The Stories We Tell
Early to mid-April is that sweet time of year when some of the winter crispness still lingers in the morning air, a crispness slowly warmed by the ever stronger sun coaxing new life to pop up all around us. For many high school seniors, these images of rebirth, renewal, and growth serve as the backdrop for the early steps they will take towards their futures: college decision letters–the good, the bad, the seemingly devastating.
With that in mind, and given our mission to reflect on our students and their well-being, we have asked our English Department colleague and friend Rachel Davies to share the following post about her own ongoing journey of successes, failures, and almosts. In her story below, Rachel reflects on her quest towards knowing and embracing The Thing™, a tongue-in-cheek but still quite serious term she uses to describe a life of purpose and fulfillment.
While our audience for this post is largely those high school seniors who might benefit from Rachel’s words of hope, we also have in mind those parents, teachers, coaches, friends, mentors, and relatives–really, anyone–who might have young people in their lives facing tough choices and a whole lot of uncertainty.
–Her Voice at the Table
This time of year, college talk with my juniors and seniors hits a new level. All my students are about to take the next step in their story. Juniors are about to embark on months of essays, anxiety, and applications. Seniors are flush with new clarity of where they head next. Some see that next step as The Thing™ they have worked towards for years. But for many, that step is not the one they thought it would be. Indeed, for more than a few, this is the first meaningful experience of failure or rejection in their lives.
This past fall, I gave a talk to my seniors who were early in the application process. This post is mostly a transcript, but since then my thoughts have developed, in part because of the recent CDC study that revealed “3 in 5 teen girls report feeling persistently sad or hopeless” in the past year. Per Brene Brown, “Hopelessness arises out of a combination of negative life events and negative thought patterns, particularly self-blame and the perceived inability to change our circumstances.” To wildly understate: growing up in a global pandemic, in which one of the few things you can control is how you curate your online presence, seems like a pretty solid recipe for “negative life events and negative thought patterns.”
The past few years have been more than an invitation to tell a really rough story.
To wildly understate: growing up in a global pandemic, in which one of the few things you can control is how you curate your online presence, seems like a pretty solid recipe for “negative life events and negative thought patterns.”
Still, as someone who has taken shelter in stories–an English teacher, an opera singer–I have to believe there must also be some remedy available to us in the stories we tell. That said, if we are to access it, I think we need to share more honest stories than we often do. Ones that let us reckon with that awful thing: “I failed.” I have always known that telling stories with my voice was The Thing™ for me.
Countless grainy VHS tapes show me shamelessly loud in song. My favorite: a toddler dance recital. Mid-shuffle-step, I noticed a camera and cut from the line of dancers to plant in front of it, fully blocking some other girl’s parent’s camcorder view of their daughter (still dutifully tap dancing) because I was a young queen who was supposed to sing “A Whole New World” at center stage. Isn’t this a charming start to the story of a future opera star? The biopic writes itself. Shamelessly Loud: The Rachel Davies Story.
The problem comes decades later when the story doesn’t look like it is supposed to. When I am not an international opera star. When I am instead a gigging opera singer who also tortures junior and senior English classes with extended readings of The Iliad.
Somewhere in the many failures between then and now, I have learned and told a lot of rough stories about myself.
The Story of “I can do that.”
For a long time, the opera stories I told were mezzo stories.
Quick-and-dirty opera background: opera relies on types. Certain vocal textures get wrapped-up with specific types of characters and stories. To vastly over-simplify: we associate light bright sopranos with damsels in love; baritones with seducers and villains; basses with fathers; tenors with heroes, etc.
Mezzo-sopranos often play secondary characters, usually Witches (old, wise, sometimes terrifying), or Britches (teen boys with the emotional range of a teaspoon and regulation of a fire-hydrant) or …. Things-That-Rhyme-with-Witches-and-Britches (seductresses, femme fatales).
Why am I telling you this? Mostly because I made it my job to play ALL of them. Looking for a besotted teenaged disaster to stare adoringly at sopranos? “I can do that!” Want a frightening femme fatale to seduce a tenor? “I can do that.”
Need an inebriated fortune-telling crone? “ABSOLUTELY NOT.” Then I remembered, I’d get to do The Thing™. So: “I can do that.”
Eagle-eyed readers might notice my refrain. If I tried hard enough, and massaged my voice into the right register, and stood just so, and tailored my voice to match someone else, and directed enough attention to the soprano or tenor… I could do that.
An equally perceptive person might ask: But Ms. Davies, you are so wise and self-aware. Why would you do that clearly foolish thing? Because I wanted to do The Thing™! And because unfortunately, through decades of failures, I had learned another story…
The Story of “Almost”
In high school, I almost got into the musical freshman year. In junior year, I almost played a female character (ghost-sang all the highest notes in the show costumed as male ensemble). Senior year, I played the almost lead. (Tipsy mezzo mother.) I went to a college that almost had a music major. (Music classes, amazing performance opportunities, an absolute miracle of a teacher who recognized that opera was The Thing™ for me. No degree.)
Even without the music degree, I almost got into my dream grad program for opera. (Waitlisted, then rejected. Final rejection hit my phone at my brother’s wedding. I opened the “Regret to inform you…” email at 9am and spent 13 hours trying not to be caught crying in pictures. I am a very talented actress.)
Failures take our stories to new places. For me: the handicapped bathroom in a Catskills wedding venue. Then, rural Texas to teach English. While there, instead of almost doing The Thing™ I did the almost Thing. (Singing mezzo mothers in community musicals in rural Texas is almost international opera stardom, right?) I almost played a dream role. (Understudy, ensemble, set-construction, “I can do that.”) I even loved the almost right person who loved me well enough to know that if I didn’t leave and risk more failure, I was going to lose something important.
So, I applied to grad school again and even got a real life “Yes!”
I moved north, contorted myself into the Swiss Army Knife of Mezzos, auditioned my brains out, and I proceeded to get roles, but also the feedback: “Almost!” Turns out that Boston was almost the right city. And in what was one of the scariest choices of my life, I moved back to my hometown for a teaching job at my high school, because teaching was also The Thing™. To Dallas and Ursuline I went! With my “I can do that,” more than a little fear that moving back to days meant I was giving up and admitting defeat, and the fresh energy of students and stories, I suddenly was succeeding in lining up gigs! I had a whole year of work--roles, choruses, recitals, oh my! Finally, I was going to get to do The Thing™.
Because that was March 2020.
I, like most performers, lost a year’s work in two days. And it didn’t feel like an almost. It felt like a “No.” It felt like The End. And I felt hopeless. But somehow, in what I can only describe as a series of gifts, people I had met in the midst of my failures one-by-one invited me to a better story.
The Story of Wholeness
One gift came from a colleague who saw me struggling and told me that the story of hopelessness, stagnation, and running from failure did not have to be the whole story. Another came from my students. In a time without singing, taking shelter in stories with them let me remember what it felt like to really do something with my whole chest.
And another. The New York voice teacher I had started working with literally by accident in Boston grad school is a genius vocal technician, even over Zoom. In that time of no roles to almost fit into, he said to just sing what felt good with my whole voice. (You may send your condolences to my poor neighbors. Shamelessly loud.)
Still more! I met a coach who, hearing me sing with my whole voice simply and gently told me the first step of my new story: “That was good. But really, you are not a mezzo. You are a unicorn. You are a dramatic soprano. And your whole voice is right on time.” (Literally a decade after my first rejection from grad school).
Suddenly, a friend from grad school introduced me to a company in Vermont, TUNDI Productions, which specializes in the shamelessly loud operas of Richard Wagner. (I promise you have heard them, if only in Apocalypse Now or Looney Tunes.) More than that, they look to support whole artists who take time. Faster than I could blink, they cast me in two dramatic soprano roles -- no small thing!
Yet, in the back of my head, I was still telling the story of almost. Asking my principal if I could pursue this opportunity, I was certain that this would be another almost – which is to say, “No.” I mean… it would take missing the first three weeks of the new school year. Who would even consider that?
Turns out: My principal, my school, my colleagues, my students. Each repeated the story of wholeness. In startling generosity, they invested in and celebrated my wholeness as a teacher by supporting my wholeness as a singer. I still cannot believe this.
So, in Vermont in September, when I was sharing my story (as singers do) I was finally ready to hear it when the founder of the opera company asked: “What if that is not your story? What if you have a better one?”
The Story of Worth the Wait
Suddenly, my story shifted around those decades of failures and almosts.
What if I hadn’t gone to undergrad without a music major but with the teacher who changed my life when she heard that I was for opera? What if I hadn’t majored in English and missed out on teaching? (Oh! The lamentation of all my current and former students!) What if I got into my dream grad school at 22 and burned out because my dramatic soprano voice wasn’t done baking? What if I stayed in rural Texas and I gave up on music entirely? What if COVID hadn’t made me stop Swiss Army Mezzoing? What if I hadn’t met a string of people who gently and repeatedly pointed me toward the wholeness of my story?
Not to be trite, but thanks to those failures, I am living a better story.
In my story, I am not almost anything. I am Rachel Jane Davies, a dramatic soprano, a young queen at center stage. I am Ariadne of Ariadne auf Naxos (the title, bucket-list, literal-dream-role I debuted three weeks ago in March). I am a shamelessly loud storyteller who is really great at singing about almost getting what you want most, breaking your heart with that longing. Because I know how that feels. I am a voice type that doesn’t properly start to mature until mid-30s. I am not almost or late. I am whole, and right on time, and worth the wait.
The Story I Wanted to Tell my Students
The failures and almosts were real and they really hurt. I am still not an internationally famous opera star (yet). I am a gigging opera singer with student debt who tortures students in grading conferences. Until my story changes again. They do that.
To my students: there are going to be some almosts that are going to hit you like a ton of bricks. You will have some real failures. Possibly sooner, possibly later, but when you really want something with your whole chest, it will hurt. Perhaps you have already had this experience. You even might feel like you have ruined your story.
If that experience comes, I can only share the questions and stories that saved me:
What if you have a better story coming?
What if you don’t have to contort to do something just because you can?
What if you get to do The Thing™ with your whole chest?
What if almost isn’t “no,” but “not yet”?
What if it is worth the wait?
Rachel Davies is an English teacher, an opera singer, a young queen, a sunshine addict, and a still shamelessly loud person.