Making It When You Don’t ‘Make It’

Last month we were introduced to “Rebecca” as the catalyst for this series. This month, she and “Joyce” share their paths through the challenges of balancing their inner struggles with those of their families.

Meet Rebecca

Rebecca is 53 and a lyric mezzo. Both her parents, who live separately, have been sick this year. Because of caring for them, she has much less free time, which puts pressure and restrictions on her, her family, and their activities. As singers age, aging parents become a source of concern, just as they are for the population at large. Can we find the time to support them? Can we afford to assist them with extended care? Once we reach middle age, these questions weigh heavy as we watch our aging parents’ health begin to deteriorate.

Rebecca feels conflicted about her singing in relation to her parents and their health. On the one hand, she feels she needs work more than ever right now, but on the other hand, she needs more time to care for them. Ultimately, however, she appreciates the therapeutic benefits of singing and teaching in her life, given the high levels of frustration and sadness she is experiencing over her parents, and she is deeply grateful.

Rebecca also has two teenaged children, and she is increasingly dissatisfied with the amount of time she spends singing and teaching away from home, since her children are going to be leaving permanently in the not distant future. She would like to be spending more time with them.

Rebecca has often been ambivalent about her singing. She increasingly loves the pure sensation of singing, but there are times when her life becomes difficult and she feels singing is too much of an effort. With family obligations and teaching, keeping in vocal shape seems too much to handle. She gets tired of all the trips to the ENT, and of having to manage her reflux. She feels alone in her struggles, in part because she rarely hears about other singers who are struggling.

Rebecca applauds all singers who are courageous enough to step up and speak openly of their personal and professional ordeals. We need to know we are not alone. At times Rebecca wanted to give up singing altogether, but she felt it would be too hard to avoid feeling like a failure, even though she had many other wonderful things going on in her life. She feels that quitting does not seem to be an acceptable option.

Rebecca currently enjoys singing in part because she went through a particularly painful period of not loving it last year. She is extremely pleased with the new plateau she has achieved. As she gets older she feels it is important to use music and her voice as a way to give back to the world and she strives to make this her overarching goal.

Meet Joyce

Joyce celebrated her 50th birthday last spring. Joyce’s struggles center around balancing time devoted to her family and home activities and time devoted to working on her singing and her career. Joyce and her husband have four children, and she considers parenting a full-time job. Her children each have a bit of a rebellious streak, so they require a lot of attention and involvement, and her husband requires some as well.

Earlier in her life Joyce became so upset with heading to work to the sound of her toddlers standing at the door, crying, “Mommy no go opera!” that she gave up singing for eight years, except for a church job. Thankfully, her church choir was very good—the solo work kept her working and performing good repertoire—and she kept up with her lessons and studies. It took many years to finally embrace herself not as a mom who sings, but as a singer who has a family and a life radiating out from that.

“To be a better parent, I have to be who I really am!” she says with great conviction. “Modeling that level of inner conviction and integrity is more important for them [her family] than being at home wishing I was a fully integrated human being.”

Barbara Conable, author of What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body (Andover Press, 2000), speaks of the Self Map, which is how we define our “selves” and determine how we will act. If, for example, we define our “selves” as singers, but not at “that level,” we act to make that true. We don’t practice, network, or put ourselves out there to any level beyond where we map our “selves.” Getting that Self Map aligned with our desires is essential to our success. Once Joyce had experienced this shift in her Self Map (from mom who sings, to singer with family radiating out), she was able to change her actions in regard to her singing, and those actions had a tremendous impact on how she was able to integrate higher levels of singing into her life.

This past summer the entire family took a vacation, driving more than 4,000 miles in a foreign country in two weeks. This was the first time in a long time the family had taken a vacation that was different from their typical vacations, and it included totally new and different experiences—no radio, no American TV, no extended family. They set up rules to which everyone agreed and adhered. For example, each individual took favorite CDs and shared them with the family on a time-limited and rotating basis. They sang “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” all the way to the end. They shared a single hotel room every night but three. This intense togetherness helped everyone realize that they did, in fact, like each other, and the family felt bonded again. The close environment permitted communication and analysis of personal behavior, unlike at home, where closing a door could avoid that possibility.

Joyce’s four children range in age from 25 to 14. The older her children have grown, the bigger the problems have become, posing a huge challenge to Joyce in the past few years. Sean was arrested for possession of marijuana last year and put on probation. The oldest, David, moved back home and was struggling to find a job. Phil was supposed to be in college but, while living in a college town, was not actually enrolled in classes. Joyce and her husband were having difficulty agreeing on how to handle these situations.

Sean got into trouble again with the law this past fall. He was expelled from school and is facing some serious charges. He was playing with a look-alike weapon while sitting in a car with some friends near their school. The police officer on the scene testified that he might have shot Sean if the officer had been armed (he was off duty at the time). Sean is now under house arrest, wearing an electronic monitor, and needs to be talked down every single day because of his anxiety and self-esteem issues. The youngest, Bill, feels responsible because the gun was his toy.

Meanwhile, Joyce was singing in an opera that was opening at the height of all this drama. She didn’t want to go to work, something she has never felt before—singing has always been her greatest joy. She would go into the dressing room and just break down. The tremendous support of her colleagues held her up. All the crying and stress made the singing difficult, but she managed to get through it.

Joyce believes that everything has a purpose, if only to build her faith and open her heart to God. She remembers that there are people who have it much worse. She wants her children to get on their true paths. Joyce believes that good will come from these ordeals.

This Thanksgiving marked the anniversary of Joyce’s mother becoming sick, an illness that led to her mother’s death in February 2006. Joyce and her children felt the sadness of this holiday deeply, and the upcoming anniversary in February is sure to be an extremely emotional time for her family.

Joyce ponders the many times she has felt like throwing in the towel. She thinks of all the people who have naively commented on how much fun singing must be, never realizing how demanding it is. Then in true Joyce fashion, she generously wonders if we all don’t struggle with our life’s work. Perhaps that is the point: singing, just as much as parenting, is her life’s work. All of her pain and disappointment informs her practice and performance, giving her patience, and color, and depth unlike anyone else’s.

Michelle Kunz

Michelle Kunz is a professional certified life coach, helping individuals reduce conflict, gain clarity, and get more from their lives and careers. She has sung with the Washington National Opera Chorus on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage for over 15 seasons, where she also serves as Children’s Chorus Master. She serves on AGMA’s Board of Governors, representing the Washington/Baltimore Area, and on the Board of Andover Educators. Contact her at