiences. I joined choir, and became a face in a sea of pre-teens on the risers in our middle school auditorium, and all of a sudden my special talent was not so special anymore. There were lots of kids who could sing just as well as me, if not better, and I didn’t have any mentors like my dear Mr. Polinski emboldening me to keep sharing my gift. I remember hearing one of my exceptionally gifted classmates audition for a solo and thinking “How can she sing like that when she is only 12 years old?! I wish I could sing with that much confidence and ease.” My choir teacher was so overwhelmed with the demands of public school and managing a group of 80 middle schoolers that there was no room for musical thriving, just surviving. To make it work, our teacher tried to turn us into a herd of sheep, getting us all to do the same thing at the same time, with little to no room for individual expression. I began to feel like sharing my voice was vulnerable and risky, I could get in trouble or be criticized by my classmates. Most of the time when I sang at home, my parents and brothers would get sick of it and ask me to stop, and I started to feel like my voice was more of an annoyance than anything, apparently not worth sharing anymore. I started to learn that it was best to keep the gift quiet and to myself. 

 

When I got to high school, I had the great good fortune of having an incredibly inspiring choir teacher, Mrs. Terri Willmarth. Our choirs were top notch, competitive, and we held ourselves to high standards. I was a leader in my choirs, mostly due to the fact that I showed up, cared deeply and highly respected and admired Mrs.Willmarth. I continued to struggle with my confidence as a soloist, however. I tried out for solos all the time and never got one - I vividly remember the last time I auditioned for a solo my senior year, getting turned down, and thinking “well I guess that was my last chance.” I felt defeated and unworthy. I auditioned for musicals, but never got the leading roles I wanted so badly. I kept myself busy playing sports, being on the debate team, student senate, socializing and I never committed myself to voice lessons, even though I loved to sing so much. I didn’t have anyone compelling me to take lessons, and I  apparently didn’t think that was for me anyhow, likely because I assumed my parents would say no because of the financial investment, or I thought I didn’t have time with school, sports, choir and my social life. My voice didn’t feel like a gift anymore, but it was still the thing I loved doing the most (even though I spent the least amount of time doing it!). Choir was a nice middle ground because I could still sing without taking the risk of singing alone and being silenced yet again. Nevertheless, there was still this quiet little voice inside urging me to keep going, and my junior year I decided that I wanted to go to music school. 

 

As I was preparing my auditions and my applications, I applied to pursue a double major in music education and vocal performance. Somehow, despite all the hardship I had experienced in the preceding years around my voice, I still felt determined to sing. Mr. Polinski’s face would come to mind, his rosy cheeks, enthusiastic smile peeking through his white beard and his eyebrows raised in excitement, reminding me that my voice could bring joy and love to people if I kept sharing it. I auditioned for one program, at the University of Northern Colorado, and it was recommended to me that I forgo the idea of a double major and just focus on music education, apparently because I wasn’t talented or skilled enough to get into the performance program. I was heartbroken, and defeated again. I decided that the way I would make an impact on the world would be to teach music to kids, and give up on my dream of being a professional singer. It was time to get real, be sensible, and get a degree in something that I could actually have a career in.

 

As I moved through my degree program, I learned about the art of opera theater and fell madly in love. Thanks to my teacher, Mr. William Wilson, I spent two summers singing in professional opera choruses in Germany along with my classmates. We were young singers galavanting around Europe in costumes, stage makeup and character shoes, singing on sidewalks, cafe patios, in palaces and abandoned castles. We would all be out together, drinking German beer, or sparkling white wine from the Rhine River valley and enjoying our time off from rehearsals and performances, and a local would ask us what this large group of American 20 somethings was doing in their little town. We would tell them that we were here performing in the upcoming production of Carmen, Aida, or Tosca, and smiles would spread across their faces. “Sing for us!” they would exclaim, and we would all stand up, burst into one of our favorite choruses, and then sit down and go back to our bubbles. It was one of the most thrilling and romantic times of my life, being far away with my best friends, singing music that lit my heart on fire and enchanting audiences all over the continent with our youthful exuberance and furor. At the time, though, I wasn’t even totally awake to how alive and satisfied I felt. I believed that I was still destined to commit myself to music education. Little did I know that this experience would change me forever, and inspire me later in life to make drastic changes to my path. 

 

Ultimately, though, I graduated, worked at a number of different jobs, traveled the world and eventually settled back in Colorado teaching elementary music. I forgot the magic of my time singing opera in Germany and I wasn’t even aware that a singing career was an option for me. I was unhappy, unhealthy, deeply struggling with anxiety and depression without even realizing it, having trouble maintaining intimate relationships, and I didn’t even know what kind of life I wanted. 

 

Fast forward to that winter day in 2017, when I was sitting in my cluttered, chaotic elementary school music room and I reached deep into my heart to find and fight for my happiness. I quit my elementary music job, started teaching private lessons and got a job making $20 an hour as a legal secretary. I committed myself to weekly voice lessons, and started carving time out of my schedule every week to practice singing. I started working my way towards making self expression essential.

 

My path since then has been long and winding, with lots of surprises, miracles, unexpected obstacles, silver linings, dark hours and bright, blessed days. My life today looks drastically different from my life then.

 

Today, not a day goes by that I don’t feel immense gratitude for the life I have created, and for the life I am creating. Each day I am living my dream life: I have organized an accomplished jazz trio that makes me a significant portion of my income each year, I sing classical repertoire for a local arts organization, I am participating in auditions and applying for programs that will catapult me forward into the world of opera, and I am teaching voice at the college where I live, thereby immersing myself in the academic world of singing once again. My private lesson studio is booked, and I have a waiting list of students who want to study with me. I bought a home with my beloved partner, and we are intentionally and happily building a marriage and a family together. I am the healthiest I have ever been, physically, mentally and emotionally. I make decisions that are in the best interest of my overall well being, I can skillfully manage depression and anxiety, I feel energized when I wake up in the morning, and my work-life balance is ever improving so I don’t feel completely spent at the end of each day. I have time and energy to take care of my home and family, have a satisfying professional life, make an impact in my community and feel energized by it all. When I take a hard look at where I have come I am in awe of what I have accomplished, and that I haven’t quit. Some days I honestly can’t believe I am still committed to this path. I would have never made it this far if I hadn’t intentionally worked to cultivate tenacious determination, self compassion, self love, self worth, and most of all trust that everything is going to work out if I follow what feels valuable and satisfying to me, instead of what everyone around me is saying I should do. I took a daring leap to prioritize what is truly most important to me, to make singing an essential pursuit in this life, and the benefits I have reaped from this commitment were unexpected and so full of richness that I can’t help but share what I have learned with the world. 

 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading my story. I hope it stirred some inspiration and determination within you. 

© 2019 by Bailey Barnes  |   Soprano