Crossover Corner: Making Your Mind A Judgment-Free Zone

Crossover Corner: Making Your Mind A Judgment-Free Zone

Happy New Year! And welcome back to “Crossover Corner!” If you’re new to this space, welcome! You’re joining a wonderful community of singers, teachers of singing, and those who coach, nurture, and guide them. My wish for each of you in the new year is one of personal empowerment. And it’s my hope that you’ll gift yourself some time to reflect on the words and advice of the artists here to aid you in transforming that wish into a reality, specifically by ridding yourself of self-judgment. 

To get this new year empowerment party started, let’s turn to two of the most empowering artists I can think of: star mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and star composer Jake Heggie. As an audience member at the Metropolitan Opera’s company premiere of Heggie’s 21st century operatic masterpiece, Dead Man Walking, I felt as though I was communing with both the composer and the opera’s star, Joyce DiDonato, as she breathed and sang life (both her own and Sister Helen Prejean’s) into what Heggie refers to as “an intimate story with large forces at work.” DiDonato’s organic and fully integrated approach to embodying a character serves Heggie’s soaring yet intimate score in ways that made the Met’s cavernous house feel like a small screening room. I felt connected to them both. 

Jake Heggie and OPERA America CEO and president, Marc A. Scorca

The night after Dead Man Walking opened the Metropolitan Opera’s current season, OPERA America presented Jake Heggie in Conversation with Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America, at the National Opera Center. In a wide-ranging conversation about his amazing career trajectory (which on its own is an extraordinary example of crossover forces at work), his checklist for composers wishing to write an opera or theater piece, and his deep admiration of singers, Heggie articulated something about opera singers that affirmed, empowered, and stirred me:

I am primarily a theater composer, so the composers I’m most interested in mentoring are composers who have theatrical interest—who love the voice, because you have to love the voice and you have to love and respect singers. I don’t know of anything more challenging or braver than being a great opera singer, on the stage, in front of thousands of people, trusting this to work [pointing to his throat]—trusting your body to do all of these things, and deliver at top level, every single time. Maybe the tempo is suddenly different. Maybe someone forgets their line. Maybe your costume doesn’t fit right. Maybe you’re not feeling well that day, and you can’t tune your instrument the way other people can tune their instrument, and they expect you still to be spot on pitch. If you don’t have that kind of admiration [for singers], don’t do it.  



I left the National Opera Center and headed out onto 7th Avenue feeling like I could do anything! What a gift it was—what it is—to be reminded of the many pools of strengths and skills from which trained opera singers can draw. Jake Heggie’s own career exemplifies the power that crossover, synchronicity, and the many intersections of the personal and professional can have in propelling us toward artistic and professional prosperity. And as far as our ongoing discussion of crossover is concerned, it’s crucial to continually be able to empower oneself—especially when a teacher or iconic living composer isn’t conveniently nearby to do the sometimes heavy lifting of inspiring us. 

 Take a moment to reflect on your own hard-won bravery and deftness in accepting challenges—think competitions, YAP auditions, juries, and singing in 4+ languages (and understanding their respective conjugations and epoch-specific stylist nuances), to name a few. The skills and agility implicated in that unexhaustive list are demonstrative of but a mere few skills that can empower us to say yes to programming and performing repertoire outside of our initial training. 

Jake Heggie and Peter Thoresen

And if the committee between your ears is already piping up in judgment, I invite you to quiet it by drawing from some further wisdom and guidance from Joyce DiDonato: “If your brain and mind [are] occupied with judging yourself, how can [they] possibly express everything that you are?” 

DiDonato posed this question to soprano Jazmine Saunders moments after she sang a rather flawless-sounding “Caro nome” at one of DiDonato’s sold-out master classes at Carnegie Hall, just two days after concluding her run as Sister Helen in Dead Man Walking a little farther uptown at Lincoln Center. DiDonato had just led Saunders through a walk & talk, an interrogative/spoken series of prompts (while expertly dispatching Gilda’s famed aria), and Saunders noted afterward that “While walking around this space with you, I was preoccupied. There was no room for me to kind of judge myself and how I was sounding, or how this phrase went.”

DiDonato counseled, “[The mind is] busy. It’s busy saying, ‘That’s not good enough.’ And I know that’s not why you sing. I know you sing to do something very different. Right? So, you’re not doing your job if you’re allowing the judgmental voice to come in—you’re not doing your job. We think we are, as singers—we think we’re being diligent. We think we’re being hard on ourselves. That’s going to make us better, that I have to hold myself to a standard, because I can. We think being judgmental is actually going to help us. All it does is get in the way. And it impedes the purity of your voice and your spirit to come through—and the character. 



“And in order to hide what’s going on in our heads, we present, and we act like an opera singer. And we make sure that everything is correct, so that people won’t actually see what’s going on inside here. And we mask it, through perfection—through posture. And we don’t just go, ‘I’m gonna do my best.’

“There is a time for discipline. I think being hard on ourselves can be good in moderation—because we’ve chosen a profession where perfection is the standard. [But] it’s never, ever achieved. Never. It is never achieved. There is always more to drill and mine in music. It’s music! It’s our soul. It’s our spirit. It’s Mozart coming to life from 300 years ago! Or Verdi…. There’s no perfection. We have to have a lot of discipline, a lot of tenacity, a lot of grace, a lot of patience to go deeper, and deeper, and deeper, and deeper. And then we have to say, ‘It is what it is today. I’ve done my best.’”  

Joyce DiDonato and Peter Thoresen

I left Carnegie Hall after that masterclass feeling free—free to give myself some grace in my own singing and artistic decisions and with the singers I work with. And in the same way that I did a month earlier at the Heggie event, I felt empowered to put down the bat and pick up the weather when the voice(s) of judgment are demanding airtime. As classical singers, so many of us find ourselves stuck in the bondage of perfection that we are risk averse to most or all opportunities and repertoire related to crossover. 

I encourage you to sit for a moment with these risks and fears as they arise. View them in relation to Heggie’s affirmation of the vast skill sets trained opera singers possess. And view them alongside DiDonato’s charge that perfection is never achieved. Why not give yourself (or your students) the opportunity to take some calculated artistic risks in the new year—you’re prepared for them! 

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).