Truth has a way of showing up in funny places. Some people get flashes of insight in the shower. For me, a lightning bolt of awareness struck somewhere between the best man’s toast and the fish course at a wedding gig a few years ago. I was talking to my friend Paul, the bass player. He was listening patiently to my anxieties about where–or if–I belonged in the New York music scene.See, I had just finished a long-belated classical voice degree, and while I loved the discipline and power of classical singing, I knew that a career in opera wasn’t for me. When it came to jazz, I loved to experiment with rhythm and phrasing, but since I wasn’t musically or aesthetically inclined toward scat singing, I didn’t feel like a true-blue jazz singer, either.
“Maybe I should just scrap classical and jazz and go audition for Broadway musicals,” I said to Paul. But I wasn’t in love with musical theatre and, while I didn’t think of myself as a high-flying improviser, I knew that doing the exact same show the exact same way every night would make the jazz part of my heart wither.
So what was I supposed to do? Feverishly throw myself into opera and will myself to love it? Memorize Coltrane and Bird solos and be a hard-core jazzer? I really didn’t see myself taking tap classes in hopes of landing on the Great White Way. Was there a place for me in New York’s musical community, or would I have to pack it all in and go back to Wasilla? (Okay, you’re right; I never planned on going back to Alaska.)
Paul listened patiently and then gave me some of the most powerful advice of my life: “Hilary, find the thing that you do. Find the thing that’s yours, no matter how small a niche it might be. And then get good at it. Work your ass off and get so good at it that, whenever somebody is looking for that specific thing, there’s only one person they can call, and that’s you. If you do that, you’ll never stop working.”
If we’d been in a cartoon, a lightbulb would have appeared above my head. I’d had it completely backwards! I’d been making myself crazy trying to fit into my idea of what a classical singer or a jazz singer “should” be. As embarrassing as it is to admit now, I had no idea what I wanted to sing.
You know how this ends: once I stopped second-guessing my eclectic influences and started celebrating the things that made me, well, me, the phone started ringing. I found myself immersed in a jazz-based cabaret project called West 73rd that incorporated elements of classical, jazz and theatre. We made a CD, got representation, and began performing in some wonderful New York venues, such as Feinstein’s and the Metropolitan Room. More big band work materialized, and most shocking of all, I started hearing from people who wanted to take lessons with me.
Look, I still play weddings. I still work part-time at a restaurant. I teach lessons occasionally and keep a constant eye on my checkbook. Singing for your supper means a lot of hustling, whether you’re in New York or Nebraska. But thanks to Paul’s sage counsel, I’m no longer riddled with anxiety about what kind of singer to be. I just sing and give thanks for the chance to be myself.