When I was in my teens and twenties (eons and eons ago), I prided myself on being a "perfectionist." I believed that making my life's goal to do everything with unending excellence was the way to go. But after horrific struggles in my personal life, forcing myself through endless singing auditions that led nowhere, suffering through a case of shingles (at the age of 26) following a knock-down-drag-out emotional fight with my voice teacher of five years (who insisted I was not a creative person -- God rest her soul, a TERRIBLE thing to say to a student, and whose voice instruction sounded to me like ancient Sanskrit) ... I began to rethink my course.
Try to Fail
In my late twenties, I had the good fortune to spend my first summer (the first of three) in the profoundly beautiful mountains of Aspen, Colorado as an opera student at the Aspen Music Festival. My teacher that summer, Ms. Irene Gubrud, set me on a path that would change the way I thought about life and my singing. I will never forget when she told her students that our approach to singing should be: "Try to fail."
WHAT?! Me, Lisa Romero, someone who had spent her entire life devoted to being a straight-A student, a Pollyanish "kind" person, and who sought excellence in all that she did ... TRY TO FAIL??!! QUOI??!! MOI??!!
This sounded like sheer insanity, and yet, motivated by the incredible beauty of my surroundings (so different from the crazy city-life of Boston that I had experienced for the last few years), profound changes in my personal life, and a deep frustration with my dead-end singing path to that point, I had become open enough to try just about anything. I will never forget going to a dance class, and lining up with other students as we were instructed to twirl across the room ... it was at that moment when I decided to embrace the "Try to Fail" doctrine. I was amazed by the outcome. Normally, in situations where I was to demonstrate my non-existent talent in structured dance, I would feel locked up, self-critical, okay ... stupid and awkward. When I attempted the dance exercise by "trying to fail," it was a different experience. I felt freer, more fluid, less uptight, and my concentration seemed sharper and more focused. I don't know if I looked any better twirling across the room, but I definitely felt better. Instead of focusing on my awkwardness and my intense longing to do it right, I was able to just experience the action of the movement, my body, and more importantly, I actually enjoyed it!
The next several weeks, months, and I dare say years, using the "try to fail" doctrine began to reshape the way I thought of my singing and more importantly, my life. It set me on the path to understanding that trying to do things perfectly is antithetic to being an artist. It was at this point that I grew wary of and even began to despise what had once been so important to me: perfectionism. Anytime someone would say to me, "oh, that's perfect!" I would get the creepy crawlies. I began to see how my need to be perfect had been making me absolutely miserable (along, I'm sure, with the people who had to live with me). I also began to see that perfection doesn't even exist, and furthermore, if it did, it would make life incredibly boring. I began to notice how visual artists, although they certainly need to have a strong technique under their belt (true of musicians as well), are, nevertheless, very free with their hands as they worked. I noticed how I (who unfortunately is terrible with drawing, etc.) struggle even to comfortably sign my own name -- because I had always tried stiffly to do it perfectly.
As with everything, my struggle to avoid perfectionism will be a "work in progress" until the day I die. I sometimes still catch myself trying to do things "perfectly" and at those times I refer to myself as a "perfectionist in recovery."
I am so grateful for Ms. Gubrud's "try to fail" doctrine. It turned my life around. It made me a better singer. It made me a better teacher. At the same time, I am also grateful for my early need to be perfect, because that experience makes me more compassionate towards my students who struggle with the same thing.
I have altered Ms. Gubrud's saying a bit. Most of my students have encountered my version printed on the back of my "New Student Notebook." I pull it out whenever I see someone struggling (and getting in their own way) by trying to do everything "right."
In order to pass this course,
you must be willing to "fail,"
(and sometimes to look foolish)