Recently, a colleague of mine suffered a very personal blow --- the kind of blow that all too often, artists receive from those who should be among their greatest supporters. A beloved family member told this working artist that they were a failure because not enough of their work came from solo singing; they weren't rich and famous; they weren't even married and producing children. What are you doing with your life? You aren't a real artist, you don't sing at the Met/haven't been shown in a good gallery/teach more than you perform. You can't keep wasting your time like this. You should settle down, get a real job, start a family.
You should conform to my idea of what a proper life looks like.
Sadly, any artist could probably recite the above litany of aren'ts, can'ts, and shoulds, or something very similar. Those who are ready to line up and tell us what's wrong with us are legion, and sometimes those who genuinely love us and wish for the best for us are among their number. It's tremendously hurtful and damaging, no matter how lovingly said, no matter how well-intentioned the speaker; and all too often, the speaker is not well-intentioned or loving.
There are aspiring artists who really don't have that elusive "what it takes" to be professional, to be famous, to fit someone else's definition of successful. There are aspiring artists whose perspective on their abilities is warped, out of proportion; or who are in love with what they think the life of a professional is like but are unable or unwilling to truly do what it takes to get there. There are people who just don't hear.
What about them? Shouldn't someone give them a reality check? Isn't it kinder, in the long run?
As a performer who also teaches and produces, I have had to confront this uncomfortable question more than once --- in fact, it comes up on a regular basis. And often, it comes directly from the artist, who wants to know, "How much longer before I am ready?"
I decided, quite some time ago, that it is not my place to tell a singer (no matter what my personal opinion or professional assessment might be) that they are incapable of achieving a goal. The truth is, I don't know what that person might be able to achieve down the road. I'm not perfect; I don't always make the right call. Personal circumstances can change; people can get it together and make great strides. Who am I to tell a singer, "You'll never ...."?
Instead, I believe in honestly, but kindly, telling a singer where they are right now and what they have to do to get to where they say they want to be. I believe in educating singers that progress, however wonderful and important it is, is not the same thing as professional. You can make great strides without being ready for that church choir solo or that Met audition. I believe in encouraging singers to develop clear-eyed perspective about their strengths, weaknesses, and current place in the food chain --- and this can only be done through study and contemplation. Study the people who are where you want to be. Study the feedback you get and learn to ask the right questions Contemplate your abilities dispassionately in order to decide where to put your resources --- what needs improvement; what can be improved and what probably won't get much better; what is already good; what your selling points may be. Above all, don't go into the business of art-making blindly. You are entitled to make art, but you're not entitled to make a living from it. For some people, making art will always be an avocation. But if you are one of them, don't let that stop you! Not all art needs to hang in a gallery or have its own YouTube channel. Art for the sake of art is just fine.
What if you're already there --- what if you are already a working artist, pursuing your dream, and enjoying success (even if it doesn't fit your original vision of what success for you would look like) --- and someone you love or admire or respect tells you that you aren't enough, that you can't achieve your goals, that you should just give up and do something else? What if you have someone like that in your life who tells you these things repeatedly?
I have a belief about being an artist. It is not a vocation, or not merely a vocation. And it's more than a calling. Artists are hard-wired to create. We require the act of creation to be healthy, let alone happy. Performing artists require an audience --- there is something about the energy exchange that we are simply hard-wired to need, like athletes need to challenge their bodies, like scientists need to experiment. And if we are not allowed to make art, we get sick --- often in the body and mind, always, always, always in the spirit.
Why on earth would anybody see the thing that another human being is most drawn to do, is formed by nature to do, and forbid it? Why would you deny someone their nature?
Why would you allow someone to do that to you, if you had a choice?
Kids don't have much choice in such matters, and are often the most vulnerable. A parent who fails to support their child in exploring their healthy passions, or worse, actively derides and denies those passions, is brutalizing and damaging that child. And that child will grow to adulthood harboring wounds that will never, ever go away, even if they manage to break free and pursue their passions anyway.
As adults, however, we have more armor. It's still incredibly painful and can be incredibly difficult, but we can choose to limit contact with toxic people and situations. Still, it's human nature to dwell on the awful things people say and do to us. How can we protect ourselves?
If you are attacked in this way by someone you care about, first take a deep breath. It's a blow, it hurts, and you need some time to regroup. In the heat of the moment, especially if this attack comes as a surprise, you'll be put on the defensive. Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself but keep it brief and get out of there as quickly as you can. And then do some first aid.
If you're like most people, you'll get emotional while the hurtful words play over and over in your head. Take another deep breath, and tell yourself firmly, "Stop for just a second. That person just attacked me, and I am hurt, shocked, and upset. I am vulnerable. But here is what I know: I know I love to sing. I know I have had plenty of good feedback, even if I'm not perfect. I know I work hard at my craft. I know this is one person's opinion. I know I am the only person who can define success for myself."
Repeat as necessary.
Then, when you feel calmer, evaluate. Think first about the person who said these words to you. What is their relationship to you? Do they really know and care about you? What is their motive in saying these things to you? What do they do for a living? Are they living their own dream, or the dream someone else had for them? Are they jealous of what they perceive as your freedom? Non-artists often have a skewed view of the lives of artists, and may be jealous or contemptuous of what they see as a carefree, lazy existence. Do they have any real understanding of what you do on a daily basis or what your triumphs mean? Do they have any real understanding of the business you are in, or are they basing their opinions on a Hollywood version?
Answering these questions for yourself will help you have some perspective about this painful feedback and quiet any doubts in your own mind. Then you have some options.
You can speak to --- or write --- the person and let them know how their words made you feel. You can defend yourself if you want to --- but you don't have to, because you don't owe anyone a defense of your dreams. You can try to educate them so they'll have a better understanding of what you are trying to achieve. You can invite them to support you and help you get to your goals faster.
Some people aren't going to hear what you have to say, no matter what. And when they make that choice, they make the choice to be toxic to you, at least where that subject is concerned. Then you must choose how to deal with them. When it's a family member or friend who you otherwise love and want to be around, you will have to set boundaries, and you will have to be very strict about maintaining them. Do not give them the chance to continue abusing you. Create some scripts for yourself.
"Aunt Jane, I know you believe you're helping me by saying those things, and I've listened to you because you're my aunt and I love and respect you. Now please respect me, and my right to live my life the way I think is best. Please do not bring this up again or speak critically of my work in my presence. If you can't be supportive, please don't bring the subject up at all."
"Dad, I love you and respect your opinion, but in this case we're just going to have to agree to disagree. You know a lot of things, but when it comes to the singing business, I know more. I need you to accept that, to accept that I'm not changing, and to stop asking me to change."
"I am hurt and offended by your words. It is not your place to tell me that I am a failure. Your opinion of what I should or shouldn't be doing with my life is just that, an opinion, and you do not get to define what success or happiness look like for me. I love you, but please do not speak to me that way again."
You must then enforce those boundaries. Don't argue with them. Don't defend yourself further. Don't be drawn in. Simply repeat, "We're not discussing this." Do it several times, and if they won't stop, leave --- or ask them to. Don't remain in a situation that continues to be toxic for you.
When I moved to New York City from Austin, TX to pursue my own dream of becoming a professional opera singer, my mother worried about me nonstop. Every time we spoke on the phone or went home to visit, she enumerated her fears and begged me not to do whatever she had decided was dangerous. It was exhausting. Finally I said gently, "I'm sorry that you're so worried about me, but I am fine and I know what I'm doing. I cannot and will not stop doing things I need to do and going places I need to go just so you won't worry. The worrying is your problem, not mine." She toned it down, and it happened less frequently. (Of course it never stopped entirely. She's my mom. Worrying is what she does).
It's not your responsibility to curtail your dreams to fit someone else's view of what is good for you. Remember that. Remember that you have a right to your art. Remember that artists are by nature risk-takers, creators, color-outside-the-liners. And that makes some people very, very uncomfortable. When you choose art as a lifestyle, you choose instability and uncertainty; and that too makes people uncomfortable. If you're happy doing it, that makes some of them even more uncomfortable, and it makes a lot of people jealous.
You're always going to have to deal with those people, but you don't have to let them rule you. Even if they're loved ones.
There's a cynical saying that we hear a lot in the arts, usually accompanied by a sneer. "Don't quit your day job!" You might not be able to afford to quit your day job to pursue your dream of making art. But if you're an artist in your soul, there is no question --- you must never quit your daydream. You may be able to stop making art, but you can't stop being an artist. An artist is not what you are. It's who you are.
No one can take that away from you.