When Courage is the Best Option

May 23, 2019, 12:23 PM · Music affords us such remarkable opportunities to not only test our technical abilities, but to test our limits as individuals. There are those moments when the meek become courageous, the frail become strong, and we move beyond the person we are and become the person we aspire to be.

Every time we step up to perform, we make a thousand little choices. If we’re well prepared, we’ve made most of those choices in advance and have a fairly good idea of where we’re heading. If we start questioning our abilities, as I recently did, then we open up a Pandora’s box of self-doubt, insecurity, and justification.

This is the story of one of those choices and the impossible position I put myself and others in as I tried to figure a way out.

A Musical Family Mourns…

A year ago, I lost the person who has been my lifeline since the day I was born... my mother. One of my mom’s wishes was that there be no funeral service for her. My family respected this, but still felt the strong need to do something in her honor. We explored various options — a contribution to one of her favorite charities, artwork for our community concert hall, a music scholarship in her name — but it soon became evident that the obvious solution was right in front of us. As a musical family, music is what we do. So music would be our tribute.

Diana Selesky father
My 88-year-old father conducting Elgar’s "Nimrod" in rehearsal for a memorial concert in honor of his wife of almost 67 years. Photo by WendiShoots Professional Photography.

It is often said that grief takes various shapes and forms. Our grief was expressed through a concert of grand proportions: Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum, with a 55-piece professional orchestra and an 88-voice choir. (I’ll never forget telling a friend about the concert. His incredulous reaction was, "You’re doing Bruckner’s Te Deum for your mom’s memorial?" To which I responded, "Why? What did you do when your mom died?")

The program was filled out with other sacred musical gems, including the aria I would sing from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, titled "O Rest in the Lord." There is a note in the piece that is difficult vocally in that it is approached out of the blue. Most altos fear it. You’ve been singing in the basement of your register the entire aria and this D at the top of the staff suddenly feels like it’s an octave higher than it really is. The note creates the climax of the piece, so it also has that stigma attached. To make matters worse, the phrase in which the note lies repeats twice. In other words, if you crack the first time, but people weren’t quite sure they heard a crack, you can crack again and put their minds at ease.

A "Not-So-High" High Note…

I’ve sung the aria many times and I know from experience that if I make the first D, I almost always make the second. If I crack the first, I always crack the second.

In the first rehearsal, both notes came out well. In the second rehearsal, I cracked the D… twice. Crack. (And, in case you didn’t hear it the first time.) Crack. I panicked! My confidence absolutely eroded. And that set my mind games in motion.

I knew that since this was a memorial and not a standard concert, I could take the liberty of writing the two scary notes down a third. It was my mother’s memorial, after all. I should get a tiny bit of latitude. But the aria is also very familiar and those frightening notes are truly glorious when performed well. Those who know the aria wait for the big moment. I was in a quandary, so I turned to my triangle of conductors.

The Bermuda Triangle…

Depending on how you look at it, I am either blessed or cursed by being related to not one, but three, conductors. Most often, I see this as a blessing. In the case of this concert, I was surrounded by all three and I was seriously outnumbered. My father was conducting, my brother was singing, and my husband was sitting in the audience. I made the mistake of asking all three (separately) whether I should go for the D or write it down.

My brother said to write it down and not worry about it. He felt that since this was already an emotional experience, I shouldn’t burden myself with further worry. (This is the same brother, by the way, who once told me my vibrato was so wide he could throw a cat through it. Could he be trusted? The jury was out.)

My father, who would conduct the piece, said it was ultimately up to me, but he thought I should go for it. "It’s the big musical climax. Everything leads up to that point. But if you crack, you crack. It’s not the end of the world."

My husband, a man who rarely has a musical opinion he doesn’t express, suddenly became Switzerland. "There's no way I’m getting in the middle of this one," he said, while covertly backing out of the room. He encouraged me to do what felt was right and not escalate it to a monumental level "as you are apt to do."

It Ain’t Over Til’…

I took the stage in front of a packed church not having made my choice. When I vocalized earlier in the day, the D was coming out well. But as I sat in front of the audience, my insecurities started getting the better of me.

I weighed the possible outcomes:

  1. Go for the D, make it, and be thrilled with my performance. (Best, but least likely scenario.)
  2. Go for the D, crack, and be extremely disappointed with my performance. (Likely, but highly dissatisfying.)
  3. Play it safe (take it down a third) and always wonder if I should have gone for the D. (Looking better and better in my anxiety-fueled state.)

    It suddenly occurred to me there was a fourth option I had not even considered up until that moment.

  4. Go for the D, crack, and still feel okay with my performance. (This would be a true first for me.)

As the moment approached, I conjured up a vision of my mother. All those performances she attended. The violin recitals starting at age 7. The piano recitals starting at age 10. My college recitals. My graduate recital. My professional operatic debut. Always, she was there. Never doubting me. Ever a source of strength. So I went for it. And I didn’t crack!

On Feeling Proud…

It would make for a better story if I could say that you can still hear the note reverberating through the sanctuary, rich with overtones and opulence. In truth, it was a note. Nothing sensational. But, nothing horrific. In the end, it was just a note. One I will most likely remember for the remainder of my days. Because to me, it was a note that signified taking a chance. Showing a bit of courage. Leaving it all "on the ice," as my hockey-playing son would say.

And while it was far from the best note I’d ever sung, I didn’t crack. More importantly, I had the experience of truly being part of the music; a mere conduit of the music’s message.

I didn’t have a constant stream of color commentary running through my head while I was performing — critiquing and dissecting every phrase. My memory is of being there, in the moment, giving it my all. Truly honoring my mom. But I can’t recreate the performance. And, for me, that’s good. Because I've always vividly remembered every bad moment on stage. The good ones? They seem to go off into musical ether and leave me feeling connected to the music itself and not to my performance.

Months later I can now admit I'm proud of going for the D. I think not doing so would haunt me still. And while another alto might have easily sung the phrase after rolling out of bed at 7:00 a.m. with a hangover, for me it was difficult. It called upon an inner courage I often find in short supply. I’m giving myself this one moment of pride. One I will certainly counterbalance with the self-criticism I always seem to have waiting in the wings.

In the final analysis, I think my mother would have been proud. She raised me to have courage, including the courage to fail. In the clinch, I hope I didn’t let either of us down.


May 23, 2019 at 07:02 PM · This is beautiful!

May 23, 2019 at 07:09 PM · This is a lovely memorial to your loving Mother, your dedicated family, and your personal courage. Thank you for sharing this touching story/parable.

May 23, 2019 at 07:21 PM · Wonderful expression of the doubt many of us have about 'certain' notes. I played Maria in WSS as a 19yo and singing 'I Feel Pretty' was MY self-doubting moment. Altho' I was singing way higher in the other songs, the 'F' at the top of the staff in that song was my constant nemesis. To this day, I remember angsting over it every time I did the song. i guess it was ok, noone told me it wasn't, but it didn't give me any pleasure at the time! And the high 'C' at the end of the quintet? A piece o' cake! ;-)

May 23, 2019 at 08:05 PM · To 49: Thank you!

To Jane: I am so appreciative of your kind comment!

To 150: Loved this! Yes, there are notes and then there are NOTES! They are certainly not created equal. Thank you for your comment!

May 23, 2019 at 08:14 PM · Wonderful article Diana. Thank you again. And yes, not only music but theater and almost every art form let us step out of our shell and become as you say “courageous, strong and move beyond the person we are”. And that puts us on the road to the life we'd like to lead.

There are myriad parallels between being prepared in a musical performance and stage managing anything with music. For all the bump cues (cues that instantly happen immediately, on a specific note and don’t fade up or down over time during the piece) whether sound or lights, I need to prepare exactly when I’ll “call” them. When it’s time for the cue, on the headset I say the word Go, then the light board operator has to push the button on the computer and then there’s a slight delay before the lights actually go out or come up or change. I can’t call the cue exactly on the downbeat or on the cutoff from the conductor because of that delay. The cue would be late and you’d see the lights go out after the music is done instead of at the moment of the cutoff. I have to anticipate every cue of that form. The placement of each cue is prepared by watching the conductor do the cut off. Sometimes it’s a circular motion and I know that when he or she is at 2 o’clock I’m going to say the word Go and then by the time his arms are down the lights will be out. Sometimes he does an up and down motion for a cutoff and I experiment until I find that I might call the cue when he’s about 1/3 of the way down or maybe just before he reaches the top before the downward motion to make the cue happen correctly. If the cue is in rhythm in the middle of a musical phrase, I might find that I have to call it just after the and of 4 in the preceding measure to make it happen on 1 of the next measure. But this is different for every cue and also depends on the tempo of the phrase. This is all prepared during the 1 or 2 rehearsals I get with the orchestra before the performances. I watch the conductor in staging rehearsals also. I make specific notes in the music for each cue and change them if necessary as we go along if they don’t happen exactly when they’re supposed to. Some conductors are much easier to follow than others. For example, on a final note with a fermata a conductor may hold his hands out during the note and then slowly bring them down for the cut off which is wonderful for me. However, some bring their hands down so quickly to signify the cut off that I hardly have time to say the word Go and allow for the delay. Some conductors are consistent every time but some are not!

As you mention “If we start questioning our abilities, as I recently did, then we open up a Pandora’s box of self-doubt, insecurity, and justification.” So when I get to each prepared spot in the score, I do exactly as I’ve written – I go for it and do not doubt myself. If it turns out wrong, I’ll adjust the placement of the call for the next time. In the past on a few occasions I’ve doubted myself and was always sorry.

I’m always a fan of “go for it”. With the right preparation it almost always turns out perfectly and that boost in confidence which it gives me allows me to be more prepared for not only the next cue or opera, but for almost everything in life. And I don't let anyone down.

May 23, 2019 at 09:49 PM · To Joe: You bring up so many great points. (I would NEVER have the composure to do your job, by the way!) There is a lot to be said for doing it "just the way it was written" and if it "turns out wrong," making the adjustment. It's very easy for me to constantly try new approaches, and then I'm never quite sure what actually worked. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and helpful comment!

May 23, 2019 at 11:27 PM · Diana, I love your articles SO much. I always feel they were written specifically for me, although that is not the case. Performance insecurities plague us all. That’s for sure. Mine start in the performance, and follow me out the door wondering if everyone is criticizing every note. Thanks for putting levity into this story about celebrating your mom’s life. I know she is proud of you.

May 24, 2019 at 02:38 AM · I can hardly put to words the many emotions this stirs in me. Deep humility that I was there, awe in recognizing the beautiful soul that you are, tears for the feeling in the room at the time this picture of your father was taken, and gratitude for your gift of writing to capture it all. Thank you for this glimpse into your mind at such a vulnerable moment. I feel inspired to follow your lead and be courageous and strong in moments of self doubt. ~Christina

May 24, 2019 at 03:46 AM · To 203: I tend to forget, at time, that we all are plagued with performance insecurities. Thanks for the gentle reminder and thoughtful comment!

To Christina: Such a beautiful comment! Thank you for being part of the tribute to my mom and for the friendship you continue to bestow. It is treasured.

May 24, 2019 at 04:24 AM · Awww...tearing up over here. What a lovely tribute to your mother.

May 24, 2019 at 05:10 PM · Diana, thank you for sharing such an intimate moment with style, grace, and humor. I think we need all three things to get us through music’s and life’s obstacles. I can’t document or prove this, but I’m sure the greatest performers share the same fears, and in extreme ways we may not be able to imagine. I hope your honesty encourages others to relate how they overcame whatever they dreaded or feared.

May 24, 2019 at 11:37 PM · To 97: Thank you!

To 170: I guess we all have dreads and fears, whether we're musicians or not. And it does help to share them. Thank you so much for your kind comment!

May 25, 2019 at 12:28 AM · Our (UK's) former Minister of Health's oldest brother performed "How Great Thou Art" on the flute at his father's funeral, so you are not entirely unprecedented. However, ourselves, we had a friend of our parents' who could play piano and organ professionally at our parents' funerals, so my hamfisted efforts were not required (There was, however, later, a memorial concert for our father where an orchestra consisting of my brother and myself and friends performed).

May 25, 2019 at 02:23 AM · Diana-your article really resonates with me. Being someone with performance anxiety, I tend to back away from stressful situations (or notes) like you dealt with at your mom's memorial concert. But I almost always regret when I do. It takes courage to face something difficult and that is reward in itself, no matter what the consequences. Yes, I'm sure your mom would have been proud of you.

May 25, 2019 at 02:01 PM · Ed and I read this article on our drive down to South Carolina for his sailplane contest this weekend. As always, we reveled in your delightful way with words! The story took me back to the powerful tribute that all of you facilitated for the community in honor of your mother. For Ed, it was an encouragement to seize the challenges he has ahead for the weekend. Thanks so much for another great article. --Melissa

May 25, 2019 at 04:34 PM · To John: Thank you for your comment! (On a side note, I've never heard the term "hamfisted" before and it's now my new favorite expression!)

To 54: I'm with you! Backing away is never a satisfying experience, even when it means we avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation. Thank you for your lovely comment.

To Melissa: Your participation in the memorial concert was particularly meaningful to me. Thank you for the beautiful comment. I wish Ed every success in his sailplane contest this weekend!

May 25, 2019 at 04:59 PM · Great Story! So telling of what many pros experience. Thanks for sharing that musical epiosde. I'm sure many folks will relate!

May 25, 2019 at 05:08 PM · To Byron: Thank you! It's easy to think the pros are impervious to this type of anxiety. In that "misery loves company" way, your comment makes me feel better. Again, thanks!

May 27, 2019 at 04:08 AM · Your dad looks great for 88!

May 27, 2019 at 09:31 AM · I’m glad you added option 4! Nicely done!

May 27, 2019 at 02:50 PM · To Paul: I agree! Thanks for your kind words, which I will pass along to my father. (There really does seem to be a positive connection between longevity and conducting.)

To 51: Thank you!

May 28, 2019 at 04:46 PM · As the soprano that had the honor of sitting next to you through that glorious concert I have to say I HAD NO IDEA that you were stressed about that note. It was beautiful in rehearsal and on stage. (I truly have no recollection of the crack in the second rehearsal. Did that really happen?) Diana, your writing is a true reflection of your musicianship; elegant, rich, passionate and true. Thank you for sharing.

May 29, 2019 at 09:59 PM · To 75: Performing with you, Mary, always brings out the best in me. You sing like an angel and you are simply one of the most supportive colleagues with which I have ever worked. Yes, I did, in fact crack twice in the second rehearsal. I guess your comment clarifies that those things we are so focused on as individual performers are not necessarily as evident to others in the final analysis. Thank you for your incredibly kind comment.

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