Making It When You Don’t ‘Make It’

Rebecca and I were having lunch after a particularly difficult time in her life. Over our hearty soups and tasty salads she reflected on the dearth of articles about women over 40 who had not reached a certain “significant” level of achievement in our field, but who were continuing to struggle along. She asked this question: Is it worth it to continue striving to keep the voice in shape while dealing with all the personal and family issues, only to remain right where you are, knowing few people think much of what you have accomplished?

Rebecca was feeling isolated. She was irritated that most of the media’s attention and advice were going to young up-and-coming singers, the ones who were still climbing the ladder and still thought they had a chance. She was frustrated because she knew intuitively that many women like her had given that up and were creating an entirely different kind of singing life, but very little information was available about their struggles and their successes.

Rebecca wanted to know that she was not alone, and she wanted to be able to share her story so that others would not feel alone. We will meet her next month.

She asked me passionately to write on behalf of all the women like her who are struggling or had struggled just to keep singing past the magic age of 30, past the time when tradition says the possibility of a star-level career still exists. I agreed to take on the project, and sought out the stories of several singers I know who have been or are currently struggling with various life issues and plotting their own course.

What is the goal, really?

Too many singers lose track of the fact that as musicians who use text we are ultimately pursuing one of the deepest means of human expression. Instead they focus on another end result: the ultimate job, the fantastic money, or the fame. Those goals are hollow and without meaning in the end; pursuing them leads to emptiness.

If we remember that expression of the human condition or emotional experience is at the heart of what we do, we become conduits for a universal language whereby we can touch every individual deeply. Achieving that result does not depend on any particular level of role or career at the opera house. In fact, performing at a high level can make it more difficult to keep that essential experience at the heart of your performance, when you know the audience has paid big dollars for their tickets and the critics are listening to every note. Experiencing an intimate, human connection is an increasingly rare event in our shallow culture, and should be highly prized, beyond job, money, and fame.

The women in this series have learned how to reconnect with their inner purpose as musicians, and they are finding greater levels of satisfaction and happiness in their lives as a result.

What price?

The women in this series have finally faced the fact that they are not going to be the hot stars that the field requires to be “someone,” and they no longer care about that. They are forging their own paths in their own idioms, and they are happy most of the time. For many women, however, that level of satisfaction is a long time coming and more painful than it needs to be, if it ever comes at all.

When we lie about our age, hide our marital or parental status, or otherwise seriously compromise our most intimate truths, we lose a connection with ourselves that is difficult to recover. The hypocrisy required to continue producing young, sexy, supremely talented young women capable of and willing to do anything for a career is taking a toll on the heart and soul of the field of classical singing in the same way Hollywood’s values take a toll on the soul of creative filmmaking and its participants. We must remind ourselves that each participant chooses to participate, regardless of whether he or she perpetuates the current value system.

What if I don’t ‘make it?’

Let’s face it. Most of us are not going to “make it” in the sense that we will be Met stars and command staggering fees and recording contracts. Our names will not be known in every household in the land. If we are lucky enough to win a major competition, others just like us will be trying to fight their way to the top of the pile right beside us.

Many talented young singers out there have “the package” but never “make it.” What happens to them? Many of them simply drop out of the field and find careers in offices and companies that have nothing to do with music. They become what author Julia Cameron calls “shadow artists,” close to the art form, perhaps attending or supporting performances or being involved on the sidelines, but never diving in as performing artists again.

The women of this series have a different answer: “Find another path.” They are happy to be “good enough” and have found people who, on a regular basis, are interested in hearing how that sounds. That takes a lot of courage, courage that probably comes with age and experience. In their 30s they were still hoping against hope, even though most of them were not among the talented few even then. This series will show what happens to the ones who don’t “make it” and don’t give up.

Meet Candice

Candice is a 52-year-old soubrette. She has suffered from hormone-related issues since her 20s when she was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure (early menopause) and doctors prescribed birth control pills with androgens. The pills lowered her voice—her upper range lost a half step per year.

When Candice began attending Voice Foundation meetings she learned that the androgens were probably causing thickening of her vocal folds.

She began a different hormone replacement therapy regime, a high dose of estrogen taken in pill form. She never got back all her high notes (by then she had lost a fourth from her top), but she didn’t lose any more. Recently she has lowered her dose of estrogen and recovered a few notes.

Candice has endured other typical singer problems, such as allergies and reflux. She lost her voice for an entire year when she remodeled her kitchen. The old plaster—which contained horse hair, among other things—affected her seriously. She had to cancel almost all her gigs that year. She struggled through other performances with the help of steroids.

Her allergist recommended she lower everything by a third. She tried to explain that for The Marriage of Figaro that would not be an option. Candice uses this story to illustrate how little most ENTs understand the issues facing professional voice users. She recommends that singers be very informed so they can manage their doctors.

Relationship and parenting issues have also had an impact on Candice’s singing. At times she was too depressed to care, so didn’t she sing at all. Other times her singing kept her sane. She has never had the stamina a lot of opera requires, so she has carved a niche for herself singing new music, oratorio, and art song, where sustained high notes are not as prevalent. She plans to continue singing the standard repertoire for a few more years and then relax and enjoy singing jazz and cabaret.

Who has the power?

When we share our struggles, we empower ourselves and others—we take back our power. Secrecy also involves power, but the power lies in the hands of those who might find out our secret, and we live in fear. When we willingly come forward and share our truth, we own our truth and no one can have power over us because we have nothing to hide. If they choose not to accept us, we will find someone who does.

When we choose that road, we are more empowered still because now we are working with people who know us and accept us as we are. We have no fear, from any angle.

The women in this series are willing to share their struggles with you. They have or are currently struggling with aging parents who require extra time and attention; with problem teenage children who require time and attention; with major health issues including reproductive health issues, hormonal issues, and mental health issues; with abuse issues; and with self-esteem and discipline issues, among others. These women are heroines, because they are willing to share, and they do so with generosity and love.

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