The Importance of Storytelling

This article is part of the July 2022 issue of Classical Singer magazine. Click HERE to read all of the articles from this issue or visit the Classical Singer Library.

The stories we are told are the stories we tell ourselves. In this intimate article, Dr. Tara Melvin examines how these narratives shape our perception of success, moving forward, and creating more stories, both personally and professionally.

 

I am, by nature, a storyteller. Is it being Southern, Black, a woman, coming from a religious family, or being a Gemini? Who knows? But it’s who I am and what I do. Brushing my teeth this morning, I contemplated yet another certification. This one is for administrators in the arts who want to broaden their skills: learn business skills, learn community engagement, learn budgets, and learn diversity tactics. Honestly, it promised you everything but a toaster.

 Last night when I discovered the posting, I was jazzed, despite the $6,000 price. The posting assured that no other scholarships were available because the program’s actual cost was $16,000, and a $10,000 scholarship was given to all participants. Before bed, I contemplated what that would mean and how to make it happen.

I could ask my job to pay for it, but there is very little money in our small arts organization, let alone such a sizeable chunk for one person’s professional development. I could pay down a credit card and max it out again. Ideas flooded in … endless possibilities. If this is what I want and need, I can make it do what it do. I know that. My Black, Southern hustle-heart knows that. But this morning is different.

“Tara, you have a doctorate and three other degrees. You don’t need to pay anyone to tell you how to do the things they are teaching,” the voice said. It wasn’t my mother, God, grandmother, or sister. It was an unknown voice. I guess it’s me. And it’s right.

 What story have I been telling myself that—as a person with four degrees, a mountain of student debt, and an executive-level position at an opera company—I need to get into $6,000 more debt for a 12-month certification in things I’m already doing? When does this stop? When will it all be enough? When can I relax and reap the benefits of all the hard work, dedication, and expertise?

 

Why am I writing this? What’s so important about storytelling?

As a storyteller, I know there’s value in telling a story well. You relay information and get the point across for entertainment, teaching, or persuasion. If you’re good, the audience won’t notice when you’re teaching a lesson; they will just be entertained and internalize the moral of the story as their own. It doesn’t matter what form the story takes, whether it’s music (opera), the written word (a fiction novel), or speech (a lecture). A story is a story, and we tell them to ourselves all the time. We walk around living the stories we tell ourselves, seeing everything through the lens of the glasses of whatever narrative runs our lives. 

So, what’s the point of all of this? The moral of this story, the reason I’m talking to you, is that I am enough, and so are you. I have a doctorate. I am a barista. I am a hotel supervisor. I am a call center worker. I am an opera singer. I am a teacher. I am an artivist. I am a fiction writer. I am so many more things—but what I am not is incompetent or broken. The storytelling of the outside world may have me believe otherwise and search for completion outside of myself, but I know better.

Until about a year ago, I had very little professional success. I spent the better part of 20 years feeling like I had made all the wrong decisions and had an artist’s cliché life. I had little validation and no monetary success, and bills needed to be paid in the meantime. That led to low-paying jobs outside of my field. Add to that, I am unmarried and have no children and, therefore, have little worth to society. That’s the story I was told. That is the story so many of us struggle against every day. Had I believed the narrative society foists upon us, the story society tells, I would have given up 10 years into this 20-year journey and never seen my hard work bear fruit. I always have reminded myself, and still often do, that I am a work in progress and on a trip to who knows where, but I do not need saving or fixing. And I am not broken.

But you don’t know me, and I already told you this is a story. The best advice I can give is to examine the stories you tell yourself and have been told. You may not be getting the work you want or the reception you feel you deserve, but there could be many reasons. It may mean you’re telling your story to the wrong audience. Maybe your story is a pioneering voyage, like mine. Maybe your story is a superhero movie, and this is your origin story. 

You will never figure it out if you quit before doing some self-exploration and hearing your own voice. Before spending more money or time on the new thing that will “propel you forward” or whitling yourself down into digestible pieces, examine your story and see if you are acting as the hero and star or a background character.

Tara Melvin

  Dr. Tara A. Melvin is the director of community partnerships and education for New Orleans Opera. She is an accomplished soprano with extensive worldwide experience in operatic and art song repertoire as well as a passionate educator and researcher who has taught privately for over 10 years. She has held masterclasses in universities across the South, including week-long artist-in-residence stints that highlighted the interpretation of songs and operatic works of composers of African descent. Dr. Melvin holds a bachelor’s in classical voice from the University of New Orleans, a master’s in vocal performance and pedagogy from Southeastern Louisiana University, and a doctorate in musical arts from Texas Tech University.