You can read this story two ways. First, you can read it as the story of just me and my partner and this one thing that we both were interested in doing, but only one of us did. Once you’ve done that, try reading it again, and doing a mental find/replace with various intersectionalities of sex/gender/class/culture and various professional/personal/political/etc. aspirations.
I had an audition the other night. I sang pretty well, though not as well as I know I can. Damn nerves. They said I’d hear back within 24 hours, so I’m constantly clicking “refresh” on my webmail and there’s nothing yet. I know they won’t choose me to be in the choir unless they think I’ll be an asset, so I suppose you could say that if I get in it will be on my own merit. But then consider the fact that my partner – who is every bit as talented, and as passionate about music, as I am – did not have an audition last night. Because he didn’t apply. And consider the reasons that I went for it, and he didn’t.
Some of it is just our different personalities. We’re both addicted to Beethoven, and we both found out about Beethoven’s 9th being on the menu for this year, on a Monday evening. I contacted the choir through their website Tuesday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon had a reply with an audition time (Wednesday evening). I decided, the worst thing that can happen is they won’t want me, and that’s not so bad, so damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. My partner, on the other hand, is someone who needs to think things through and plan them; there may be things that stress him more than flying by the seat of his pants, but I can’t think of many. So maybe I went for it and he didn’t because I’m just braver – or more impulsive, foolish, or cocky. And if he just wanted it enough, or believed in himself enough, or tried as hard as I did, he could take advantage of the same opportunity and it’s his own darned fault that he didn’t.
Or maybe my bootstraps were already attached to something fairly solid when I went to pull myself up by them.
There’s biology – both of us sang in choirs and got some vocal training as children. My puberty, though, didn’t include a massive hit of testosterone to the larynx. I didn’t have to totally relearn to sing. Then there’s gendered socialization. Everybody rhapsodizes about boy sopranos, but boys aren’t particularly encouraged to sing once their voices break, and young men who want to sing with their new man-voices have all sorts of homosocial and heteronormative influences working against them taking up something new and arty (= zomg teh gay, of course) until they grow up to the point where they can say up yours to peer pressure.
Then there’s training. I took private voice lessons many years ago, but my partner hasn’t had any private instruction. The recent training we’ve both had, in a non-auditioned community choir, was his first time learning to use his grown-up-man voice for singing, but my chance to re-practice and expand on what I’d learned in private lessons. Plus I have a book full of songs I could resurrect and re-practice to have something to sing for the part of the audition where you walk into a big empty room with just the pianist and the director behind a desk, and the director says, “sing me something.”
Then there are connections. Neither of us is particularly rich, and voice lessons are expensive. It so happens that I was able to exchange childcare for singing lessons with a really fantastic teacher. I was able to make this deal because this teacher is a friend of my mom’s.
Then there’s culture. My ethnicity is Mennonite. (See http://www.mhsc.ca/ for how I can be Mennonite without growing cabbage and wearing a kerchief). Singing together is big in Mennonite culture. I’ve left the faith, but I still grew up where musical literacy was the norm and we sang all our hymns – and grace before dinner – in multi-part harmony. Where at Christmas Eve services, we’d pass out the music to Handel’s Messiah and everybody would sing the Hallelujah Chorus together. Music is a career that even fairly conservative Mennonites can see as acceptable for a woman to pursue, and while the debate about women in church leadership rages on, women serving through music is accepted and encouraged.
My mom is a professional musician, and that’s how she and the singing teacher are friends and colleagues. My dad – a convert – is also a professional musician. Besides the various connections which I hope won’t come into play (hey, my daughter really really wants to be in your choir), my parents have also modeled musical professionalism for me. I can’t find the source of the statistic, but Everybody Seems to Know that public speaking is the #1 fear, and death is #2. But performing has just always been a fact of life to me. It still makes me nervous, but it’s way below spiders, other arthropods, heights, confined spaces, fire, or death on my fear list. And while we’re at it, let’s add one more thing into the mix about being Mennonite: the people I was going to have to get up in front of for the audition were also Mennonites – not close family friends, but certainly friendly acquaintances.
I wrote the above before the email finally arrived letting me know I’d been accepted. I’m equal parts excited and trepidated (which is a word because I say so), because this is the hardest music I ever will have learned so far and it’s coming up fast, and it’s going to be a hell of a ride. I have confidence because I believe in the director’s judgment and he wouldn’t be picking me if he didn’t think I could hack it. But how much of getting into the choir is really totally on my own merit? Obviously, my partner wouldn’t have been competing against me for a spot, because he’s a tenor and I’m a mezzo-soprano. But how many mezzos also didn’t audition, for reasons similar to his? You start peeling back the layers, and what originally looked like just a matter of individual merit, turns into a very messy oniony thing with the characteristics of the individual as only one of many factors.