"I pursue music opportunities because they mean something to me, not because I think that’s what I am supposed to do. I don’t compare myself to others as much. I’m not trying to obtain an unreachable or unrealistic goal."

My grandmother Maureen was unable to attend college due to financial and family reasons until her children were full grown and my mother was herself a college student. She decided then that she would finally pursue a higher education, something she had always dreamed of. She signed up for a degree in vocal performance, despite hardly having any previous vocal instruction. She thought, “I love music and I want to learn more about it.” Simple as that.

I have always chuckled about that story. When I applied to music schools, I was extremely competitive. I knew three years in advance that I wanted to apply to music schools. I traveled the nation to take mock lessons with potential voice teachers. I attended summer programs to network and get to know my prospective schools. The acceptance rates for most of the schools I applied to were very low and the whole process was extremely competitive. Nothing was guaranteed. There was a possibility of me not being accepted. No simplicity for me.

My grandmother had no such situation. She decided she wanted to do music and she did it because she loved it.

I ended up attending the Oberlin Conservatory of Music as a vocal performance major. It was an amazing experience that I thank my lucky stars for. I met extraordinary colleagues and mentors and I received a solid technical foundation. But while there, I struggled with not feeling adequate. I felt like my voice wasn’t big enough; I wasn’t as fast of a learner; high notes didn’t come as easily; I didn’t receive as many roles as my colleagues; etc. I compared myself to everyone and was dissatisfied. I overthought everything. I was afraid to make artistic choices out of fear it would be the wrong choice. Not all of this was my fault– the competitive nature of the conservatory fostered a sense of insecurity in all of my colleagues– but a lot of it was just in my head, a symptom of not knowing what I truly wanted from music.

I graduated in 2012 and was ready to leave Oberlin. I took a couple years off before attending graduate school and continued to struggle with my own insecurities during that time. I juggled my love for music with the fear that I wasn’t good enough. I worried I had chosen a career that would never be generous to me.

I ended up attending the University of North Texas (UNT) for a master degree in vocal performance and opera. While there, I was also a young artist in The Dallas Opera’s Outreach Education Program, performing the role of Adina in The Elixir of Love for schools across Texas and on the Winspear Opera main stage. Grad school was the beginning of an “aha” moment for me. I set up a private teaching studio, took pedagogy classes, and continued to perform. As I taught voice lessons and performed, I found that my teaching informed my singing. I began to feel more confident vocally. For my mandatory master degree recital, I decided to focus on my preparation with just me and my pianist. I hardly sought out help from teachers and coaches. Instead, I focused on the poetry of the songs and the collaboration with my accompanying partner. I gave the recital in April 2016 and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The pianist and I produced a solid, moving recital and I received an overwhelmingly positive response. I felt extremely proud of my work because I chose to make artistic choices on my own without overthinking, comparing myself to others, or analyzing others’ musical direction. I chose music I truly loved and focused on that. I used some of the recordings from that performance the following audition season and was accepted to my first significant young artist programs, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara and The Song Continues at Carnegie Hall.

After graduating from UNT, I moved to Philadelphia to be closer to auditions. I was unemployed and knew hardly anyone. Out of desperation, I started to book myself for retirement home gigs. I took a job in a restaurant that only employs singers, the Victor Cafe in South Philly. I began to set up a private teaching studio. My inner judge told me that retirement homes, restaurant jobs, and teaching were not good enough. That was not where I wanted to end up. I was really hard on myself about this and did not tell many people that I worked at these places.

Overtime however, I began to change that mindset. The cafe, retirement homes, and teaching slowly began to reveal what was truly important about music.

After one performance, a man who had not spoken a word for a year after having a stroke, approached me to say the words “thank you” and “beautiful.” His wife was astounded. Listeners would sing along, knowing every word of the music. I sang a mix of musical theatre and opera and those who never listened to opera before were astounded by its beauty. Many people came up to me in tears after a performance to tell me how the music triggered good memories or soothed them. Not every performance I gave in those scenarios was perfect–I had bad days and good days–but never once did I leave them feeling unfulfilled.

In fact, I felt renewed.

Overtime as I established myself in Philly, I began to create my own performance opportunities and expand upon that feeling of renewal. In the last year and a half, I produced two art song recitals in collaboration with cinema art. These recitals exposed more than 150 young people to classical chamber music in nontraditional venues at an affordable price. I plan to do more of that. I also performed my first Handel’s Messiah and am beginning to get more oratorio gigs. I am a rostered chorus member for Opera Philadelphia. I will be in three shows with the company this year and will participate in two workshops for which I am part of the process of making brand new operatic works. I now teach about 30 students, half privately and half through ArtSmart. I cried after my last studio recital because I was just so proud. All of these experiences have made me a better person and a better singer. I am performing better every day and representing myself more authentically in auditions. One of the most important developments over the past year is that I fully support myself financially on a freelance salary of 99% music related activities. I am also the happiest I have been in 10 years.

When my grandmother naively signed up for a degree in music simply because she loved music, she was onto something. She was never a famous singer, but she influenced three generations of music lovers, my mom, my brother, me, and now my students. Through her passion, we have all experienced a lifetime of joy and connectedness through music. I took music the farthest of any of my family members and it has been truly rewarding. I have met countless numbers of extraordinary people across the world through music (I think I have music friends in nearly every city in the world.) I have also connected with many people in a way that only music connects. Because of music, I have lived in three beautiful cities, studied in Italy, Austria and California, connected with people who speak different languages, sung at Carnegie Hall, attended two great schools… The list goes on.

I spoke on the phone with my grandmother the other day and she repeated one of her favorite quotes from Cunfucius, “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” I am beginning to do that now. I pursue music opportunities because they mean something to me, not because I think that’s what I am supposed to do. I don’t compare myself to others as much. I’m not trying to obtain an unreachable or unrealistic goal. And I feel I am truly contributing to my community through music.

My greatest passion is to pass on the things I have learned through this process to my students. They are enough. They are worth it. And I will help them go there with all of their hearts.

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By Erin Alcorn, ArtSmart Mentor  |  Published on 08/31/2020