During my last few years at high school, I was in love with performance. Or at least, the idea of performance. I always jumped at the chance to sing a solo in front of the whole school, and with my teacher at the time, these chances were not scarce: she understood my ambition and gently nudged me towards vocal opportunities she thought would be appropriate for me, and steered me away from anything that could prove detrimental to my young voice. Quite a lot of the time, this was a bitter pill to swallow – other singers my age were already performing at a national level. I seemed to exist in a constant cycle of envy, disillusion, and determination to prove myself, even if it meant putting myself in a vocally precarious position. Most of the time, I was confident in my ability, a trait which was nurtured by being in good favour with the music department and therefore being asked to take on solos and such like.
Edinburgh was sold to me as having a fantastic all-round music course – a good grounding for postgraduate study at a conservatoire, something I aspired to more than anything. I was ecstatic when I got my offer and accepted straight away. I knew there would be written work involved, but to me, that was by-the-by – all that mattered was that I was one step closer to being on that concert hall stage.
For the first couple of months at university (before my depression started really), I held onto this ambition. But the truth is, I was discouraged by the amazing performance ability of my peers. I slipped down a fach and became a mezzo-soprano, which only disheartened me further – everyone always rave about how mezzos are much rarer than sopranos and how valuable a mezzo voice is, but the truth is, I was more preoccupied with the fact that there are comparatively fewer mezzo roles in opera, fewer mezzo solos in choral works. I suddenly felt cut off from these opportunities.
However, I’ve recently realised that maybe a performance career wasn’t something I really wanted for myself. All my life, I’ve been one of these people who adapts their ambition based on the environment and people, rather than having a true sense of self. At school, I was convinced performance was for me, but now I realise that was probably I was so close to my singing teacher and I was so focussed on singing that I didn’t really consider other avenues. Now, the tables have turned: it’s no longer a case of “I’m a performer, but I don’t mind the more academic stuff”, but rather “I’m an academic, but I don’t mind performing”. The thing is, I’ve always been a strong writer. I love writing essays, sad as it sounds. I love autonomously researching things, forming my own opinions and then sculpting these opinions into a coherent argument. I have an academic brain, and I always have, it’s just that other stuff got in the way. This is why I have decided that doing something like teaching is maybe more “me”.
And the truth is, realising where my strengths truly lie has made my life seem so much…freer. When I was focussed on performance, I would meticulously monitor my diet, I would shirk the idea of ever getting any tattoos or piercings because it wouldn’t look professional onstage, I would always seek more opportunities to sing, neglecting my other interests in the process. My new perspective has made me feel like my own person again. I am once again ruled by my mind and my heart, rather than my larynx. So I’m not a soprano – who cares? I’ll sing whatever is comfortable, because in the end, it’s just a small part of music and it’s not worth stressing over. So I decide I want to get a tattoo, or put another hole in my ear? Great, why not? So someone offers me one cigarette at a party? I don’t ever want to be a smoker, but why should I feel obliged to say no just because of my voice? If I say no, it should be because I don’t want to, and not because I have a reputation as a singer to uphold. So I’d rather spend my spare time baking cakes or reading or roller skating, instead of singing in every choir available? That’s wonderful. I’m going to fight this idea that I have to be “sensible” because it’s what my instrument demands of me. Maybe what my heart demands of me is much more important.
So, next time someone offers me that third glass of wine the night before a concert, I will say “why not?” and knock it back without regret.