Audition season (and it feels like open season on your heart)

It's audition season for opera singers.

I recently listened to an episode on The Opera Box Score about audition horror stories. Stories of people having full out conversations while singing your heart out. Auditors eating lunch very loudly. No eye contact. Criticism for not bringing in a certain aria. Shame about clothing choices. Picking on words, diction, music editions.

Not to mention the weirdness that can exist in the hallway while waiting to audition. The nerves. The tense vibe. Hearing five sopranos before you, all singing the exact same piece. Your own personal battle with anxiety and preparedness.

And this isn't unique to auditions for singers. Acting, dance, orchestra, there are so many painful stories.

It makes my heart hurt just thinking of all the nastiness that can accompany the process of auditioning.

And the suggestion that is often put forth is to learn to deal with it. To grow thicker skin. As if it’s your own fault for being too sensitive.

A few years ago, I attended a weekend long workshop on dealing with performance anxiety. One of our first activities was to go around the room and each of us share something that made us nervous. In a room of about 25 people, more than half said that fear of judgement made them nervous.

I felt so validated in hearing that I was not alone.

And then the teacher remarked upon this trend, and his response was something along the lines of, “Judgement happens, so figure out how to get over it. Choose better thoughts.”

What? It's true that judgement happens and we have to learn how to deal with it, but his advice was less than helpful.

As musicians and performers, so many of us are attracted to our art because we are sensitive souls. We are moved by music, by theatre, by dance. It touches us in a way that has compelled us to invest our time, our energy, our resources. I mean, passion is the reason we are willing to put up with poor pay, strange hours, and hurtful treatment.

“Grow thicker skin.” Have you been told this before? This is blaming the victim. This is saying it's your fault for feeling things deeply. 

I so strongly disagree with that statement and that advice. In order to remain vulnerable in our art, we do not need to learn how to push down meanness, shove away grief and hurt feelings, to take responsibility for rude and insensitive people.

Instead, I offer that we can grow the capacity to tolerate hurtful situations, while loving and appreciating our vulnerability and 'thin skin'.

What I suggest, when you feel insulted, hurt, shamed by the audition process, I encourage you to take a breath and just let that hurt be present. And then offer yourself compassion, as you might to a young child.

Our normal and culturally strong reaction is to protect against those very tender and vulnerable feelings and immediately start an internal argument. Yelling at yourself to grow the proverbial thicker skin. Being upset that you made a mistake, or wore the wrong clothes, or arrived late. Blaming the audition panel because they are jerks. Pointing fingers at the pianist. Shutting down and numbing out with your preferred substance – internet, TV, food, alcohol, drugs.  

Mounting research shows that self compassion is far more effective, both for healing our wounds and for having high standards and a strong work ethic. Here's some simple suggestions for getting started with self compassion:

  • Notice and identify your self talk. When it turns ugly, when you feel anxious, when you blame yourself, find a moment to pause. This in itself is powerful, and it can be challenging to even notice when the self talk runs down the well worn tracks of shame and blame. 
  • Take a breath and practice interrupting this onslaught of self criticism.
  • There are three components to self compassion:
    • Self Kindness - talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend.
    • Common Humanity - recognize that you are not alone, and that what you are feeling is part of being human.
    • Mindfulness - Recognize what you are feeling without "over-identifying" with it. In the abstract, I find this super difficult. What does that even mean to over-identify. One way is to use Parts language: Part of me is feeling very wounded by the audition judges. Part of me is very angry. Etc. This creates a little distance between us and our emotions and allows us to give these emotions the needed space to be heard. 

Compassion and good wishes for all of you auditioning in the near future. Leave a comment about your audition experience so we can all share some compassion together!