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Friday, November 7, 2014

Comparing Yourself to Others? Feelings of Inadequacy? Making no money? Don't despair- we've all been there!

Maybe the title of this post was enough for you to already shake your head in acknowledgement of what I mean. Perhaps you know the scenario all too well yourself: you practice your music day in and day out (mostly alone and sometimes on a rare occasion with a teacher or with colleagues/friends), and eventually you get curious or bored (whatever the case, depending on the day) and decide to see how you 'measure up' to other musicians who are in your field (singing your same genre, having your same voice type, playing your same instrument....you get the picture). BAM! Before you know what's hit you, you've listened to several media samples on scarily-good-looking websites from people with whom you're kind of in direct competition (again: you are in the same genre, they have your same voice type, you play the same instrument, etc..) and you're feeling pretty bad about yourself and your musical progress in comparison to what you just heard/saw. The worst part is this: you know that you can do better than what you are doing currently, it's just that somehow you've lost momentum.

Well, if you're in this particular pickle currently, or if you've been in it before you know what to do: step away from the computer!!, (though not, of course, before finishing reading this blog post) and STOP comparing yourself to others!

I know that this sounds simple enough to do, but honestly, it's pretty challenging. If you've fallen into this trap before you know the reasons why. Perhaps you've even talked yourself into believing that this is a good thing to do. You'll get toughened up for when you have to audition against these people, having to listen to them auditioning right before you through the door, and then you don't get the job. Or, you're simply curious about who is getting the jobs that you'd like to have, and why they're being picked. Perhaps you can divine exactly what is the magical ingredient to their success simply by watching their videos/listening to their audio samples countless times, and spending a good hour on their website scouring through their bio and resume to discover who might be the 'big name' that is missing on your info which could have potentially gotten them the job and not you. Maybe you've even considered stealing their signature moves (a new cadenza that they wrote themselves, some interesting non-traditional dramatic portrayal, discovering what style clothes they wear when performing, adding dynamic contrasts where they do, or following their phrasing to a 'T') and hoping that they will work for you well-enough so that when you're auditioning people might think you're them (or as good as they are if they don't actually look physically like you) and then you can get the job too. Perhaps it's as easy as stealing that new killer cadenza. Right?

Wrong!!! My dear friend, in all of this, the one thing that you're severely overlooking and completely forgetting is that you are unique and special by just BEING WHO YOU ARE. (Sorry for yelling, but this is an intervention, no?) Even if you could impersonate someone perfectly (whom you deem at this moment to be more 'successful' or more 'talented' than you are) you would never have the same success that they do, simply because you're not being authentic. People can see through that charade a mile away. Trust me- I've been on the other side of the audition table (okay, only once, but it still gave me a lot of insight about this) and I can tell you- those singers (actors, instrumentalists, etc...) who came into the audition and were completely comfortable with who they were and their abilities were the ones whom we all liked the most (and that had nothing to do with who was the most technically skilled or performed the most 'perfectly' in terms of 'traditional expectations'- actually the funniest part about all of this was that everyone we chose was NOT technically perfect, and we turned away a lot of people who were! How about that?!). And that was also a situation where each member of the audition panel had totally varying senses of what is 'good' and what is not. So, that's something to consider, right?

The other thing which I'd like to mention is that you are most likely being too hard on yourself. You know, this morning I realized why we are supposed to talk to children in a way that builds them up- because living life is hard, and when you're learning a lot at one time, learning something difficult or brand-new, or even fine-tuning something over many consecutive years, then it becomes even harder- and you need support and encouragement in those situations! You don't need someone breathing down your neck saying stuff like this:

"Why aren't you getting more done? You've only practiced 2 hours today and you did 3 yesterday! What's the matter with you? Why aren't you more motivated? Why are you so lazy? I bet (fill in the name of the person whom you compare yourself the most to) wouldn't be acting like this! I bet they do (x, y, z) instead of taking as many breaks as you do! Get off Facebook, for crying out loud! Who would even want to hire someone like you, anyway? I mean, with an attitude like this and no follow-through how do you expect to become successful? And you had so much potential!! But alas, it's all wasted now. It's much too late for you to ever make something of yourself. Lord knows that you actually have gotten worse over the years. Maybe when you were younger there was still hope to get on the right path, but now you've hopelessly strayed and have become so screwed up with neuroses and bad habits that you'll never be able to get back to where you were, let alone where you want to be. You've squandered your time and now you'd better just get a real job that pays the bills so you don't end up starving on top of already being pathetic. I guess your (Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa, whomever...) was right when they told you not to go into music! But you were too dumb to listen to them. You believed in yourself- pah! Even then you didn't know how little talent you had and you had even more hope than you have now- how silly you were! Didn't you always know somewhere deep down that it was going to turn out this way eventually? So admit defeat. At least if you give up now you won't continue to make a fool of yourself and continue to waste money and time like you've been doing all these years. Maybe people will forget that you tried and failed. Hopefully they just won't mention it in the future."
This kind of talk does not help anyone. If it's coming from someone else (maybe you're not actually saying these things to yourself- maybe someone else is saying them to you) then you have to get away from that person's influence (physically or mentally, somehow), or if it's coming from you (your own negative self-talk) then you've internalized these things as you developed over the years through hearing them from others (teachers, parents, friends, etc..) and have finally turned them into your own beliefs about yourself.

However, there is still plenty of hope for you, so don't despair. When was it ever accurate to measure yourself by another person's standard anyway? Consider- there are two major systems of measuring things (the metric and the imperial) and both are considered 'right'. So why can't you be who you are and do your music how you see fit and that be right too? I say that you can. Because you have to. I mean, what choice have you got, really? You can't accurately assess yourself or your abilities (I mean, sure you can in a way, if you record yourself and listen back for technical perfection, or if you're doing it how you'd want yourself to do it) but that is NEVER going to be the way that other people experience your music (and consider this mind-blower: you are only able to assess yourself by the parameters with which you've been taught to by OTHER PEOPLE--which are most likely totally invalid since they were weren't tailored to evaluate YOUR UNIQUE ABILITY!). You will truly never be able to fully grasp the way that your music making affects others who listen to you or watch you perform. Therefore, why try to over-analyze your abilities and strive for your imagined perception of 'perfection'?

It's as senseless as trying to look at the middle of your own back. You'll never be able to see it in real-time (sure you can take a picture but that loses the aspect of seeing it like others can) so you can also never judge it properly or fully. Therefore, again- why bother trying? Why place value on that? It's not important. What IS important is that you have a back and that it's there doing it's thing- being your back. And it's basically the same with your music making. You just have to do it in your own authentic way, and even if it's performing a piece that thousands of other people have performed countless times and have received critical acclaim for it, your version still will be enriching the lives in an unfathomable way of those who hear it and adding to the rich legacy of music making in this world. You just have to know that that is true and hold this truth in your heart, and then make your music. Simple as that.

Don't buy into the pessimistic views of the naysayers. They only talk that way because they're also saying those same things to themselves in their heads. Why else would they try to drag you down into the mental mire of being your own worst critic? They need company in the muck. But don't join them! Rather, throw them a lifeline and pull them up into the world of people who live each day knowing that what they do-no matter or big or how small-is worthy, good and needed, and they should feel proud about doing it, and glad that they could.

That's all.

And another thing- IF YOU DO NOT GET PAID FOR WHAT YOU DO, THAT DOES NOT MEAN IT HAS NO WORTH!  This is a common error of thinking. Many people buy into believing this is an appropriate way to measure whether or not something is worthy. The logic goes like this: if a person gets paid, then what they are doing is valuable. If a person does not get paid, then what they are doing has no value. WRONG!!!!!! This is a hold-over from thinking that developed probably right at the time when money was first used. Sure, back then money was created to approximate the value of the thing that it was being traded for (a.k.a. you give me a loaf of bread, I give you a coin that's worth roughly the worth of the loaf of bread). Money was used to equal the worth of goods that people needed. Well, in today's society things have changed. With the advent of inflation and modern commerce practices oftentimes a person is paying much more for a good than it's actually worth. (Gucci clothing, for instance, is made super cheaply but is still sold for a huge mark-up.) Thus, it is senseless to equate something having value with something that earns/costs a lot of money.  We can all think of plenty of things which are worth a lot to us but don't create cash flow/aren't expensive. For example, what about hiking up a mountain to see the view at the top, seeing a baby smile, sharing things with others, waking up every morning, experiencing new things, learning for fun....? The list could go on and on. And these types of things are the sort that, I'm sure you'll agree, money could never buy. So, again--why believe that if your music isn't making money, it's worthless? That is a total and blatant falsehood.

Okay, I hope that this has given you somewhat of a different perspective on your situation and empowered you. Maybe it will even help you to show others who are having similar problems the way out of the downward spiral. I know that once I realized how futile and untrue these beliefs were, it was easy for me to get out. I hope that you can too. So, keep on making your music and thanks for reading! And make sure to share if you know someone whose outlook might be brightened by reading this-we're all in it together! :)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Opera Is NOT A Tool for Rich People to Look Good

The title of this post may have already resonated with you, but I was so moved by reading another article that I found in Opera America's Newsletter (yes, again!), that I felt I needed to share more details.  Perhaps you yourself have read the article (called "Amid Choruses of Despair, An Aria of Hope" in the New York Times) already?

At any rate, it might have been obvious to you too that this article was a good one, though it brought up a practice that is all too common among Opera fans who mean to do something good for the art form.  For those of you who haven't read the article, it basically talks about the great resurrection of the San Diego Opera, which is back up and running and indeed hasn't been sucked into the abyss with other opera companies that are no longer existing. To this I say- wonderful! A triumph! Another established and important cultural bastion is saved! However, the author goes on to examine some of the problems that were contributing to the SDO's near death, such as having 57 board members, offices which were $400,000 more than they needed to cost because of a nice view, and 13 Staff Members who weren't absolutely essential to daily operations.  Needless to say that now with a board of only 26 people, offices in a less swanky part of town, 13 less people in the office and one expensive production cut from the upcoming season (Tannhaeuser), they are saving a lot of money and operating more efficiently than ever before. So, I applaud them and agree that these measures were necessary to keep an important opera house alive.  The funny part is, you'd think that those people who left, Opera fans as they are, would be equally happy that the company found a solution to staying afloat and will not have to close its doors. Well, you will be shocked then to note that the woman who was the president of the board, Karen S. Cohn, (who resigned, conveniently) was quoted in the article saying: 
"I cannot support what is going on. This is a group of people who are not focusing on going forward. They are focusing on ruining people who spent 31 years doing wonderful things for San Diego. I don't want to ruin their chance of going forward, but I don't appreciate how they have handled this."
Ironically then, in contrast to her sentiment that she doesn't "...want to ruin their chance of going forward...", she goes on to say the following when asked whether or not she'll be in attendance for the coming season at San Diego Opera:
"I'm going to Los Angeles, or I'm going to New York. Not here."
Pretty hypocritical, right? It sounds to me like the only thing she's saving is face. But, it's not the first time that I've witnessed so-called Opera fans who have become board members or donors simply to look good and push their private agendas. Though, we all know that if they were truly interested in the health and well-being of these institutions they'd have sucked up their pride, admitted their mistakes, and still done everything they could to help.  However, thus you can see the benefits of dire financial circumstances and poor management forcing companies to the brink of extinction and thereby flushing out these phonies to make room for more flexible and selfless stewards. Let's face it, if she had remained President of the Board at San Diego Opera, they'd be permanently closed by now. So I say let her go see operas in Los Angeles or New York- but whatever you do, don't let her, or people like her, on any more boards!

The Hard Reality of What It 'Takes' to Become an Opera Singer in Today's Business

So earlier today I read this article titled "So You Want to Be An Opera Singer" on Huffington Post, which I saw advertised in Opera America's Newsletter.  Even though I had never heard of the article's author, I thought to myself, "That's no big deal- this field is huge! Maybe he has something really helpful to say." Well, I was way off!  And utterly disappointed after reading the article, I might add.

The reason why I am taking up your time and mine right now to write a post about said article must make you wonder though, right? Of course. The answer as to why I'd choose to examine such a generalized piece of journalism such as this is because I simply can no longer stand idly by and do nothing as I have in the past. Previously I may have believed that because I was "still a student" or "hadn't gotten my first meaningful and noteworthy professional gig yet" meant that I wasn't qualified to talk about these subjects with any sort of authority nor express my opinion because surely someone else more knowledgeable and more experienced would take up the task of doing that when it came to refuting the obvious garbage that you sometimes come across on the Internet having to do with Opera singing.

Much to my dismay, however, this person many times did not appear wielding the divining rod of operatic justice and set the record straight with their honesty and transparency. No, oftentimes ill-informed authors were free to disseminate their opinions about the profession without any negative repercussions (except for people like me thinking things like "What a load of crap that was!" or something similar). So, if you had also fallen prey to reading that article and thinking something like what I said in the previous sentence, you're not alone. In fact, I'd like to write a small rebuttal to that article, so that we can all know what is really helpful to "Be An Opera Singer" and what is just basically leading more unaware lambs to the slaughter.

First off, I'm not sure in what world of privilege the author lives, but I know that many of my colleagues who decided to pursue vocal studies did so with the understanding that they would need college loans, and many of them, and that those students whose education was paid for outright were very few indeed.  This leads us to observe that students who must take loans cannot take one to two years off after finishing their undergraduate degree because their school loans would swallow them alive after they come out of deferment. That of course makes the likelihood of being able to work to pay off these loans as well as simultaneously get accepted, enroll and complete a graduate studies program very slim indeed. So that means that most of us, myself included, whether or not we wanted it, had to go from one degree straight into the next simply because there was no financially feasible alternative.  To clarify: I'm not saying that the Huff Post Author's take is wrong, it's just not realistic for most students. And make no mistake, any of the top-tier music conservatories are going to cost you: $29,000 to $45,000 per year are the prices that I remember from my degree days. These are not public university in-state tuition prices we're talking about! Tuition has probably even gone up in the past few years- so be prepared for a huge blow to you or your parents' savings account when investing in a music degree program.

The other thing that the author neglects to mention, though he does a good job in the final paragraph of noting that there are a lot of other things to mention (how ironic- the last paragraph of the entire article is basically the only time in which he really gives some useful advice to the reader, though he doesn't elaborate on it at all) is that there is no barometer which you or anyone else can use to determine whether or not all the money and time that you invest into this profession will ever pay off. And that it's incredibly risky and nearly impossible to try and make a living from singing.  Basically the only way that you can be guaranteed a career is if you devote your entire life to singing, sort of like a nun or monk, but somehow while still maintaining a good network of influential connections, keeping your audition arias polished at all times, managing to keep your physical appearance at 100% as often as humanly possible, somehow have or make money to live on, and develop stalker-like habits in regards to your application-material-sending-strategy. This is, of course, predicated on your ability to stay sane and be a nice person like you were before all that sacrifice, too. This may sound grim, and that's because it is, but do not despair- there will always be some masochistic nutcase out there who is more possessed than you about getting hired for the role, so spare no expense and don't be afraid to shed your morals when trying to jockey for your next gig. (I'm being ironic, people.)

But seriously, isn't that what the author is trying to say in a more politically correct way at the very end?  I mean, he could have spared himself all that blunder about which school to attend and what to do when you get there because he basically negates all that in the last paragraph of his article! Those of us who are currently trying to eke out a living in this field have all realized slowly (while lying to ourselves over the last few years as it got worse and we noticed it) that this business as it exists today and has existed in years past is quite extraordinarily broken, and it must be radically revamped in order to be fixed. Or, we abandon the ship and all make our own boats. That's the other option. Because let's face it, if I were the one who was asked by the mother of someone interested in studying to become an opera singer, I would have said to her "Lady, have your kid study business administration (or marketing, or anything for that matter!) and languages, take lessons and coach privately with amazing people, and then just apply for every summer and pay-to-sing program known to man. Because there is certainly no guarantee that if they go to Juilliard or MSM or Mannes or Curtis that they'll have a professional career and studying privately with the teachers who teach at those schools is a much cheaper way of getting the same knowledge. And, they will most likely be happier too at the end of their studies and not burned out about the ugly side of the 'business of singing'. That way, if this industry collapses completely (which, if it keeps going the way it has been, is certainly likely) your child at least has some marketable skills which will enable them to earn a decent middle-class wage, instead of being stuck working boring temp jobs in various offices for the rest of their adult lives and feeling unfulfilled while just scraping by monetarily."

Yes, perhaps that is a bit bleak, and perhaps that may scare the poor woman off entirely from allowing her child to pursue music at all as a career, but that may just be the most sound advice that a person can be given nowadays, due to the drastic surplus of singers who are being churned out each year from conservatories and universities all across the country into an industry where there are less and less spots to fill. At least I certainly wish someone had been that honest with me while I was studying, because we singers aren't dumb. In fact, I'm convinced that most of us still could have studied something completely different and managed the singing thing pretty amazingly on the side until we got that 'breakthrough' gig. (Or have you had a different experience? Please, I'm all ears!)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

WHAT'S YOUR (Audition Sung:Hired for Performance) RATIO?

So, to start this off, a small ironic anecdote for your enjoyment!

I was recently reading an interview with Joyce Di Donato in the September Issue of Concerti (I think it's solely a German publication-not sure- don't shoot me if I'm wrong) where she said something akin to it being tough for her when she first got to Europe because she did 13 auditions and only got hired for 1 of them. It was at this point where I laid the magazine down and thought "Sheesh! If only that were my ratio!!! It would be a heck of a lot better than only 2 auditions in this past year's time and 0 hires." I picked the magazine back up, read a bit further and found surprisingly that my reaction was incorrect (apparently) because Joyce was seriously distressed about this 13:1/failure:success ratio. It even made her stop and completely re-evaluate her approach to discover what she could do better.

Now, does this all seem a bit silly to you? Do you find yourself thinking the same thing that I was? Does it seem like a success to you to be invited to 13 auditions in the first place, let alone get hired for 1 of them? Yeah. Join the club. Though apparently that's not the right attitude, because if we were Joyce, we'd have been re-tooling our entire approach to things by now.

But let's face it- who knows how many years ago poor Joyce had her distressing experience of 13:1? We all know how hard it is though, nowadays to even be invited to audition for an agent, let alone an Opera house (especially if you're any variety of 'Soprano'- God help us), and so when I hear people (even if they are as wonderful and nice and shiny as Joyce Di Donato, don't get me wrong, I truly admire who this woman is and and her achievements) saying that a 13:1 ratio is really bad, it makes me laugh. Sorry, but I just can't help it! To me, a person who has been doing everything possible (okay not everything, but ...EW! No.) to get in the faces (and ears) of as many agents and Opera houses as possible in Germany, Joyce's downheartedness seems a bit premature. I can't help but ask myself what would she have done if she had been faced with the things I (as well as most of my colleagues) have had to push through? Would she have quit a long time ago already? Would she have wrung her hands at the heavens and cursed her existence? Would she have bought a farm back in Kansas and sung only to her cows?

Who knows. But my point is, even though she was very well-meaning with her honesty in that she didn't get the red carpet rolled out by European houses back in the day when she wasn't as popular as she is now, it doesn't necessarily paint an accurate picture for the person who is reading her interview of the struggles and difficulties that an Opera career is laden with today. No, in fact, these sorts of interesting tidbits only make it harder for those of us out there now trying to achieve our goals (for many of us that means a paying job singing Opera, and for others of us that means any job singing Opera in a role that's appropriate, for crying out loud) and I can only say that I wish there was a way for more of us real-life, everyday Opera singers to explain what the daily grind is like. To give those inquisitive Opera Fans what they want: the truth about the sacrifices and the constant wondering when you'll get that one gig that will finally allow those people in hiring positions to know you, and understand you, and appreciate your artistry, and ultimately want to enable you to share that artistry with the world!!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, that's right- I DO NOT HAVE a 13:1 ratio like Joyce. In fact, if I added up all the auditions that I've ever done professionally (including YAPS) versus those that I actually was chosen for, I'd say my ratio is more like 300:10. So, according to Joyce I guess I'm in a place where I should throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, and re-design my approach. But you know what? The other, even more ironic part of that article was that during her re-tooling she realized that her problem was trying to be the kind of performer that others wanted her to be, and therefore she couldn't be authentic, but of course once she stopped that, she was super successful. Huh. Perhaps on second thought I'll keep doing what I feel is best, and see where that gets me. (Even if my ratio might reach 400: 11 soon.) Maybe I have more in common with Joyce than I think.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Musical Christmas Cheer: Seeing the Hannover Knabenchor at the Essener Philharmonie

Did you ever wonder what sorts of things make the holidays cheerful and bright? Perhaps you have a favorite tea, or cookie, or evening ritual which is sacred to you that brings just the right amount of coziness to your Advent season.  Though, I'd bet anything that music is one aspect of your holiday atmosphere that you simply couldn't go without.  I mean, at the first sound of "Jingle Bells" on the radio most people get in the Christmas spirit.

Now, I'm certainly not a classical music snob, and I thoroughly appreciate all of the popular secular Christmas songs that are out there, but the sound of a Christmas Carol sung by a children's choir is, to me, the pinnacle of all of Christmas' musical incarnations.  Therefore it was only fitting that my well-informed Boyfriend purchased tickets for us to attend the recent Christmas concert performed at the Essener Philharmonie (Philharmonic in Essen, Germany) by the Hannover Knabenchor (Hannover Boys Choir) and the London Brass.  What a spectacular experience for my ears and thereby, my soul!  I'll wager these boys could sing anything and make it sound angelic.  But all kidding aside, their performance was utterly professional: not one chorister was inattentive and they all looked as if they were thrilled to pieces to be singing this music, which I can understand since their program was so varied in style and language.

They first sang four pieces written before 1650 (the first by William Byrd, "Sing joyfully unto God our strength", the second by Anonymous, "Angelus ad Virginem", the third also by Anonymous, "The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors", and the fourth by Thomas Weelkes, "Hosanna to the son of David") which were all very beautiful but also quite austere, as many pieces were that were written in that time period.  Then they continued with "A spotless rose" by Herbert Howells which was particularly beautiful, followed by "In dulci jubilo" arranged by Robert Pearsall, which featured different sections sung in Latin and German, as well as English. Then they sung "Wexford Carol" arranged by John Rutter (one of my personal favorites simply because I love everything that John Rutter has ever written), and then a piece by Benjamin Britten called "A Hymn to the Virgin", which was also very beautiful since it utilized the excellent acoustics in the hall by its being written for two smaller choirs singing antiphonally to one another. It was quite an audience favorite because of that surprise.  Then the intermission came, and already I could feel that the whole audience had the impression that the time flew by and they'd have gladly sat there another 30 minutes before they needed a break.

Whatever the case, the second half held other treasures, so it was perhaps good that we could clear our auditory palette in order to appreciate them fully. It began with a sacred favorite, "O come all ye faithful" arranged by David Willcocks, which was followed by a piece arranged by Roger Harvey, "Gabriel's Message", featuring a wonderful Baritone soloist chosen from amongst the choir members. "Away in a manger" was next, also arranged by Roger Harvey, and then a piece that is new to me and has become one of my favorites through their performance of it, "Shepherd's Carol" by Bob Chilcott. What a truly stunning use of dynamics and color couple with excellent storytelling, poetic text!  It was just beautiful! Another John Rutter arrangement of a popular classic "Deck the hall" followed, with another Roger Harvey arrangement, "The Holly and the Ivy" (another favorite of mine) just introducing the truly famous next four songs.  Those being: "Joy to the world", arranged by Richard Bissill, "The First Nowell" arranged by David Willcocks, "We wish you a merry Christmas" arranged by Arthur Warrell and finally "Hark! the hearald-angels sing" arranged by David Willcocks.  The children, the conductor (Joerg Breiding- who did an absolutely exquisite job handling the musical nuances and colors of the pieces while not allowing the choristers' voices to be overtaxed but simply flowing and beautiful and healthy- BRAVO!) and the London Brass players were certainly in a bit of a mischievous mood since they all donned Santa Claus hats before singing these final four pieces, which only added to the joyful spirit emanating from their music-making. It was truly a delight to be in the audience for such a special experience.

I think, though, I was not the only audience member who was happy to realize that they had prepared several encore pieces, since they also received two standing ovations which they most certainly deserved!  For their encore they simply repeated "O come, all ye faithful", "Deck the hall", and "We wish you a merry Christmas" which was just a perfect ending to a perfect concert.

The London Brass was also truly marvelous and in good form in this performance, and although this was actually their concert in which the Hannover Knabenchor was simply their guest, the choristers definitely stole the show.  However, I'm sure the London Brass didn't mind since they obviously couldn't help but enjoying themselves making music with the choir members- you could tell how much fun they had in this performance- a wonderful example of how collaboration is just as rewarding and potentially more so than performing solo.