The Courage for Change

By Bos, Nancy | Journal of Singing, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

The Courage for Change


Bos, Nancy, Journal of Singing


"People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously."

- Eleanor Roosevelt

MEETING LIFE honestly for me meant I needed to be singing and teaching in order to feel fulfilled. It wasn't, however, a matter of courage until I took a long look at what kind of music I honestly wanted to pursue and what changes I would need to make both in myself and in my teaching. In the six years since switching my specialty from classical to CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music), I have heard stories from dozens of other teachers struggling with the same dilemmas I faced as a singer and teacher. Many of us have experienced cultural bias, vocal education limited to classical singing, and vocal health concerns regarding belting. As both a performer and teacher, I have faced the possibility of failure, scorn of colleagues, and distrust of potential students. Undoubtedly, switching genres has meant substantial risk, but accepting that risk was absolutely essential to the integrity of my career-essential to growing toward my full potential.

The story of my early development is a very simple one. I was raised in South Dakota. My mother, an Iowa farm girl, enjoyed listening to classical symphonies and reading every massive book she could get her hands on. My father listened to Johnny Cash and Anne Murray and preferred watching Sonny and Cher to reading a book. In my teen years, I knew-as so many of our high school singers know-that I couldn't be happy without singing. The music that was taught in my public school was mostly classical and my vocal education at Luther College was entirely classical. My radio, however, was always tuned to rock. Dad thought I would be happier "studying jazz or something," but if that was an option, it was beyond the scope of our knowledge.

Post-college, I had a high enough level of performance anxiety that I avoided singing solos and doing auditions. I directed and sang in choirs and, after my husband Jeff Costlow and I moved to Los Alamos, NM, I enjoyed a wonderful mentorship from Dr. Candace Magner. Dr. Magner inspired me to become an independent voice teacher in an environment where there were many hobby singers seeking skills in a variety of genres. However, any thought of performing was easily put aside in consideration of raising my growing family.

In my mid-thirties I confronted performance anxiety head-on through counseling, hypnotherapy, and participating in NATSAA. I gained a lot of ground on the herd of butterflies that largely formed their chrysalides from the usual causes: criticism, perceptions of the audience, and self-doubt. However, I did not fully master the butterflies until I realized that the genre I was singing in was part of the problem. You see, I never fully enjoyed most classical singing. The only classical songs I could really be pleased with were the extremely dramatic songs, like Schubert's "Rastlose Liebe," or anything composed by Jake Heggie. Therefore, I never had confidence that I was pleasing to listeners because I didn't appreciate listening to myself. In addition, I felt like a fraud calling myself a singer when there were many genres I could no longer sing in an appropriate voice, such as belt music theater songs, the rock songs of my youth, and the entire genre of gospel music. I didn't understand why I could no longer do what I did as a child. I began to doubt that my classical training was actually superior, as my culture and education had led me to believe.

Shortly after competing in NATSAA, three major events occurred almost simultaneously that opened doors in my mind about the possibilities for singing and teaching. First, I was accepted into the Seattle Ladies Musical Club, an audition-only organization comprised of the highest caliber of musicians that provides free recital venues and accompanists. Over the intervening years I have performed two to three classical half-recitals per year, mostly centered around modern English language composers. …

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