Sara Duchovnay, soprano

Official website of soprano Sara Duchovnay

Getting Back on Track

Technically this is a “sponsored post”! Look at me, I’m basically an instagram model now! #influencer #operasingersofinstagram #sponsored! By that, I mean that my lovely and brilliant friend from grad school, Cassandra Cardenas, posted about this very cool planner that she and her husband had developed, and I wrote to her and said “This sounds like exactly what I need to get my life in order...and I need it right now!” I asked her if I could try it out before it launched, and thankfully she said “Yes!”

Before I go any further, let me share this Kickstarter link, because you’re going to want to get your hands on this planner…also Cassandra, Gilbert, and their family are just the cutest, and even if you don’t like planners (you monster), you’re going to want to see their adorable dog and kids!

Now that you’ve seen these productive people in action, let’s get back to me. Let me set the scene: The RV where my husband Clay and I reside is in the shop for repairs and we are staying in my in-laws’ basement. This is already the stuff of aspirational social media fantasy, is it not? It’s the middle of the day and I’ve slept in way longer than any adult should. I’m sitting on the couch in an unshowered state (#iwokeuplikethis #actually), and I’m scrolling through Instagram like a zombie. This summer has been insane and I’m exhausted! Clay and I got married in mid June, took a glorious honeymoon in New Orleans, and then spent the next few weeks in and out of the airport while Clay enjoyed an amazing and crazy performance schedule! I’m so proud of him, and so happy that I’ve been able to travel with him and watch his career flourish! However, the reality is setting in that I need to get productive about my own career. I’ve spent the past few years in a bit of a protective pattern, and it’s time to get the F out there. 

Let me tell you a little (ok maybe a lot) about the past 5 years leading up to this pivotal basement couch moment. Up until age 28, I always thought I was a coloratura soprano. For any non-opera people reading this, a coloratura soprano is a soprano who sings very high, light, and fast. I had just started a career singing that specific repertoire and felt like I was on an upward trajectory. Five years ago however, around the age of 27 or 28, my voice started to change. The middle of my voice came in much stronger and fuller, and the repertoire I’d spent years perfecting and performing started to feel a very bad way. It was an absolutely terrifying feeling! I felt like my body was failing me! I felt like I couldn’t do my job.  

Also around that same time, my 5 year marriage (13 year relationship) with my high school boyfriend reached a point where I finally found the strength to leave what had become a very unhealthy situation. On the outside, I had always presented myself as someone who had her life totally figured it was very obvious that I did not. 

With the divorce came even more of a vocal change. The tension that I had been holding onto for years started to dissipate, and I was left with an even more unwieldy voice that I really didn’t know what to do with. I was also displaced from the Bay Area, the place where I had gone to grad school, built professional connections, and started my career! My ex and I sold the house that we had renovated with our own hands, and I said goodbye to the professional contacts I had spent years cultivating. I was free, but I was also a 28 year old who was now living with her parents. 

I was fortunate to have a very full performance schedule immediately following the separation and through the divorce, and I bounced back scarily fast. Many people close to me were actually concerned about me, because I seemed so much more “ok” than I “should” have been. They all kept waiting for me to break down. The thing about getting out of a situation like that (for me at least), is that at first, I felt this sense of out-of-body euphoria! Since leaving that relationship, it’s been 4 years since anyone has yelled at me, tracked my phone, called me a bad name, or criticized by body (to my face at least)! I felt so unburdened and empowered, and I cleaned house of other relationships that didn’t make me feel good either. This lead me to end my working relationship with my agent. I was now an unmanaged singer, unsure of her fach, living at home with her parents. 

As my friends and family had predicted, it was only a matter of time before my adrenaline subsided and the gravity of what I had experienced set in. When it did, I retreated inward and became very careful and protective of myself. I was careful about who I sang for and how much I put myself out there professionally. I was also very careful in the way that I sang. I wanted to protect my high notes and keep things precious, light, and close to me, even though my new voice required the opposite approach! I wanted to protect my ego, and live in that bubble where I could avoid rejection and criticism. I wanted to make sure I was “ready” before I really got back into my normal career hustle. The truth was that I was not quite emotionally ready to sing the way I needed to in order to embody the new roles that were now suited to my voice. The characters I used to play were sexy, sassy, and strong in a flippant and obvious way. It was hard for me to leave those characters behind! I had found so much comfort in embodying those fierce characteristics back during the days when my personal life used to make me feel anything but. Emotionally, I wasn’t quite ready to embrace lyric soprano characters because so many of their stories too closely mirrored my own past experiences. 

So I made emotional and vocal self-discovery my priority. I sought the guidance of many expert teachers and coaches, and focussed on getting to know myself and my new voice. During that time, I fell madly in love with my husband Clay, who had been a good friend of mine before we started dating. I had always admired his talent, confidence, and sense of humor. It was easy for me to fall in love with his kindness, patience, emotional generosity, openness, and honesty. He is my biggest advocate and support system, and the best person I’ve ever known. I’m so lucky he’s my person for life! 

An important and very scary step in my repertoire change was turning down opportunities that no longer suited my voice. I was lucky to be able to slowly add more appropriate roles to my resume, but my calendar was emptier than it had ever been before. I needed a job, so I tapped into my entrepreneurial side and helped start an opera-focussed, fashion e-commerce business called Shoperatic. I loved sourcing gowns and dresses for my opera colleagues, empowering other female entrepreneurs, and making new friends within the industry! I also really loved making money on my own after spending my entire adult life in a relationship where I was financially dependent and controlled. However, Shoperatic took up a good deal of my time and energy and felt like another place for me to hide from my actual goals. I loved the experience, but after a while, I realized that I needed to be real with myself about what I really wanted so I could focus my energy there. I knew it was time to move on.

So here I am now, 4 years later. I’m happily married and I live in an amazing travel camper with the love of my life. We drag our home all over the country, having adventures I could have never imagined. I’m still flexing my entrepreneurial muscles with a cute antique jewelry business that I started for myself, and I’m singing better now as a lyric soprano than I’ve ever sung in my life! I actually LOVE the way I sound, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to honestly say that before!! Vocally and emotionally, I’m so ready, but it’s been years since I’ve truly hustled the way I used to when I was a younger singer! It’s been years since I’ve done a super intense audition season, or blogged about my experiences in the industry like I used to. It’s been years since I’ve made a really aggressive plan for my career and saw it through. It’s been years since I’ve had that hunger for the work and the hustle...and wow do I have that hunger now! I’m ravenous! Up until a month ago, however, I felt paralyzed to do anything about it. 

When I saw Cassandra’s post about the Magna Planner that she and Gilbert had designed, I had a feeling that this tool would provide me with the guidance and accountability that I needed to get back on track! Filling out the worksheet portion of the planner was really emotional for me! I was definitely not where I thought I would be 5 years ago. In the personal sense, my life is leaps and bounds better than I ever thought possible; in the professional sense, it is definitely not. But as hard as it was to admit it to myself, I think I really needed that time “off” in order to become the singer I am now. I needed to heal, grow, and figure out who I was before I could get back out there. I’ve spent a lot of time working really really hard, both vocally and emotionally, and I know that that work has made me a better colleague, singer, and performer than ever before. Taking that time to focus on loving myself has also made it easier for me to embody my new lyric soprano characters with dimensionality and compassion. I am them, and I love them. 

Using the Magna Planner, I made a plan for myself with a mission statement and actionable steps that really got me moving. I was not only asked to outline what I wanted, but asked to examine why I wanted it. How would achieving my goals not only change my life, how would achieving my goals support my community? The latter question really resonated with me. These days, I feel drawn to a deeper mission. I want to use my life experience to bring my characters to life and tell their stories in an authentic way that speaks to the audience and makes women feel seen. I want to go even further than that and work with opera companies and nonprofit organizations to develop educational outreach programs that use opera to talk to teens about healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors. The CDC cites “social-emotional learning programs for youth” as one of their top prevention steps for reducing Intimate Partner Violence, an epidemic that includes behaviors such as physical/sexual violence as well as psychological aggression and stalking. There are examples of these behaviors all over opera, and I think we are presented with a unique way to engage with younger generations regarding these issues, while also presenting our art form in a way that is meaningful to them. I want to be a resource for my colleagues, and a force for positivity and growth in an industry that is crying out for it. Having that why is what made the difference for me and inspired me to get my career back on track. I have a lot to say and I really want to get out there and say it so I can help as many people as possible. 

I’m excited to say that I’ve already put so many of my steps into action and have seen major results in a very short time. I’ve always been a person who makes things happen, I just needed to remind myself of that fact! The focused work that I’ve done over the past month makes me so excited to share my voice with others, and I’m looking forward to my upcoming role debuts in my new repertoire! My goals are big, but the Magna Planner breaks down my goals into milestones, and my milestones into targets, so I can keep moving forward without getting overwhelmed. Daunting tasks are broken into more manageable tasks. Whereas before, the thought of making new recordings while on the road might be overwhelming, the Magna planner helped me break down all the related tasks so I could just attack them one by one. (Stay posted for those new recordings soon!) I also love the Praxis discipline plan, which has really helped me retrain new habits in a fun way. At the end of each week, I do a detailed and honest assessment of what went well and what I need to work on, and then create an actionable plan to work on the areas that were lacking. That accountability has really kept me honest. Learning from my mistakes has taught me that difficult situations that I might have previously perceived as “failure”, are the ones that actually provide the most opportunity for growth! When I reach the end of this quarterly planner, I’m excited to look back and see how far I’ve come.

Dealing with Rejection in 2019

Photo credit: Suzanne Vinnik

Photo credit: Suzanne Vinnik

An entire decade ago, I decided that if I were going to seriously pursue this opera career thing, I had to find some way to embrace rejection. I developed a plan wherein I would collect my rejection letters and reward myself when I reached 50. In 2013 I reached that first milestone and wrote the very first iteration of this blog post, which I published on my personal blog. In 2015, I published a reader’s digest version of the same post for another website, and received countless emails and messages from singers who were inspired to adopt my system for themselves. When I read back on both posts, part of me just has to laugh! I can’t believe that I felt qualified to write about rejection at those early points in my career, when I had only experienced a small taste of what it is actually like to live with the habitual occupational rejection that accompanies life as a performer! My younger self was actually onto something though! I’m incredibly proud of my system and it continues to work for me. I am proud to say that I have now been rejected more times than my teenage mind could ever fathom, and I’m still standing here ready to be rejected some more.

How it all began:

My voice teacher in undergrad once told me a story about how when she was a young singer living in New York, she was rejected so often that she was able to use her rejection letters to wallpaper her bathroom. The wallpaper idea was cute, but in my opinion it lacked actual payoff. Also, did she own that apartment? If not, how was she willing to risk losing her security deposit for such a stunt? I decided that I would set a rejection goal, and when I reached that goal, I would reward myself by buying something very special that I would treasure forever. It would be something that I would gaze at when I was feeling down or lacking motivation, and it would remind me of the challenges I had faced and overcome. From the very beginning, my idea for this reward was always jewelry. If there is something that I enjoy almost as much as getting hired, it’s getting diamonds.

Here are two major tenets of my system:

1. A freelance career is a numbers game! It is a given that we are all prepared, talented, wonderful, unique, and bursting with our own special magic. We’re still likely to experience a good deal of rejection because only one of the many qualified people who auditioned for that role will be getting that role. Putting ourselves out there to be rejected is simply part of our job.

2. It is totally ok to reward yourself for not “succeeding”! Getting the gig already feels great. You don’t need to reward yourself for that...that’s the easy part! The hard part is being rejected and continuing to put yourself out there again and again. How many people go through what we go through on a regular basis? Treat yourself! You deserve it!

If you want to start your own Rejection Reward System, here’s what you’ll need:

1. A shiny new email folder marked “rejection letters”

2. A shiny new savings account or one you already have. The important detail is that it must only be used for this one purpose. You cannot just dip into it whenever you want. You ABSOLUTELY cannot use it toward application/pianist/room rental expenses and/or work-related travel!

3. Rejections

Each time you get rejected- be it in the form of an actual rejection emails from a program or company, feedback from an agent, or just that enough time has passed that you can safely assume that you did not get the gig- contribute some money to your rejection savings account. Feel free to add a larger or smaller amount each time, depending on the sting of the rejection and the current state of your finances. When, and only when you reach 50 rejections, you may use the money that you have collected to treat yourself to something special. You can celebrate the fact that after 50 rejections, you are still standing tall, resolute, committed to your career, and ready to be rejected another 50 times!

What I’ve realized through many cycles of this process is that the biggest benefit is not in the material reward. If I’m being honest, my collection of jewelry is pretty baller and I don’t hate that perk; but the true benefit is in the mere act of collecting and analyzing the rejection notes. In my rejection emails, I often write myself notes about what I sang, what I wore, what I ate before, and how I felt. Sometimes I write objectives for my next audition. If I received feedback in or after the audition, I write that down too. There is always the temptation to put the rejection as far out of my mind as possible, but if I had done that I would have missed out on very useful data. Because I have kept careful records and analyzed my rate of success-to-rejection, I’ve learned that if I put myself out there enough times, I will eventually find success. There have been times when I’ve seen my ratio of success-to-rejection improve dramatically, and there have been times that it feels like all rejections and no success. In the latter case, I’ve been able to analyze my rejection notes to look for patterns and figure out what I can try to do differently. After my last cycle of rejections, during which I unsuccessfully tried to squeeze my voice into the coloratura and soubrette rep I had sung in my early 20s, I analyzed my rejection notes, made the switch into more lyric repertoire, and was able to reward myself with a stunning pair of earrings. #winning!

So go forth and get rejected, my loves! It’s part of the job, it’s rarely personal, and you have rewards to earn!

© Sara Duchovnay 2018