You hear so many people talk about the “good old days,” and far too often, the “good old days” refers to high school. I never understood why so many people say that high school was the best time of their lives. Because to me, you must have had a really sucky life if high school was the best part of it. I’ve thought about this a lot lately given that I started college this fall, and compared to high school, college has been amazing. Granted, in some ways, my high school experience was so awful that my life could only get better, but unfortunately, a not-so-pleasant high school experience doesn’t guarantee you a smooth transition into college.
As I have mentioned many a time, my senior year was largely consumed with Les Mis. I lived and breathed it last year. Some of the memories of high school that are not only the most recent, but the strongest, are from Les Mis. As today is the one-year anniversary of the closing of our show, it has also gotten me thinking a lot about that whole experience. What I went through. How it changed me. What I achieved. How I learned from it.
My situation in high school as far as performing goes was… interesting at best. See “The Wizard and I” for some more back story on that. But as much as I knew in my head that high school wasn’t my time, it wasn’t until the end of senior year that I surrendered. It was then that I realized, really, it’s not me. It’s high school.
One of the things that Les Mis taught me is that no matter how fabulous you are, some people will always want to keep you down. And you have to believe in yourself if you’re going to fight them. But you also have to realize, that if you lose, it’s not because you weren’t worthy. Some things are just out of your control.
Starting my freshman year, my school started entering this competition that is like Tony Awards for high school musical theater. And last year, I got a nomination for my role as Fantine. All of the other five leads got nominations as well. When we got back the final results, I was the only lead not to win. I was devastated. I couldn’t figure it out. Their critique of me was overwhelmingly positive, and my voice teacher himself said that after that critique he would be shocked if I didn’t win.
The farther I get removed from the situation, the more I see the outside forces that had been working on the situation. I was deathly ill at the time, and often, just hoping not to have a coughing attack in the middle of my big solo. I was struggling against my own directors who, as always, were treating me like crap and making it so that I was good enough to not bring down the overall caliber of the show but not to my full potential where I could very well outshine their precious boys. And when I watched the video they had made of the performance it became clear how much more powerful my voice was than anyone else on that stage. I sounded years older- and definitely classically trained. I stood out even beyond everyone else, and they definitely weren’t “un-talented.” And finally, it didn’t occur to me until months later, but a colleague of mine who I respect immensely, had gotten nominated for Best Lead the year prior and he didn’t win either. And yet, we were positively recognized in many different, much more important circles than our colleagues who did end up winning.
Not winning that award taught me several very important lessons. Starting with the fact that no matter how talented you are, you can’t win everything. And as I mentioned before, you have to take a step back and look at the whole situation. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and it’s through no fault of your own. Finally, I moved on to college and realized that it doesn’t even matter. I’ve met some people at my college who have gone to these Awards because their high school won or they even won themselves. That’s really cool, and I have sincerely congratulated them. But they realize, just as I do, that no one cares anymore. Sure, it’s cool that it happened and it’s an accomplishment to be proud of, but it holds no weight in our world now. That was then, this is now.
But perhaps, the most important lesson I learned was that you have to look at success holistically. Success isn’t just that one thing you did that one time. My success as a performer was not contingent on whether or not I won that one award. Success is how I do overall, in most things, in the things that really count. Success is how I handle my failures and learn from my mistakes. I’d started to realize this when I wrote “Chasing Tails,” but it’s much more solidified now. I was just seeing that “failure” then, but I see all my success now.
I placed fourth at NATS (a singing competition) two years running, and our Jean Valjean forgot the words during his set the year that he went (I felt really bad for him, for the record). I was in my state’s Honors Choir for three years running and even got a solo the last year (the last year that both Valjean & Javert auditioned, they weren’t singing well enough to get in, and our Marius only managed to get in one year). I won an exemplary award at solo/ensemble last year for my classical solo. All five schools/music programs that I auditioned at accepted me; one told me immediately following my audition that “it’s not too late to cancel all of your other auditions” and another sent me mail during first semester telling me that I could transfer spring semester if I wasn’t happy at the school I had chosen and still receive my full scholarships (they had given me 2 voice scholarships). And I had inspired plenty of young people, as I talked about in “I’ve Got the Power.”
But that’s not what really made me realize all of this. I came to when I started thriving at my college (just as my first voice teacher had predicted). I got to school, and everything just opened up. I got placed with an amazing voice teacher who has been able to get me to support my sound so much better and even has me starting to pop out some high notes. I got into an opera class for J-term that was audition only, and I was the first person in our first-year women’s chorus to get called down to demonstrate something (and our conductor isn’t one to put people on the spot to show how terribly they’re doing something). The moment that made it really click for me was when we were blocking (that’s a theater term for working out an actor’s movements onstage) one of the opera scenes I was in for this class, and the Professor asked me to sit on the ground with my legs folded in a lady-like fashion for half of the song. And I had to sing high F’s, which I’m just starting to become comfortable with. But I could do it! And it sounded really good! I was supporting, and my voice was just flowing out of me. I heard an echo of my church choir director who came to see Les Mis complimenting me on how impressed he was that I was able to sing, show such emotion, cry, and sit down all at the same time all while trying desperately to not have a violent coughing attack. And then it hit me:
I am thriving. I am in my element. Performing is what I’m meant to do, but here. Here I am learning to be an opera singer because that’s the kind of voice I have. They always knew that I was amazing, that I was talented, but I wasn’t meant for huge success in high school. And that’s fine. There’s so much more to life than high school!
Even though it would have been great to win that award last year, I don’t need it. I have a whole life ahead of me, and I’m going places. Places that, I realize now, those boys I worked with already saw me going. Places that, maybe the judges of those Awards saw me going too. And even though I dealt with a lot of undue strain from my directors, I at least learned a lot about myself and about how to deal with people who are unreasonable and don’t know how to treat you right. I wouldn’t exchange having worked on that production for anything; it was the chance of a lifetime and the part was made for me.
I’ve found my place. I’m thriving. And thank God, it’s not in high school.