Inspirazione! : What Size Pond Are You Swimming In?

Going from high school to college or a conservatory is a huge transition. It is a time when you can let go of an old identity and become, in many ways, a new person. This may be a positive or a negative experience, but it will certainly be a time of learning and reevaluation. If you are a singer in high school who is a big fish in a small pond, with solos and leading parts galore, it may be that when you get to college, the pond will be bigger and teeming with more-talented fish. The stiffer competition may be demoralizing.

A friend of mine played leads all through high school and then went to an Ivy League school. The competition and the loss of her star status were so overwhelming to her that she pretty much gave up her dreams of being a performer. Conversely, I felt somewhat limited in high school (often feeling I was in the shadow of this same friend) and found that college was the time of my artistic first bloom, because of freedom from family constraints, and exposure to better teaching and more inspiring peers.

Later in life, such dramatic transitions may be few and far between and may depend more on the personal choice to move on. Also, the pressure of feeling the need to continually move “onward and upward” may limit your vision of possibilities. So here are the questions I’d like to raise this month: What size of pond are you swimming in? Why and how are you keeping yourself in that pond? What size of pond would you be happiest in?

Some examples of swimming in a big pond include living in a large city, studying with a well-known teacher who teaches mainly working and advanced professionals, and auditioning for or singing with larger companies. Smaller pond examples include living in a small, more rural community, studying with a less-advanced teacher (or perhaps not studying), and pursuing semiprofessional or amateur opportunities.

Some reasons to stay in a big pond might include wanting to work with world-class conductors or feeling that you are striving for the highest level of success. For example, you may choose to sing in a major symphony chorus or opera chorus as a way of working with the best of the best—or you may choose to do only solo work, most likely with smaller companies.

At a more psychological level, a singer may continue working with smaller companies than his or her talent merits because of a lack of a sense of self-worth, or may continue pursuing larger mainstage opportunities when it is unrealistic, for the same reason. When singers pursue opportunities well beyond their skill level, it may be from a need for external validation and a fear of being perceived as a failure if they don’t “make it.”

This brings me to the third question: What size pond would you be happiest in? I just spent a summer weekend in a small, rural community several hundred miles from the San Francisco Bay area where I live. The main town has about 50,000 residents, a university, and a light opera company that does two shows a year. When on vacation, it’s always nice to ponder changing your life dramatically. As I enjoyed the beautiful scenery and laid-back atmosphere, I also enjoyed contemplating whether a life as a singer in such a community—teaching, performing, and directing—might not be a lot of fun.

Another way to look at this question is in terms of style of music. For many, opera may seem like the big pond, the highest art, and they stay in that pond out of a need for stature. One singer I’ve known for years works on the most difficult repertoire and really seems to struggle continually with technique. One day I heard her sing a jazz tune. It was exquisite. She was relaxed and seemed completely in her element. I can’t help but think she’s stuck in what she thinks is a big pond, when she could be happier and more true to herself elsewhere.

These questions, in other words, have no “right” answer. The only “right” answer is what is true for you. Singers often put themselves in a rut. They confine themselves to staying on a certain track, and anything else feels like a failure. Is it a failure to decide you’d be happier teaching in the country and doing a couple of operettas a year instead of fitting yourself into some mold you think looks more like success? Is it a failure to decide that you feel more centered, lighthearted, and childlike when you sing jazz or folk? Even moving on to a more demanding level can, at the time, feel like a failure.

As I discussed in last month’s column about changing teachers, if you decide you want to swim in a bigger pond, you will experience a period of adjustment and preparation. You may need to do some extra work to grow bigger fins. This may mean changing teachers and saying no to work that doesn’t support the artistic standards to which you aspire. Even friendships with colleagues may change as you change.

This period of transformation brings a lot of uncertainty that may include a loss of identity (that of being a success in the smaller pond). It may be awkward to know what to say when people at cocktail parties ask what you’re up to. It always seems easier to respond, “Yes, I’m singing here, here, and here,” rather than, “I’m working with a new teacher and turning down work so that I can move up a level artistically and financially.” Then again, you may be surprised how supportive and even inspired people may be when they hear that.

Every singer has an intuition about what situation is really right for him or her. Natalie Dessay, who recently won raves as Lucia here in San Francisco, was quoted in the local paper as saying, “I knew that the things I had to learn were not possible to learn in school. I didn’t feel well in institutions; that was not for me. I wasn’t a troublemaker—I was very disciplined—but I was disappointed by what they proposed to us. I wanted to experiment, to learn what it is to play and sing at the same time. The lessons there were disconnected from reality.”

The thing to remember is that the choice is yours. You can graduate and start again any time. You can drop out, drop in, move up, or move to the side. If you are pursuing, in any way, your artistic life from a sense of “should” or “must” then a greater sense of freedom is available to you than you are imagining. People often assume that if you’re a singer or an artist, you are certainly living or pursuing your truest aspiration. But many singers are just like people who become doctors or lawyers because their parents want them to. They’re trying too hard to do the “right” thing. So, with regard to your singing, ask yourself one more question: Would you rather be right, or happy?

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at